As David Gibson has pointed out, it was Pope Paul VI, not Pope Francis, who said, “One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.” The statement was not an exercise in the official magisterium of the Church, but it did not have to be. The sense of the faithful, at least those faithful who have dogs, knows this to be the case.
The subject of dogs getting into heaven became personal for me the past few days. Yesterday, my beloved black lab Bernie died. Last week his back was giving him trouble, we went to the vet and put him on pain meds and anti-inflammatories. He was better over the weekend and on Sunday evening had a nice walk, tail wagging, lots of sniffing. An hour later, he could barely stand. We brought him to the animal hospital and it turned out a tumor in his abdomen had burst. The prognosis was not good as it appeared the cancer had spread to his lungs. This morning, he was put to sleep by the doctor. It was dreadfully humane and I managed to hold off on the tears and be cheerful until it was finished. His last moments on this earth were spent with his daddy rubbing his belly and his back and giving him kisses.
I picked Bernie up at the humane society on Maryland’s eastern shore on June 4, 2001. He had been found on the side of the road all alone and no one claimed him. When I arrived and they brought him into the hall, he almost knocked me over he was so excited to meet a new human being. This trait never left him. Bernie was aggressively friendly, with people, with dogs, just not with cats. Two days later, my border collie Clementine arrived. She was from a rescue shelter in Tennessee and she had never really been acclimated with people. The first night, she jumped the fence and I spent three hours in the middle of the night trying to lure her back. She spent the next three days under the bed. She was terrified. The people who run the rescue had said they were going to Baltimore for three days and if I did not want to keep her, they would pick her back up on their return trip to Tennessee. I was inclined to send her back until, on the third day, I walked into the house and Bernie had coaxed her out from under the bed and they were both standing on the sofa, tails wagging. So, Bernie started his journey with me by saving his new sister.
Together, Bernie and Clementine also rescued me. I had been horribly depressed in 2001. In January, my favorite uncle and my previous dog Samantha had died one week apart. I was living alone at the time and dreaded going back to an empty house. After work, I would repair to a bar and stay there until closing. I went to see a shrink. After a few months, I realized I needed to get another dog. I was working long hours at the restaurant and decided to get two so they could keep each other company. As soon as Bernie and Clementine showed up, the depression vanished. The shrink did not agree with my decision to stop our sessions but, at $180 per hour, I was not that interested in delving into my childhood now that my depression was gone. I spent the additional hour each week walking the dogs.
Bernie was a dog’s dog. Clementine, once she realized she was daddy’s little girl, took on almost human personality traits. When Ambrose, my Saint Bernard, joined the pack seven years ago, he immediately adopted the role of baby of the family and he still acts like a toddler, a very cute toddler to be sure. But, Bernie was the dog. He always wanted treats and I used to joke that if a burglar got into the house, Bernie would show him where the family silver was in exchange for a milk bone. He was not the best walker in the world because he had to stop and investigate each and every smell. He was the first to start barking at the mailman each morning. After Ambrose’s surgery last year, when I had to start sleeping on a futon on the floor with him to keep him quiet, Bernie decided he liked this idea a lot and would usually beat Ambrose to the sweet spot, right next to my pillow, so that he could fall asleep while being patted and daddy fell asleep reading. In the morning, he was always the first to the door, waiting to go outside and do his duty.
When Samantha died, my friend Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete said to me, “No creature so filled with love can simply cease to exist.” I believed that then and believe it now for the same reason I believe the Creed: It corresponds to the experience and truth of my heart. Only a very foolish God would not want Bernie to be with Him in heaven forever and ours is not a foolish God. Walt Whitman once said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, send me to where they are.” I do not think he needed to worry. As I cradled Bernie’s head this morning, I told him to say hi to Samantha for me. Paul VI said such a thing is possible. Msgr. Lorenzo said such a thing was essential. And my heart knows that if it were not so, it would be broken in ways that are unimaginably hurtful.
I am very sad but also very grateful for the wonderful thirteen and one half years we gave to each other. Bernie was a great dog. Those who knew him will, like me, miss him a great deal. But, the Lord who reconciles all creation in Himself, will not disappoint the desire of my heart to see my beloved beast again. No creature so filled with love can simply cease to exist.