There is a test that anyone seeking ordination must go through, the General Ordination Exam, or GOE for short. I have alternative names for this test, but they’re not suitable to print. The GOE consists of seven categories, each with a three sentence question requiring 1000 words to answer. A grab-bag question is thrown in which clergy call the Coffee Hour question because it is one a parishioner might ask – assuming they wouldn’t be inclined to ask about how one 12th century theologian (that no one has ever heard of) disagrees with a 10th century theologian (that no one has ever heard of). The Coffee Hour question the year I took the GOE was something like this, “You are at the hospice bedside of a stranger. The patient’s sister, who hasn’t spoken to the patient in 20 years, walks into the room. What do you say?”
Here is a famous Coffee Hour question from years ago: “A parishioner walks up to you after services. She is upset that her dog has died. She asks you, ‘Is my dog in heaven?’ What do you say?” The bottom line is that no one, ordained or not, knows the answer to the who-is-in-heaven question so the best answer is run away as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the advice to run has not been heeded by all in my vocation. I have spoken with folks who claim that ordained persons have said that animals are not in heaven. In fact, at each church that I have served I have been asked this question. To those who say animals are not in heaven, I assert that St. Francis might disagree.
A 13th century theologian, St. Francis was fond of animals and of God’s creation. The main emphasis of his ministry was to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He believed that God’s beautiful creation was created good but was then marred by human sin. Yet, the vocation of all beings – both “man and beast” – was to praise God. It is believed that Francis also preached to birds and that they’d lovingly listen to his voice.
Using reason and faith together, I wonder why a great and devoted man of God would spend time preaching to animals if they were not a part of God’s eternal kingdom. After all, Scripture shows us that all beings in heaven are continually in praise of God. There are winged creatures in heaven, apparently. And, at the end of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, there is a river, a tree, fruit and a restored kingdom where both heaven and earth meet. It is like a reestablished Garden of Eden. Would God plant a tree and have a river if there were no animals? Would it really be Eden if there were only humans?
Experience shows us that our pets bring us closer to God by showing the grace and nature of our shared creator. How many times has a pet lifted your spirits or comforted you? How fast does your pet forgive you when you come home late or accidentally step on its tail. Are these not in fact reflections of God and of the eternal created order? Why would God create a heaven where our beloved animal family members could not exist.
So, to my brothers and sisters of the cloth who think that animals are not in heaven, I invite you to take it up with St. Francis first and then answer your parishioner. Or, perhaps, just run away as quickly as possible.