Praying for Perspective: Pope Francis offers hope after death of a pet

A family believes ‘that if we ourselves ever get to heaven, we’ll get to see him, pet him—and feed him—again’

By George Valadie

Thank goodness for Pope Francis! The woman would have crawled up in a hole and died herself if the man hadn’t offered her the hope she so desperately needed to feel.

You see, Charlie just died a few weeks ago. Our 95-pound, 11-year-old, jet-black with a few graying edges, “he’s-JUST-a-baby” canine who I often described as “part Labrador, part stubborn,” Charlie succumbed after what seemed like a much-too-brief battle with lymphoma.

And I won’t lie, I thought Nancy might leave us as well; she’s been every bit that distraught.

Now we’ve had other dogs before and we’ve lost other dogs before— one to a different sort of cancer, believe it or not—but none ever seemed to affect her the way that Charlie’s passing has. She’s not even sure she understands it, but struggle she has.

“Can you believe,” she pondered aloud, “that I can feel such an incredibly huge loss for a creature that has never spoken a single word to me in its entire lifetime?”

She’s decided that the most likely explanation has to be that with our kids all grown and able to fend for themselves—mostly—she’s been pouring all her motherly instincts into our dog.

The boy sure needed every bit of guidance and love he could get. In his absence, I have graciously volunteered to be more needy, but she politely declined.

I should point out here that we do have another dog, Maggie, who actually preceded Charlie’s arrival. She’d want me to tell you that; she has feelings, too.

We had gotten her from a shelter as a Christmas present for Nancy and introduced her to our home during the holidays.

After a week in that kind of chaos, I’m not sure she didn’t prefer the shelter.

As new owners do, we debated all sorts of names, but it was Nancy’s dog, so she ultimately decided on “Maggie,” the name of a girl on whom I’d had a crush in college.

“I love the name Maggie!” she smiled with an ominous hint of perverse and evil rolled into her little-too-wide of a grin.

Somewhere, between winter becoming summer, we had heard it would be easier to raise two dogs instead of one—the idea being they could entertain each other, perhaps teach each other, and certainly enjoy each other’s company.

So half a year later, we returned to the same shelter and acquired her a play pal, Charlie. For the record, Maggie’s never been the same, hardly spoken to us since, and wishes we had more thoroughly vetted wherever the “somewhere” was that told us about that “two dogs” nonsense.

To be generous, Maggie merely tolerated Charlie for every day of his 11 years. Bosom buddies they were not. I can’t exactly tell how she’s reacting to his demise, but she’s doing way better than my wife.

With Charlie having moved on, you’d think Nancy would have naturally transferred her nurturing instincts to Maggie, but it’s never been the same between the two of them. Maggie’s different to say the least; she’s always been more independent, more aloof—more “catlike” I suppose would be a good description.

Charlie was the one who followed my wife everywhere, barked at the window when we drove up, barked louder when we walked in the door. Trailed her to her chair, the shower, and the stove. Imagine a tail-wagging, fur-shedding, TV-interrupting, eat-anything-and-everything whirlwind.

Maggie on the other hand prefers her perch on the porch, stretched out on her bed only occasionally lifting her head and twitching her ears—though one ear is often enough—to acknowledge our existence. She’s just not the same, and now . . . neither is my wife.

Charlie’s absence was and remains immensely noticeable. Especially to his momma.

And if not for Pope Francis, well, I just don’t know.

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, he said all she’s ever needed to hear, “Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.”

She loved the sentiment, but he stirred it up for sure.

Throughout a good bit of Church history, its leaders have differed in their views about the realities of an eternal home for our favorite animals.

Popes Pius IX and Benedict argued it wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully, through the years, our Church has allowed us the freedom to argue with some of the messages within papal encyclicals provided we’ve listened with “an open and docile heart… not requiring blind acceptance but never outright dismissal” either.

John Paul II steered us back the other way, believing our pets do indeed have souls and as such are entitled to their own patch of what lies behind the pearly gates.

With respect to all of them, spiritual leaders and thinkers that they were, I don’t know how any of them can know for sure just exactly where our pets will ultimately reside. Scripture seems a little thin on the issue.

So I’m siding with Pope Francis on this one. And Nancy thinks the man is already a saint. Because if she thought for a moment that her pets weren’t going to be in heaven with her, I think she’d have gone looking for another faith.

So with a big boost from the Holy Father, our family has opted to believe that if we ourselves ever get to heaven, we’ll get to see him, pet him—and feed him—again.

Until then heaven on earth is right around the corner—we’re picking up little 8-week-old “Gipper” tomorrow. Maggie will leave for sure.

Dear God—There are more crucial concepts to debate, greater tragedies to be mourned. Please help us love our neighbor just as fiercely. Amen.

George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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