He is not Catholic, but Pentecostal, a part of those Christian communities which are in breathtaking expansion all over the world. Little by little the pope is meeting with their leaders. From rivals he wants to become friends, to the point of asking their forgiveness
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 23, 2014 – When the news got out, and was confirmed by Fr. Federico Lombardi, that Pope Francis intended to make a private visit to Caserta to meet with a friend, the pastor of a local Evangelical community, the city's bishop, Giovanni D'Alise, was thunderstruck. He hadn't been told a thing.
Moreover, the pope had planned his visit to Caserta for the same day as the feast of Saint Anne, the city's patron. Seeing themselves snubbed, some of the faithful threatened an uprising. It took a good week to convince the pope to change his schedule and divide the trip into two phases: the first a public one with the faithful of Caserta on Saturday, July 26, and the second in private with his Evangelical friend on the following Monday.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio had made arrangements to meet with this person months in advance. He mentioned this to a group of faithful from Caserta on January 15, after a general audience in Saint Peter's Square. And he spoke of it again on June 19, during a meeting in Rome with some Evangelical pastors, including the very same friend from Caserta, Giovanni Traettino, whom he had met in Buenos Aires in 2006 for a debate when he was the archbishop of the Argentine capital.
The meeting with Pastor Traettino in Caserta is not, in fact, an isolated episode, but part of a broader effort that Pope Francis is making to win the favor of the worldwide leaders of those "Evangelical" and Pentecostal movements which especially in Latin America are the most fearsome competitor of the Catholic Church, from which they are snatching enormous masses of faithful.
"Evangelical" and Pentecostal Christians, who emerged a century ago from Protestant circles, have seen spectacular expansion. It is estimated that today they are almost one third of the approximately two billion Christians present in the world, and three fourths of Protestants. But they are also found in the Catholic Church. Last June 1 Pope Francis met in the Olympic stadium of Rome with 50,000 members of Renewal in the Spirit, the most important Catholic Charismatic group in Italy.
Three days later, on June 4, the pope had a long meeting at his residence of Santa Marta with some “Evangelical” leaders of the United States, including the famous televangelist Joel Osteen, California pastor Tim Timmons, and the president of the Evangelical Westmont College, Gayle D. Beebe.
On June 24, another meeting. This time with Texas televangelists James Robinson and Kenneth Copeland, with Bishop Anthony Palmer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, with John and Carol Arnott of Toronto, and with other prominent leaders. There were also Geoff Tunnicliffe and Brian C. Stiller, respectively the secretary general and "ambassador" of the World Evangelical Alliance. The meeting lasted for three hours and continued through lunch, in the refectory of Santa Marta, where the pope, amid loud laughter, gave Pastor Robinson a high five (see photo).
Copeland and Osteen are proponents of "prosperity theology," according to which the more faith grows the more wealth grows. They themselves are very wealthy and live an extravagant lifestyle. But Francis spared them the sermon on poverty.
Instead - according to what “ambassador” Stiller reported - the pope assured them: "I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”
But he also told them that he had learned from his friendship with Pastor Traettino that the Catholic Church, with its imposing presence, acts too much as an obstacle to the growth and witness of these communities. And for this reason as well he thought of visiting the Pentecostal community in Caserta: "to offer an apology for the difficulty brought to their congregation."
During the pontificates of John Paul II and even more with Benedict XVI, the American “Evangelicals,” generally rather conservative, attenuated their traditional anti-papism and found points of encounter with the Catholic Church in the shared battle for the defense of religious freedom, life, and the family.
Pope Francis did not dwell on these issues in his conversations in recent weeks.
But last March the pope also met briefly, in the Rome, with the highly religious and “Evangelical” Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, with whom the United States Supreme Court sided in a landmark decision handed down at the end of June in the lawsuit they filed against the law backed by Barack Obama that required businesses to include coverage for contraception and abortion in their employee health care plans.
LUNCH WITH THE POPE
Posted by brianstiller on July 9, 2014
The inevitable question I’m asked when one knows I’ve been with the pope is, “And what is he like?” Here are some personal observations from a recent visit.
Impressions in the first moments so frame how we see an individual. This, my second meeting with Pope Francis, an almost three-hour conversation and lunch, allowed me to more carefully form impressions.
From the outset his charm set us all at ease. As we moved from the greeting hall to the conversation room, he stood by the door to turn out the lights. I noticed that gone were the papal slippers and instead shoes with dangling laces. At lunch, eaten in the cafeteria, it wasn’t the waiters who served us drinks; Pope Francis served Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the WEA and me. His presence undermines pomp or circumstance. One has to remind themself that sitting across the lunch table, smiling through moments of joy is one of the most influential persons in the world. His celebrity is muted by his kindly ordinariness. His influence is corralled by his loving affection for people. His power leans towards the poor, those trampled underfoot.
