Pope Francis has had many humorous and poignant interactions with children over the last ten years that demonstrate his pastoral emphasis on dialogue and listening. Here are five of my favorite examples of the Pope’s special consideration for children:
His response to the little boy whose father had died
Francis was visiting a parish in 2018 and had a question-and-answer session with children there. One boy, Emanuele, went up to ask him a question, and the exchange that followed impacted people around the world.
After he approached the microphone, Emanuele became overcome with emotion and said he couldn’t speak. Eventually, Francis encouraged him to come up to him and whisper the question in his ear. He hugged Emanuele as they spoke quietly.
The Pope then addressed everyone, telling them that he received permission to share Emanuele’s question: “A little while ago my father passed away. He was a nonbeliever, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is dad in heaven?” The report of the event continues:
“How beautiful to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good,’” the pope told the children. “And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man.”
“That man did not have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart,” Pope Francis said.
“God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” the Pope explained.
The next step in answering Emanuele’s question, he said, would be to think about what God is like and, especially, what kind of heart God has. “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura, do you think God would be able to leave him far from Himself?”
“Does God abandon His children?” the Pope asked. “Does God abandon His children when they are good?”
The children shouted, “No.”
“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the Pope told the boy. “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.”
In this exchange, both with Emanuele and with all the children there, Francis showed the pastoral importance of listening. The topics were directed by children in their questions. Francis did not share Emanuele’s story without asking him for permission. Finally, he did not actually provide the answer, but, after emphasizing God’s goodness and love, he let the other children— Emanuele’s peers— give the answer to Emanuele.
The book Dear Pope Francis
Francis’s desire to listen to children and dialogue with them is also evident in his remarkable children’s book, Dear Pope Francis, which is a joint effort between him and various children from around the world. The book is designed as a dialogue, so half of the pages are made up of a letter written by a child, translated into English, including their illustrations and a photo. On the opposite page of each child’s letter is Francis’s response. The questions range from personal to theological, funny to painful.
Just like his response to Emanuele, Francis engaged each child’s concern directly, not avoiding the hard issues, while also keeping the answer short and conversational.
The “beautiful homily” of crying babies at Mass
Francis’s listening extends to crying babies, too. I was particularly encouraged by the Pope’s words on this subject in January of 2020, when my youngest daughter was a baby. During a service in which 32 babies were being baptized, Francis told the parents: “Let the children cry. It is a beautiful homily when a child cries in church, a beautiful homily.”
As many parents can attest, not everyone at Mass feels the same way as the pope about crying children. I remember repeating those words over and over in my mind while attending Mass with a noisy one year old. What I especially love about this statement is that he didn’t speak about the babies’ future potential as adults in the Church. He described them as contributing to Mass now, filling the church with their beautiful homilies.
His encouragement to parents to feed and nurse babies during Mass
Another example of Francis’s pastoral care of infants occurred when he encouraged their parents to feed them, including breastfeeding them during Mass. While some women have been discouraged from breastfeeding in public places, including church, or expected to leave while their baby nurses, the Pope’s words set a different standard. His repeated encouragement to breastfeed babies when they cry at Mass, rather than leave, shows inclusivity to babies and their parents— especially nursing mothers— at Mass. What he described as a “concert” of crying babies at Mass is not a problem, but an opportunity. He says that to feed them is “a language of love.”
Impromptu encounters with children
Finally, the Pope’s impromptu interactions with children, during Mass or while out in public, highlight the personal touch that has characterized his papacy. For example, he has invited kids to ride in the popemobile with him on multiple occasions. The popemobile provides a means for as many people as possible to see the Pope, but it also keeps him separated from the people as it zips along past the crowd, kept behind barriers and security guards. The Pope’s invitation to children to join him shows his desire to be with the people.
My personal favorite interaction of the pope in the popemobile was on his visit to Philadelphia, when he was delighted at the sight of an infant dressed up as the pontiff. A security guard brought the baby to him for a kiss.
All in all, the Pope’s interactions with children show a personal, particular love and a model for all to follow. May we be encouraged by the Holy Father’s interactions with children and people of all ages, that we, too, may be love and light in this world.
Image Credit: Vatican Media