Francis, Ecumenism, and the Common Witness to Christ

Focusing on Evangelicals and Pentecostals rather than “historical” Protestant denominations, Pope Francis has taken a new approach to ecumenical efforts.

Although ecumenism has received increased attention from Church authorities at all levels in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, during his short period of time as pontiff Pope Francis has approached this area with a new twist, one characterized by personal outreaches specifically addressed to the world of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity and disconnected from the official activity of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Catholic Church being the mammoth institution that it is—with an estimated 1.2 billion out of the approximately two billion Christians in the world, under one highly visible leader in Rome—ecumenism comes more naturally to it than to smaller groups, which can be understandably afraid of being swallowed whole in the process of reconciliation. But today we see a growing cooperation among the recognized leaders from Christian communities of both the East and the West. The most active among these is Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who began tearing down the walls of separation with John Paul II, worked closely with Benedict XVI, and has been present for Francis from the very outset of his papacy. Also conspicuous are the actions of Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who recently surprised everybody by inviting a Catholic ecumenical community, Chemin Neuf (“A New Walk”), to live in his historic residence, Lambeth Palace, in order to pray and work for unity.

But prominent as they may be in the eyes of the man on the street, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy today represent a minority of non-Catholic Christians. Since the middle of the past century, and especially since the beginning of the 1970s, there has been a sea change in the composition of Christianity worldwide. According to a 2011 Pew Forum report, about half of the world’s Christians are Catholic, 12 percent are Orthodox, and 37 percent are “Protestants, broadly defined.” The same study reported that “there are about 279 million pentecostal Christians and 305 million charismatic Christians in the world” and that “according to this analysis, pentecostal and charismatic Christians together make up about 27 percent of all Christians and more than 8 percent of the world’s total population.” (Charismatics, as the study defines them, include Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.) There are roughly 285 million Evangelicals worldwide, which means that, together, Evangelicals and Pentecostals total nearly 400 million. Meanwhile, the number of “historic Protestants” (Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc.) and Anglicans continues to shrink overall.

Nonetheless, to many Catholic specialists in ecumenism, even though an official international Catholic/Pentecostal dialogue has been in existence since 1972 and has issued five joint statements, dialogue with the Protestants still means dialogue with the shrinking “historical” churches—represented by World Council of Churches—many of which accept abortion and a few of which also accept homosexual “marriage.”

By contrast, Pope Francis’ ecumenical focus has been on the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds, reflecting not only a realistic attention to demographics, but also—judging by the concluding document of the 2007 Aparecida Conference, primarily authored by then-Cardinal Bergoglio—his experience in Latin America.

World-wide, the media woke up to what was going on at the end of July, when the Pope went on a “private” visit to a Pentecostal church in Caserta, Italy. The event concluded with a historic first: an apology from the Pope for any hand Catholics may have had in the persecution of Pentecostals in Italy in the 1930s.

But Caserta was only the latest of many events coming within the compass of the Holy Father’s efforts to reach out to Evangelicals and Pentecostals. In the first half of 2014 the customary visits to the Vatican included prominent Evangelicals such as the Green family, the American owners of Hobby Lobby, famous for having filed a successful lawsuit against the Obama administration in the name of religious freedom. On June 4, what the Vatican Information Services noted simply as “Doug Coe of the National Prayer Breakfast, U.S.A., and entourage” was actually a very prestigious, unofficial delegation that included famed “Prosperity Gospel” preacher and bestselling author Joel Osteen, but also Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a Mormon, and former US Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, along with the president of interdenominational Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Gayle D. Beebe, and Pastor Tim Timmons, founder of South Coast Community Church, also in California.

Then, on June 24, there was an unprecedentedly long, informal meeting and lunch at Domus Sanctae Martae with famed televangelist James Robison and his wife; the two top officers of the World Evangelical Alliance, Global Ambassador Brian Stiller and Secretary General Geoff Tunnicliffe; Kenneth Copeland, whose ministry belongs to the Word of Faith Movement; John and Carol Arnott, co-presidents of Catch the Fire Ministries in Toronto; and Evangelical Episcopalian Bishop Anthony Palmer.

The backdrop to this unprecedented meeting was the response to an iPhone video message which was recorded by the Pope in January and addressed a conference organized by Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Texas. With the customary “come-as-you-are” style we have come to know, the Pontiff climbed over bastions of anti-Catholic prejudice with simple words centered on the concept of nostalgia: a yearning for a return to lost unity, a desire to achieve a missing fullness, a disarming invitation to simply come together to witness to the beauty of the love of Christ.