Two dominant gifts showed. First his pastoral instincts and gifts are so evident. I asked, “When you were presented on the balcony in St Peter’s Square after your election, did you plan to ask those in the square to pray for you and then bow in silence?” He laughed. “No,” he said, “in that moment I sensed the Spirit leading me to do that.” So I asked, “When you did so, how did you feel?” He looked at me and smiled, “I was so at peace.”
We talked about Christians marginalized, pressed under the weight of government power or the majority presence of other faiths. He listened and then told a remarkable story. In his years in and out of Rome, he became friends with an Italian pastor. In time he came to learn that the church and pastor felt the power and presence of the Catholic Church, with its weighty presence, obstructing their desire to grow and be a witness. So he decided to visit the church and offer an apology for the difficulty brought to their congregation.
Offsetting his loving and endearing pastoral gift is the prophetic: not in foretelling the future but speaking forth the word of God.
Our lunch was just days after he had announced a shocking judgment in Calabria, south Italy, condemning the mafia for their “adoration of evil,” declaring all mobsters effectively excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Of earthquake proportion, this declaration will surely rattle communities where the Catholic Church and mobsters have for centuries lived along side each other. They are finding that Francis is more than just a cordial, pastoral priest from South America.
In the coming days we will hear of his determination to bring the administration of the Vatican under control, replacing leadership, cleaning up the Vatican Bank and speaking to the unspeakable matter of sexual abuse. His prophetic vision sees through haze and hears past chants, cutting open hypocrisy of religious self-interest.
I know some will wonder if we lack discernment, dining as we did with the head of a church many see as heretical. As an Evangelical, I’m clear in the importance of the Reformation and the role our community plays in announcing the Good News. I celebrate our understanding of the Scriptures as our only and final authority, the priesthood of every believer, the life-giving moment of rebirth and freedom for churches and ministries to spring up under the inspiration of the Spirit. No one is interested in rewinding the clock. Also to construct a united church isn’t doable and neither is it in our interest. Such plans do not lead us to fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that we be one in Christ.
My counter argument to those who might dismiss friendship with the pope is this. For Evangelicals and Protestants, of all shapes and sizes, the state and condition of the Roman Catholic Church matters. Of the over 2 billion Christians, one-half are linked to the Vatican. About 600 million are Evangelicals and another 550 million members of the World Council of Churches, (which includes the Orthodox Churches). As a world body, it is our calling to have contact with other major Christian communities and faiths. Conferencing with Rome no more compromises our doctrinal commitments than it would by meeting with the heads of other religions. We do that as a natural and important role of our calling. In places where Evangelicals are marginalized, having this official connection allows us to raise issues and ask for responses we would never otherwise get.
In a worldwide community of faith, the work and role of each Christian community matters. Given that 50 percent of those who call themselves Christian affiliate with Rome, when its spiritual and ethical authority is diminished it affects the entire world. When Rome loses her way, when corruption characterizes her financial dealings, when sexual scandals rob her of moral influence, when she fades from view in strongly declaring the nature of faith we all lose.
It’s fair to ask what kind of Catholic Church we as Evangelicals want to see. At lunch I asked Pope Francis what his heart was for evangelism. He smiled, knowing what was behind my question and comment was, “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.” (Of course Evangelicals do evangelize Catholics and Catholics do the same to us. However, that discussion we will raise another day.)
We spoke about how in our diversity we might find unity and strength. Borrowing from Swiss Protestant theologian Oscar Cullman, we reflected how “reconciled diversity” allows us to stand within our own understandings of how Christ effects salvation. And then we press on to deal with global issues like religious freedom and justice and other matters, which affect our wellbeing.
We are in the middle of a major religious shakeup worldwide. The Middle East is on the edge of what we know not. Islam is on the rise. The Gospel witness permeates much of the global south. So what of the future?
A vibrant pope, spiritually vital, tough in ethical leadership and competent in overseeing his world communion is critical. What he says and does has a profound affect on us all.
Evangelicals need not hide behind fear of engagement. Working on human suffering and matters of injustice with Christians who have a different tradition and read the biblical text differently does not violate who we are or what we believe
Working on the world stage, it is evident there is respect for our distinctive evangelical message and regard for our responsibility and calling to represent our Christian community. International cooperation among Christians is built on that respect.
Brian C Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance