“Is my dad in heaven?”
It’s a question many of us have pondered — whether about a parent, child or friend. But the question is especially poignant coming from a child.
On April 15, a crying child posed it to Pope Francis while visiting a parish in Rome.
Young Emanuele, perhaps age seven, burst into tears as he approached the Holy Father at St. Paul of the Cross Church. After a big hug from the pope and much encouragement, Emanuele whispered: “Is my dad in heaven?”
The boy’s father, a non-believer with four children, had recently died. Despite his own lack of belief, the man had all his children, including Emanuele, baptized. Now the boy, clearly aware of heaven and hell, feared for his father’s soul.
All of us have known people — family or friends — who didn’t believe, had “fallen away from the church” or done bad things with no apparent repentance. If they died in that state, what happened to them?
Our Catholic faith teaches about “the four last things:” death, judgment, heaven and hell. Emanuele, a child, was asking about these. (News sources say he specifically asked about his father and hell.)
In the Easter season, our thoughts often focus on heaven — of being with God and the risen Christ eternally. Holy Week reminded us of death — something we all face. We also know Jesus experienced death.
And Jesus’ death — and resurrection — now gives us hope about people like Emanuele’s dad.
The church teaches that each of us — after death — experiences both a particular and a final judgment. Final judgment comes at the end of time when, as the Nicene Creed says, Christ comes “to judge the living and the dead.” However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that “each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ” (n. 1022).
This means Emanuele’s dad faced God at the moment he died. What happened?
With saints, we believe that they enter heaven immediately after death. As St. Therese of Lisieux said toward the end, “I am not dying, I am entering life.” We know this about saints because we have proof that they are with God through the miracles performed through their intercession.
However, most of us are not perfect when we die. While we may not be nonbelievers like Emanuele’s father, we may have other reasons for concern. (This, of course, is why the church has the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing before death.) So what happens?
Pope Francis told Emanuele something we all need to remember: “God is the one who says who goes to heaven.”
To elaborate, the pope asked Emanuele and the other parish children to think about God. He then asked them to remember what kind of heart God has.
“God has a dad’s heart,” the pope said. “Do you think God would be able to leave (Emanuele’s father) far from himself? Does God abandon his children?”
“No,” the children answered.
And that, the pope said, was Emanuele’s answer.
It’s ours as well. God has a dad’s heart.
It’s a lesson we have from Christ himself in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father in that parable is God the Father who awaits us. The Prodigal son is each one of us — no matter what we have done or not done in this life. As long as we turn toward God, even at the last moment of life (and who knows how that truly works?), God the Father runs to us, just as the father in the parable ran as soon as he saw his son coming.
That was a comfort for Emanuele. It should be a comfort for all of us who have lost someone we love who may have had an irregular relationship with God. At their particular judgment, God met them with a father’s heart.