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 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.

Assuring Emanuele that a loving God would accept his father into heaven says more about God than it does about heaven. Continue reading

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