Delivering the introduction to Pope Francis’ video message was the man on whose iPhone it was recorded, Evangelical Episcopal Bishop Tony Palmer, founder of an ecumenical community called The Ark. Brought up in South Africa, married to an Italian, and living in the UK, Palmer had met then-Cardinal Bergoglio in 2006 as a member of a delegation to the archbishop of Buenos Aires headed by Matteo Calisi, then president of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships. It was the Pope who, in one of his surprise telephone calls, had asked his old friend Tony—“a nobody from South Africa,” as Palmer described himself—to come and see him the next time he was in Rome, and together they came up with the idea of the video message.

In introducing the Pope’s message, Palmer provided scriptural context (“a spirit of reconciliation”) as well as up-to-date information on the Lutheran position of sola fide, calling the audience’s attention to the 1999 Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, signed  by the Roman Catholic Church and the world-wide Lutheran Federation (and by the Methodist Church in 2006). Although the Lutherans, together with all the other historical Reformed churches, are now a minority among the world’s Protestants, with this agreement the Catholic Church had already made an acknowledgment of considerable historical weight: we Roman Catholics and Protestants of the Lutheran Church believe and confess that by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving works and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

“This brought an end to the protest of Luther,” Palmer told his audience. “We preach the same gospel now!” Looking around, after a pause, he added: “Luther’s protest is over. Is yours?

His introduction to Pope Francis’ video message, which is available online, is Bishop Palmer’s legacy. In late July he lost his life in a motorbike accident in England.

Changes in style, not substance

As ever with Pope Francis, the novelty was not in the substance, but in the approach. And his approach to ecumenism has a distinctly Charismatic character, as he himself explains in this excerpt from a book just out from the publishing house of the Italian Renewal in the Holy Spirit (RnS), called Il Cardinale Bergoglio al Rinnovamento:

I don’t believe in a definitive ecumenism, much less do I believe in the ecumenism that as its first step gets us to agree on a theological level. I think we must progress in unity, participating together in prayer and in the works of charity.  And this I find in the Renewal. Now and then we get together with a few pastors and stop and pray together for about an hour. This has been made possible thanks to the Charismatic Renewal, both on the evangelical side and on the Catholic side.

The Pope’s extraordinary familiarity with the Charismatic Renewal, which directly resulted in his visit to the Pentecostal Church of Reconciliation in Caserta, was also on display at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on June 1. Here, for a special edition of the annual convocation of RnS, co-organized for the occasion by the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Service and the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships, one could see Jorge Bergoglio in his element. He knew the ropes—and the history—and had specific instructions for the people that the Charismatic Renewal could relate to (“Don’t be the controllers of God’s grace, but the dispensers. … Don’t be the ‘customs office’ of the Spirit…. Remember that the Charismatic Renewal is by its very nature ecumenical…”), down to even asking for a kneeler for the customary invocation of the Holy Spirit, just like any other speaker might before giving a talk at a Charismatic Renewal meeting.

One particularly meaningful admonishment to the 52,000 rank-and-file members of the Charismatic Renewal who had turned out to see him provides the backdrop to the Pope’s ecumenical outlook: “In the beginning, they used to say you always had a Bible on you wherever you went: do you still take it with you? I’m not so sure about that! Come back to this first love, keeping the Word of God in your pocket. Read a little piece, always the Word of God. You, people of God and people of the Renewal, be careful not to lose the freedom that the Holy Spirit has given us. The risk, for the Renewal, as our dear Father Raniero Cantalamessa so often says, is that of over-organizing….”

These words have gone practically uncommented upon, but before the Catholic media went into permanent surprise-mode (ready by now to rein in their bewilderment and proclaim normality at every turn), it would have made headlines for a pope to admonish the faithful, and particularly a Charismatic crowd, with “read your Scripture and hold on to your freedom.” 

A snapshot from an ecumenical Charismatic meeting in Buenos Aires in 2006 captures the Jesuit Pope crossing paths with the Charismatic Renewal. In it, then-Cardinal Bergoglio—metropolitan archbishop of Buenos Aires, primate of the Catholic Church in Argentina, and president of the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference—is kneeling, head bowed, between Father Raniero Cantalamessa and Catholic Charismatic leader Matteo Calisi, with Evangelical Pastor Carlos Mraida extending his hand toward the cardinal’s head, as the people invoke the Holy Spirit over him.

Calisi, who began “reconciliation dialogue” with the pastor of the Pentecostal church in Caserta, Rev. Giovanni Traettino, back in the 1980s, and who is  a co-founder in Argentina of the Renewed Fellowship between Catholics and Evangelicals in the Holy Spirit, considers the document from Aparecida a clear articulation of the Holy Father’s ecumenical standpoint:  “Anti-Catholic prejudice has been known to be very aggressive in Latin America,” he remarks, “But in Argentina, Peru, and parts of Brazil, where the European influence is greater, Evangelicals are more moderate and open to dialogue. Therefore Cardinal Bergoglio was able to reach out to the most open among these groups, and he conveyed this method to the bishops at Aparecida in 2007. The resulting document did away with the disparaging word ‘sects,’ referring rather to ‘religious groups,’ and focusing more on the sociological and experiential aspects than on the theology. This has been disarming. ”

Pope Francis’ effort to win the friendship of Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders has set the ball rolling for a new era of ecumenical discussion. In the short term, defenses are coming down in certain quarters, while in others the reactions range from gratitude to panic. The response has been solidly positive from those directly involved in the Holy Father’s initiatives, but others have been quick to sound the alarm, particularly at the apology extended to the Catholic Church by the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, Geoff Tunnicliff, following Francis’ example in Caserta.

But even before Caserta, on July 19, the Italian Evangelical Alliance, claiming to speak for almost all Italian Pentecostals and 85 percent of the country’s Protestants, had issued a declaration that called on “all Evangelicals at the national and international levels” to avoid falling into the trap of “unionist initiatives that are contrary to Scripture.” The document, signed by the Federation of Pentecostal Churches, the Assemblies of God in Italy, the Apostolic Church, and the Pentecostal Congregations, described the Catholic Church as an “imperial church” that does not “follow the example of Jesus, who came to serve and not to be served.” It expressed determination to resist “the mounting ecumenical pressure from the Roman Catholic Church to expand its catholicity at the expense of biblical truth.” 

Could Pope Francis be so naïve as to think that the extended hand of the Roman Pontiff might lead, ipso facto, to the holy grail of doctrinal agreement? Hardly. His clearly stated objective was to achieve a common witness before the world to “the beauty of the love of Christ,” an end to the scandal of divisiveness and hostility, if not to division. These goals sit well within the bounds of his top pastoral priority: evangelization. To Pope Francis, in order to bring non-believers to Christ, it is imperative to take seriously Christ’s prayer, “That they all may be one” (John 17:21). As he elaborated in Evangelii Gaudium:

“Given the seriousness of the counter-witness of division among Christians, particularly in Asia and Africa, the search for paths to unity becomes all the more urgent. Missionaries on those continents often mention the criticisms, complaints, and ridicule to which the scandal of divided Christians gives rise. If we concentrate on the convictions we share, and if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly towards common expressions of proclamation, service, and witness. The immense numbers of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent. Consequently, commitment to a unity which helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization” (246)

Some Evangelical and Pentecostal faithful appear to have started paying attention and accepting the possibility that not only individual charismatic Catholics, but the very Catholic Church—including the major stumbling block, the Pope himself—may not be the Whore of Babylon after all.

Newcomers to the ecumenical table tend to think that all the things they are discovering for the first time are radical innovations by Pope Francis, as if no other pope before him had ever gone out to hug the people and kiss the babies and the disabled; as if no other pope had ever asked forgiveness for the past sins of the Catholic Church; as if no other pope had made an outreach to the separated brethren; as if Saint John Paul II hadn’t traveled to mafia country to publicly rebuke criminals, calling them to repent or face the wrath of God; as if no other pope had ever placed emphasis on Jesus or Scripture.

But however much they may hold on to misconceptions about the Church’s past, at least many are now willing to take an unprejudiced look at the present Pope and his leadership of the present Church.

The World Evangelical Alliance’s Brian Stiller made a sober defense of this position in an article called “Lunch with the Pope”: 

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.

A final dramatic moment in ecumenism from the first half of 2014 was the announcement that one of Sweden’s most influential Charismatic pastors, Ulf Ekman, founder of the world-wide Word of Life Movement, had taken a step he had been pondering in his heart for a long time, and, together with his wife, had become Catholic . Although this predictably caused confusion and even pain to some in Ekman’s flock, it must be said here that “sheep-stealing” is not Pope Francis’ purpose. The late Bishop Tony Palmer was careful to point this out: “Pope Francis pulled me up on more than one occasion when I used the expression ‘coming home to the Catholic Church.’ He said, ‘Don’t use this term.’ He told me, ‘No one is coming home. You are journeying towards us and we are journeying towards you and we will meet in the middle. We will meet on the road as we seek each other.’” This is confirmed by Pope Francis’ remarks in Evangelii Gaudium: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicions or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face” for it is not just a matter of being informed but of reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.”

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About Alessandra Nucci 29 Articles
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.

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