When Pope Francis recently sought to comfort a distraught boy whose dog had died, the pontiff took the sort of pastoral approach he is famous for, telling the youngster not to worry, that he would one day see his pet in heaven.
"Paradise is open to all of God's creatures," Francis said reassuringly.
It was a sparkling moment on a rainy November day, and the setting in St. Peter's Square only burnished Francis' reputation as a kindly "people's pope." The story naturally lit up social media, became instant promotional material for vegetarians and animal rights groups, and on Friday even made it to the front page of The New York Times.
There's only one problem: None of it ever happened.
Yes, a version of that quotation was uttered by a pope, but it was said decades ago by Paul VI, who died in 1978. There is no evidence that Francis repeated the words during his public audience Nov. 26, as has been widely reported, nor was there was a boy mourning his dead dog.
So how could such a fable so quickly become taken as fact?
Part of the answer may be the topic of the pope's talk to the crowd that day, which centered on the End Times and the transformation of all creation into a "new heaven" and a "new earth." Citing St. Paul in the New Testament, Francis said that is not "the annihilation of the cosmos and of everything around us, but the bringing of all things into the fullness of being."
The trail of digital bread crumbs then appears to lead to an Italian news report that extended Francis' discussion of a renewed creation to the question of whether animals too will go to heaven.
"One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ," the report quoted Paul VI as telling a disconsolate boy years ago.
The story was titled, somewhat misleadingly: "Paradise for animals? The Pope doesn't rule it out." It wasn't clear which pope the writer meant, however.
The next day, Nov. 27, a story in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera by veteran Vaticanista Gian Guido Vecchi pushed the headline further: "The Pope and pets: "Paradise is open to all creatures."
Vecchi faithfully recounted the pope's talk about a new creation and also cited Paul VI's remark.
But the headline put those words in Francis' mouth, and that became the story.
The Italian version of The Huffington Post picked it up next and ran an article quoting Francis as saying "We will go to heaven with the animals" and contending that the pope was quoting St. Paul -- not Pope Paul -- as making that statement to console a boy who lost his dog. (That story, by the way, is nowhere in the Bible.)
The urban legend became unstoppable a week later when it was translated into English and picked up by the British press, which cited St. Paul as saying that "One day we will see our animals again in [the] eternity of Christ," while it has Francis adding the phrase: "Paradise is open to all God's creatures."
Fueling the meme was the fact that Francis was photographed accepting a gift of two donkeys from a company promoting the use of donkey milk for infants allergic to cow's milk -- and Francis said his own mother gave him donkey's milk as a baby.
Social media and other media outlets then picked up the story, further conflating the statements and the chronology. It became a hot mess of a story that was also sparking another theological debate by a pope who was known for prompting controversy.
When The New York Times went with the story, along with input from ethicists and theologians, it became gospel truth.
Television programs discussed the pope's theological breakthrough, news outlets created photo galleries of popes with cute animals, and others used it as a jumping off point to discuss what other religions think about animals and the afterlife. At America magazine, Jesuit Fr. James Martin wrote an essay discussing the theological implications of Francis' statements and what level of authority they may have. It was all very interesting and illuminating, but based on a misunderstanding.
A number of factors probably contributed to this journalistic train wreck:
- The story had so much going for it: Francis took his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of environmentalism who famously greeted animals as brothers and sisters.
- Pope Francis is also preparing a major teaching document on the environment, and almost since the day he was elected in 2013 he has stressed the Christian duty to care for creation.
- Francis also blessed a blind man's guide dog shortly after he was elected, an affecting image that was often used in connection with these latest reports of his concern for animals.
- Moreover, the media and the public are so primed for Francis to say novel things and disregard staid customs that the story was too good to check out; it fit with the pattern.
In most accounts, Francis' comments were also set against statements by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who insisted that animals did not have souls. That apparent contrast fit a common narrative pitting the more conservative Benedict against the ostensibly liberal Francis.
That may be true in some areas, but probably not when it comes to animals.
Adding insult to injury, the Times article cited St. John Paul II as saying in 1990 that animals have souls and are "as near to God as men are." But that, too, was a misquote, as media critic Dawn Eden explained at the website GetReligion.
On the other hand, there should have been warnings signs: Francis has frowned at the modern tendency to favor pets over people, and he has criticized the vast amounts of money spent by wealthy societies on animals even as children go hungry.
In addition, the pope's huge popularity has led to at least one other instance of myth-making: News reports last year said Francis was sneaking out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless around Rome.
The pope personally debunked that rumor in an interview in March, saying the idea "has never crossed my mind" and that "depicting the pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me."
Maybe he'll have to give another interview to deflate this latest story, and to offer his real thoughts on pets and paradise.