Pope Francis has suggested during a Q&A session with children that an atheist man went to heaven because he was a "good man" who had baptized his children even though he was a nonbeliever.
During a visit to St. Paul of the Cross in Rome on Sunday, the pope was approached by a young boy who was unable to voice out his question over the microphone. A papal aide tried to encourage the boy to ask his question, but he kept saying, " I can't," so Francis asked him to whisper it in his ear.
The boy, named Emanuele, was seen crying just as he spoke privately with the pontiff. After the Emanuele returned to his seat, Francis explained that the boy was crying because his dad, who was an atheist, had died recently.
"A short time ago, my dad died. He was an atheist, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is Dad in heaven?" the pope quoted the boy as saying, according to a transcript from Aleteia.
The pope said that Emanuel's recollection of his father was a "beautiful testimony" and that the boy had inherited his father's strength as he had the courage to cry in public.
"If that man was capable of raising children like this, it's true, he was a good man. He was a good man. That man didn't have the gift of faith, he wasn't a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart," the pope said, as reported by Aleteia.
Francis reiterated that God is the one who decides who goes to heaven, and suggested that God will respond to the situation of Emanuel's father with a "dad's heart."
The pontiff then asked the audience if they think God would abandon a non-believing father who was able to baptize his children.
"Does God abandon his children? Does God abandon His children when they are good?" the pope asked, to which the audience responded, "No!"
"There you go, Emanuele, this is your answer. God surely was proud of your dad, because it's easier to have your children baptized when you are a believer, than to have them baptized when you are not a believer," Francis said, as reported by Aleteia.
The pope recently drew controversy after an atheist journalist quoted him as saying hell does not exist.
In an interview with the pontiff published in La Repubblica, atheist reporter Eugenio Scalfari claimed that the pope said that those who do not obtain the forgiveness of God simply disappear instead of going to hell. "Hell does not exist, the disappearance of sinful souls exists," the journalist quoted the pontiff as saying.
The Vatican immediately denied the alleged comments and noted that the journalist's recollection of the interview was not a faithful transcript of the pope's words.
Scalfari, 93, has repeatedly stated that he does not take notes during his interviews with the pope, and he only re-creates the conversations from memory, including those that are put in quotation marks.
The Vatican further noted that the pope met with Scalfari to exchange Easter greetings, but he did not give an interview.