“And this is will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
In yesterday’s news there was a story about Pope Francis’ encounter with a young boy whose father, who was an atheist, had just died. On a visit to St. Paul of the Cross parish just outside of Rome, Pope Francis had invited the children assembled to ask questions. One boy, Emanuele, came forward but when he tried to speak he broke down in tears. Pope Francis then invited the boy to come up to him and to whisper in his ear. What the boy wanted to ask the Pope was whether or not his father, who was a good man but an atheist and who yet had all of his children baptized, was in heaven. The Pope had asked the boy if he could share their conversation with the other children, and Emanuele agreed.
As he related the story the Pope said: “A boy that inherited the strength of his father also had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If this man was able to create children like this, it’s true that he is a good man.” The Pope then said that it is God who decides who goes to heaven and that God has the “heart of a father.” He then asked the children if they thought that God would abandon a father like Emanuele’s who was a good man. With one voice the children cried out “No!” Pope Francis then turned to the boy and said: “There, Emanuele, is your answer.”
This incident struck me personally at many levels. The first is because I, as a boy, often had the same concern as Emanuele. My father was not an atheist, but he did not engage in any religious practice. Although I knew his goodness and basically trusted God, I also heard in my religious instruction of the time somewhat horrific stories about the fate of non-Catholics. Sometimes, in what I considered prayer as a child, I would pray to God for my father, at times for his “conversion” but at others in the confusion that came from the contradictory messages about the goodness of God and my father’s imperiled fate. Unlike Emanuele, I lacked the courage as a young child to speak out this painful question within me. Since most of my life I did not live in a Catholic milieu, I knew that my daily environment was not the place to pose the question. And when I was in the fairly rigid, doctrinaire, and specifically Catholic atmosphere of the time, the attitude I sensed, and probably magnified, was not one in which I would have expected a merciful answer. This changed when I entered high school and encountered Catholic religious brothers who communicated a far more open and humane attitude than what I had expected, which is perhaps where my original attraction to their vocation began. Because of this conflict with which I lived as a very young person, I came to understand the limitation of all human teaching and religious dogma. At times I did fear for my father’s salvation, yet stronger than that fear was the knowledge that anyone who would suggest that he was not loved by God and so to be saved was mistaken. Although there were moments of cognitive dissonance and some anxiety as a result, at the level of heart I had no question of which side I would choose if forced to do so. I learned very young that having faith could not require the denial of reality.
In today’s gospel, Jesus makes clear that God’s will is that nothing of what God has given him be lost. It is that everyone who “sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.” To see and believe in Jesus cannot be restricted to seeing and believing in accord with merely one way, one perspective on life and Mystery. For one to be “a believer” does not mean he or she must believe exactly as I do. Pope Francis’ response to Emanuele is, in part, that a man who can create (and we might add form) a child such as he is undoubtedly a good man. As Jesus in the gospel, Pope Francis is reminding us of the truth that “by their fruit you will know them.” Jesus tells us that he came “not to judge the world but to save it” (John 12:47). To have faith in him is to long to share with all the world the message that God’s will for us is communion and eternal life. It is not judgmental elitism.
Besides the content of Pope Francis’ response to Emanuele, however, there is the reality of his encounter with the boy and also with the children as a whole. As I read the story, I was reminded of Jesus’ command to the disciples, “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). Jesus says this because the disciples are trying to keep them away from bothering him. In the disciples’ view the children are a bother and not able to deal with the “weighty” matters with which Jesus and themselves are involved. A basic human movement is toward exclusivity and separation. We also tend to think we are the ones who know best, and the others are to be, at best, patronized. But Jesus says, it is they, not we, to whom the kingdom of God belongs.
At the moment related in the news story, Pope Francis lives this gospel teaching. He welcomes the children in two significant ways. First of all, he asks Emanuele, when he is unable to speak in public, to come up to him and whisper in his ear. When we are children in an adult world we tend to expect that we are insignificant to them. Largely because adults fail to realize how much children go through, the children receive the message that what they really experience and feel has no place in the “adult” world. Yet, Francis takes Emanuele’s suffering very seriously and invites him to come and be with him. The boy is able to tell him, this grandfatherly figure, about his fear and concern for his father.
As teacher, however, Francis also practices Jesus’ teaching in another way. He does not answer Emanuele’s question himself but rather asks the children to do so. One can almost imagine Pharisaical types protesting about the nonsense of asking children to respond to such a “doctrinal” issue. Francis, understands, however, that the spontaneous humanity and mercy of children know the true answer. It is for him merely to confirm to Emanuele that “There is your answer.” It is not the Pope but rather “merest children” who have the answer. We diminish and exclude children, in part, because they frighten us, just as it is typical for institutions, associations, and even churches to practice exclusion out of fear of the truth and mystery in others, in those who think, believe, and act differently.
As a boy I was conflicted because my experience of reality, my father’s goodness, was in conflict with the “wisdom” of some of my religious teachers. We learn readily in theology that we are to form our conscience in the light of tradition and teaching, and so we are. Yet, we must not readily conflate wisdom and tradition with every single iota of the teaching. For, as Cardinal Newman says in speaking of the development of Christian doctrine: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Our lives and our souls are formed in tension. There is truth in tradition and teaching, yet there is also truth in the fact that no human compendium of knowledge can contain all the complexity, pluriformity, and mystery of life. We need not fear this tension and so readily attempt to dissolve it with ready pat answers. The person of Jesus comes to us as mystery, both known and unknown. Jesus also comes to us, and lives in us, uniquely. To believe this, and to believe that the will of God is that he lose nothing (and no one) that has been given to him allows us to trust life as Francis trusts the children. He is not fearful but trusts that in their “sensus fidelium” they will respond aright to Emanuele. As he writes: “Each day of our journey is marked by God’s presence. God guides our steps with the power of the grace that the Spirit pours into our hearts to make them capable of loving.”
To the degree we live in fear of life and of world, we do not yet really believe. I didn’t need to fear for my father for, unlike us far too many times, God is ever loving and merciful. As Pope Francis writes: “No one can think that he or she is cut off from God’s closeness and the power of God’s tender love.”
This is the time of mercy. Each day of our journey is marked by God’s presence. He guides our steps with the power of the grace that the Spirit pours into our hearts to make them capable of loving. It is the time of mercy for each and all, since no one can think that he or she is cut off from God’s closeness and the power of his tender love. It is the time of mercy because those who are weak and vulnerable, distant and alone, ought to feel the presence of brothers and sisters who can help them in their need. It is the time of mercy because the poor should feel that they are regarded with respect and concern by others who have overcome indifference and discovered what is essential in life. It is the time of mercy because no sinner can ever tire of asking forgiveness and all can feel the welcoming embrace of the Father.
Pope Francis, Misericordia et Misera, 21