Christmas morning, 2002, my then seven-year-old son tiptoed in his red footed fleece onesie down the carpeted staircase to the Christmas tree. John heard whimpering from the strange brown crate Santa had left. As he peered through the wires of the crate door, he gasped and ran up the stairs yelling for his brothers and sisters to ome see the wolf in the living room!
Jeff and Elizabeth, the oldest and bravest, opened the gated door to let the excited puppy out of her crate. The tan puppy leaped from child to child. Anne Marie had just turned four, but she knew this puppy presented nothing she needed to fear. Six-year-old Tom picked her up and was giggling so hard from her licks to his face that it took him a few seconds to realize she was peeing on his Power Ranger pajamas.
Their first priority was to name her. She wore a sky blue bandana dotted with Angels, so the kids unanimously chose Angel as her name. As the kids grew up, Angel often followed them as they walked to school, went with Carolyn to play with the kids and their friends at recess, and she loved playing soccer with them when they returned home after school. All of our friends, relatives and neighbors knew and loved Angel. She was a caring Cairn Terrier who loved our family unconditionally. Angel was a seemingly endless ball of energy, until Christmas 2017. She had slowed down considerably over the last year, but could still run to greet the kids when they returned from college or came by to visit. By Christmas Eve it was clear she was nearing the end of her glorious life on Earth. She made it through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but on December 26, 2017, Angel took her last breath peacefully at her favorite spot in front of the fireplace, held lovingly in my arms with our family surrounding her.
During her last 48 hours of life, the kids asked a lot of questions about life, death, and heaven. These questions can be scary because there is so much we do not know. The most fundamental question they wanted answered was whether or not Angel would be going to heaven. Would we ever see her again? If her soul lives on, what exactly is she doing in the afterlife? Is she playing heavenly soccer while awaiting our eventual reunion with her? Angel’s death even led us to discuss what exactly happens to us when we die. Will our guardian angel or a deceased loved one be waiting to show us where to go and what to do?
As their dad, I first wanted to comfort them in their immense grief. I also needed to remind myself that my children are now 26 to 19 years of age, and they want to know the truth more than merely what I think would cheer them up and help abate their intense sorrow. I first needed to address what we can expect for Angel.
I usually turn first to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but there was not much specifically on pets in heaven. As I looked at some of the more helpful Catholic websites, I found information about Pope Francis speaking about what we can expect in heaven. During a weekly general audience at the Vatican, the Holy Father stated, “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.” Many listeners took this to mean that heaven will include the perfection of all the world we now know, including plants and animals.
Although this Pope never stated what he believes happens to our pets after they die, a previous Pope did. Pope Paul VI once told a distraught boy whose dog had recently died, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.”
Following Pope Francis’ remarks, Catholic apologist Paul Thigpen took up the question of animals going to heaven in the December 22, 2014 edition of Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly. He admits that we just do not know for certain whether we will see our pets in heaven, but he does remind us that God created us and animals out of nothing, and all things are possible with Him. If God chooses, He can somehow bring animals to heaven for our joy or perhaps even for His own pleasure. Thigpen describes how this would be a preternatural gift from God (granting some or all animals a privilege beyond their nature).
Ultimately, we do not know for certain whether our pets will be in heaven. After reading Scripture, the Catechism, Church Fathers, Saints, and Church Teachings, there is still much we do not know about eternity. When I encounter matters of faith I do not understand, I turn to the place I should turn first – Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We can best know the Father by knowing His Son. So I return to Jesus and pray. My relationship with Christ should always come first. When I reflect on how God loves me even more unconditionally than Angel loved us, I cannot help but feel all will be well in the end. As in all the other cases of worry, fear, and uncertainty that I encounter in life, I know that if God is in charge, everything will be alright. I know how much God loves me and all of His awesome creation, so with no doubt or hesitation I entrust myself and my family, even Angel, into His loving hands.
Jeffrey E. Mathews, MD, has been a Pauline Cooperator since October 11, 2009. He and his wife, Carolyn, live in St. Louis, MO, and are blessed with three sons and two daughters (two out of college, three in college). Dr. Mathews, a gastroenterologist, is trying really hard to improve his Spanish for his annual medical mission trip to Honduras with his Giaccardo GI Group, whose patron is Blessed Fr. Timothy Giaccardo, the first priest of the Society of St. Paul and the first beatified member of the Pauline Family.