Was Pope Francis right to tell a child his atheist dad may be in heaven?
When the monsignor reached out and tenderly held the little boy’s face, I lost it. And it only got worse. When Pope Francis called the reluctant Emanuele up to whisper his question about where his beloved father went after death, I was crying so obviously that the other customers in line at Starbucks looked up from their phones. I muttered a general apology for the public display but continued to watch the rest of the remarkable footage of Pope Francis going pastoral; a good shepherd holding the littlest lamb close to his heart. Emanuele wanted to know: Was his dad in heaven even if he was an unbeliever?
Why was I crying? Why had this short clip of an old man being nice to a little boy touched me and many other people so deeply? I think it was because Francis showed us how to risk simply embracing the hurting world. No explaining, just loving. This is love in action, and it speaks to us as words cannot. Francis cuts through the distance between pope and child, between believer and unbeliever, and gets to the heart of the matter—human to human.
Francis showed us how to risk simply embracing the hurting world. No explaining, just loving.
Francis refuses to be anything other than present to a wounded heart.
When Pope Francis says that “God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” he resists placing himself above God or making an idol of our human rules and limited understanding of God. He chooses to act on what he knows of God rather than to limit God by conjecture about the afterlife. Yes, it remains true—according to our best guess and carefully thought out tradition, based on Scripture and enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—that “those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified, live forever with Christ” (No. 1023). And so this would seem to place Emanuele’s father, an unbeliever, outside the possibility of going to heaven.
But “God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” not the catechism. Not the pope, not you or me, but God.
Pope Francis refuses to be anything other than present to a wounded heart.
Assuring Emanuele that a loving God would accept his father into heaven says more about God than it does about heaven. The reality is that we do not know all that much about heaven. But we do know rather a lot about God. And I hope we can agree that God is love. Not just because we find it bluntly asserted in Scripture but because that is how we experience God in our lives. And almost all speculation about the afterlife is shaped by what we think about God. You can test this for yourself. If you get worked up about the possibility of God refusing to receive unbaptized babies into heaven, then you need to ask yourself: What kind of God are you thinking of? Can you imagine God checking the catechism or even Scripture to see who can and cannot be allowed into heaven? Or God throwing up his hands saying, “I like babies! But my hands are tied, it says right here “no unbaptized in heaven.”
It is very hard for Love to be unloving.
Are we willing to let God be God? And if we believe God is love, then we can go ahead and believe that God is going to do the right thing. It is very hard for Love to be unloving. Do we know if our loved ones are in heaven? Remember we call them our loved ones not just because we love them but because God loved them first and will continue to love them. So we can continue to trust in God’s love.
Sometimes we contrast the technical truth of church teaching with its pastoral application. As though the people of God cannot handle the truth but are best fed with weak platitudes of God’s love. I do not think this is what Pope Francis was doing with young Emanuele. He was not just being nice, that way avoiding telling a little boy the hard truth that his father was not in heaven. It doesn’t work that way.
A pastoral response is church teaching articulated in the face of vulnerable humanity. It is teaching distilled to its basic ingredients of love and invitation—the permanent invitation to follow Christ into a radical relationship with the world. And this moves us. We see our leader loving in a way we want to love, being vulnerable and trusting the way we want to trust. And if the pope can resist being the all-knowing God, can’t we give it a try?