In a surprise ecumenical encyclical from the Vatican, Pope Francis has indicated that atheists could be allowed to pass through the Pearly Gates and enjoy a celestial paradise until the end of time.

Until now, the Catholic Church has restricted entry to the Afterlife to a select set of saints, believers and specially devout individuals who stumped up some cash.

According to a Vatican Emissary, the Pope now believes that such exclusivity promotes the wrong view of the Church and gives people the mistaken impression of elitism within religious circles.

“This is all part of the modernisation of Catholicism and an attempt to appeal to a more youthful demographic. We’d like to extend the franchise,” the Emissary explained.

“Frankly, we’re a bit worried about all these radical Muslims crowding out the place. Each one turns up with his entourage of virgins, and you can’t move for skimpy underwear, hair straighteners and Ed Sheeran posters.”

“His Holiness has decided that any dying atheist who has lived a good enough life should be allowed to benefit from an immediate associate membership of the Church, whether they asked for one or not, and get fast-tracked into Heaven.”

When asked how this affected high-profile converts like Tony Blair, the Emissary laughed so much he required medical attention.