While answering the usual questions asked by reporters, Pope Francis spotted a little boy named Emanuele a short distance away crying and wanting to ask him a question. He called the boy over and embraced him. With their heads touching, Emanuele told Pope Francis his father passed away a little while ago. He said his dad was a nonbeliever but had all four of his children baptized. Emanuele said his dad was a good man, then asked, “Is my dad in heaven?”
Pope Francis replied to the crowd, “How beautiful to hear a son say of his father. He was good. And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man. That man did not have the gift of faith. He wasn’t a believer. But, he had his children baptized. He had a good heart. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven.”
Then Pope Francis asked Emanuele to think about what God is like and, especially, what kind of heart God has. He said, “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura [great understanding], do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself? Does God abandon his children when they are good?” The children shouted, “NO!” Pope Francis turned to Emanuele and said, “There, Emanuele, that is the answer. God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely, this pleased God very much. Talk to your dad, pray to your dad.”
Pope Francis avoided placing himself above God. He didn’t pass judgement. Pope Francis chose to act on what he knows about God rather than limit God’s mercy. We can argue forever among ourselves about how many angels dance on the head of a pin, the doctrine in the Catechism, or the latest debate on Catholic radio talk shows. But at the end of the day, God is the one who decides who gets into heaven. Not me. Not you. Not even the Pope. But God.
How would you have answered Emanuele? How would you explain this to a non-believing friend? How do we know our loved ones are in heaven? We don’t. But, I think if we really believe in God’s love, we can trust him to do the right thing.
Adapted from “Is my dad in heaven? Little boy asks pope”, Catholic News Agency; April 16, 2018