A tearful little boy grappling with big existential questions after the death of his father received some touching words of consolation from Pope Francis.
The poignant moment between the pontiff and the child on Sunday highlighted Francis’ enduring emphasis on prioritizing mercy.
The child, whom Francis referred to as Emanuele, met the pope during a papal visit to the St. Paul of the Cross parish on the outskirts of Rome. During a question-and-answer session with children of the parish, Emanuele approached the microphone to ask Francis a question.
Francis encouraged the boy to come forward and whisper the question into his ear. The pope gave the boy a hug and the pair had a quiet chat before Emanuele returned to his seat.
Francis then addressed the crowd, saying that Emanuele had granted permission to share the conversation.
He revealed that Emanuele was crying for his father, who had recently died. The boy told the pontiff that his dad was an atheist, but a good man who had all four of his children baptized.
“Is Dad in heaven?’” the boy asked the pope.
Watch a video of the encounter in Italian below.
“A boy that inherited the strength of his father also had the courage to cry in front of all of us,” the pope said. “If this man was able to create children like this, it’s true that he is a good man.”
“That man did not have the [gift] of faith, wasn’t a believer. But he had his children baptized. He had a good heart,” Francis added.
The pope said that God decides who goes to heaven, and that God has “the heart of a father.” He asked the young girls and boys in the audience if they thought God would abandon a father like Emanuele’s, who was a good man.
“No,” the children shouted back.
“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the pope said, according to a translation provided by the Catholic News Service. “God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.”
This isn’t the first time Francis has acknowledged that atheists can work for good.
In a 2013 homily, the pope reiterated the Christian belief that eternal salvation is attained through Jesus Christ. But he declared that all humans are created in the image of God, and that all have a duty to do good. This principle of doing good to others is one that unites all of humanity, the pope said, including atheists.
“Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” the pope said in that sermon.