Pope Francis was tasked on Sunday with answering a challenging question by a little boy, who asked whether his late atheist father, described as a "good" person, is in Heaven.
According to Catholic news site Aleteia, the encounter took place when the Vatican leader was meeting with parishioners of St. Paul of the Cross before celebrating Mass.
A boy identified only by the name Emanuele was invited to whisper a question he had for Francis, which he did, but was too overcome with emotion to repeat it in public.
The pontiff then shared with the parishioners what Emanuele had whispered to him:
"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?"
Francis said that it is a "beautiful" thing for a son to call his father "good."
"That man gave a beautiful testimony to his children, for his children to be able to say, 'He was a good man.' It's a beautiful testimony on the part of the son that he has inherited his dad's strength, and also, that he has had the courage to cry before all of us. If that man was capable of raising children like this, it's true, he was a good man."
Getting to the heart of the question, the pope remarked:
"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. And [Emanuele] is doubting whether or not his dad, not having been a believer, is in Heaven. God is the one who decides who goes to heaven. But how does God's heart react to a Dad like that? How? What do you think? ... A dad's heart! God has the heart of a father.
"And faced with a dad, a nonbeliever, who was able to have his children baptized and to give them that courage, do you think that God would be capable of leaving him far from Him?"
Pope Francis then asked the audience whether God abandons His children, to which the public answered, "No."
The pope then told the boy:
"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. Surely, this pleased God greatly. Talk with your father, pray to your father."
Most evangelical leaders, including Greg Laurie, have stated that one must believe in Jesus Christ in order to go to Heaven and that good deeds (without Christ) are not enough to get to Heaven.
Pope Francis has made a number of controversial musings, particularly on the question of Heaven and Hell throughout his papacy. In September 2014, he appeared to suggest to atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari that nonbelievers can indeed go to Heaven as long as they do good.
"I start by saying — and this is the fundamental thing — that God's mercy has no limits if you go to Him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience," the pontiff said at the time.
The Vatican pushed back against the wording of the quoted text a couple of months later, however, arguing that there were mistakes in how it was written up.
"The information in the interview is reliable on a general level but not on the level of each individual point analyzed: this is why it was decided the text should not be available for consultation on the Holy See website," the Vatican said.
More recently, the pope stirred controversy last month when atheist philosopher Eugenio Scalfari claimed that Francis had told that "Hell does not exist" and that "those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear."
The Vatican denied that the pope made such a statement, arguing that the quotes reported by Scalfari was his own "reconstruction" and not the exact words of Francis.
"What is reported by the author in today's article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted," said the Holy See, as quoted by the Catholic News Agency.