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Pets in paradise comment not from Pope Francis

Correction: The quote "Paradise is open to all creatures" was mistakenly attributed to Pope Francis. It was in fact spoken by his predecessor, Pope Paul VI.

Do dogs go to heaven?

If you thought this was a silly question, forget that!

No sooner had the ever refreshing Pope Francis allegedly told a child who was grieving the death of his beloved dog that, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures,” than the horses — pardon the expression — were out of the barn.

Within hours of the Pope’s comment, the PR apparatus of the beef and pork industries was doing damage control, assuring us that the Pope wasn’t saying that eating animals is a sin. The in-boxes of the Humane Society, and other animal protection groups, were jammed.

A few days later, we learned that the pet comments arrtibuted to Francis had been uttered instead by his predecessor, Pope Paul VI. The source of the sentiment notwithstanding, the incident raised questions once again about the historic Catholic doctrine that animals don’t have souls, and are not therefore candidates for heaven?

Whatever Francis thinks about the subject — Vatican deputy spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini claimed that the pope "is in spiritual harmony with all of creation" — my hunch is that the average person was already pretty likely to feel that their golden retriever or cocker spaniel stands a far better chance of getting into heaven than a lot of the people they know. (But then I’m not so sure about Jock, the miniature fox terrier we had when I was a kid. The whole miniature thing seemed to have seriously affected the little guy. Talk about a Napoleonic complex! Jock barked and snapped at anyone handy, including the hand that fed him.)

The real point here, however, one evident in Pope Francis from the beginning of his time in office is that the present head of the Roman Catholic Church is different than many of his predecessors in this way: He is a pastor. That Francis is pre-eminently a pastor is at the root of his papacy and many of its already well-known episodes from his comments about who is he to judge those who are gay or lesbian to his personal outreach to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

But what does that mean? What is a pastor?

The classic, biblical image of a pastor is the shepherd of the flock. A pastor is a shepherd who cares for his flock, who leads them to green pastures and cool water, and protects them from danger and predators — even to the point of giving his own life to keep them from harm.

Pope Francis embraces a visitor to a Vatican event. Photo: Marco Garro/Flickr

As religious leaders, pastors are marked by at least the following three qualities.

First, they actually know their people. They know their names. And they have a sense of what is going on in their lives. They are not distant figureheads or media icons who seem clueless or indifferent to the actual human beings who make up their congregation. Those people aren’t just numbers. Quite the opposite.

Which leads to the second quality of a pastor. He or she cares. They have what Daniel Goleman has called “emotional intelligence.” That is, they have some sense for what others are feeling. They listen well. They hear, you might say, the song beneath the words. Moreover, they have feelings of their own. They can relate emotionally.

And third, pastors are accessible. They reach out and they can be reached if you need them. True pastors are likely to initiate, reaching out to you if they sense some need or problem. But if you try to contact them, you actually can. You aren’t put off by elaborate electronic mail systems (“please enter 49657 if you have a concern”) or by officious administrative aides who tell you don’t have an appointment. Francis has been famously accessible, often calling up people pretty much out of the blue.

Pastors know their people, they care about them (really), and they are accessible.

The Pope Francis phenomenon is basically explained by the fact that he is a pastor. And this has been quite a change from many of his predecessors who can fairly be characterized as more like political heavyweights, church bureaucrats or guardians of orthodox doctrine.

But this also raises questions for people of other, and all, religious faiths and for their leaders. Have our times seen the disappearance of the pastor and their replacement with the media star, the celebrity pastor, the mega-church mogul? Have religious leaders lost the human touch?

Francis has struck such a chord precisely because he has the human touch. He has terrified many in the Vatican because he has told them they need to be something they gave up long ago: being human.

Which sort of brings us to Christmas. The whole Christmas thing is about what Christians called the doctrine of the incarnation, which means — roughly — the invisible God becomes visible, or as the Gospel of John puts it “the Word became flesh.” Little, baby flesh. Vulnerable flesh and bones. Like us. God gets involved. God reaches out. Connects.

And there, at the manger, where the word became flesh, where God entered into human life wholly, guess who else was on hand?

Yep, animals. “Ox and ass before him bow,” we sing as we celebrate an event where sheep, cows and camels were part of the congregation. Not only that but, in the Christmas story and carols, all creation — animate and inanimate — sings: “rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” The event is cosmic, embracing all creation, not people alone.

Whatever the verdict on dogs in heaven, another matter seems clear: We want and need religious leaders who are pastors, who are real and authentically human, who care less about their power and prestige than they do about people (and animals), and who know both our sorrow and joy.

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