Spiritual Ecumenism: Pope Francis Visits Evangelical/Pentecostal Church in Caserta Italy
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Pope Francis took a trip to Caserta, Italy on Monday, June 28, 2014. He visited with a friend named Giovanni Traettino who pastors an evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal protestant Church. This friend of Francis oversees the growing evangelical Church of the Reconciliation. The brotherly warmth between these two Christian men was evident in their embrace and shared in their message of reconciliation and brotherhood in Jesus Christ. The protestant Pastor referred to the Catholic Pope as "my beloved brother." They met in the 1990's when Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.They have worked to bring Christians together for common prayer and concerted action.
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CASERTA, Italy (Catholic Online) - Pope Francis took a trip to Caserta, Italy on Monday, June 28, 2014. He visited with a friend named Giovanni Traettino who pastors an evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal protestant Church.
This friend of Francis oversees the growing evangelical Church of the Reconciliation. The brotherly warmth between these two Christian men was evident in their embrace and shared in their message of reconciliation and brotherhood in Jesus Christ.
The protestant Pastor referred to the Catholic Pope as "my beloved brother." They met in the 1990's when Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.They have worked to bring Christians together for common prayer and concerted action.
The theme of the visit was pardon and reconciliation. That was evident in the humility of Pope Francis when he apologized for the complicity of some Catholics in the persecution of protestant Pentecostals during the fascist regime in Italy. He told the pastor and the two hundred people in attendance:
"Among those who persecuted and denounced the Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazies who would ruin the race, there were some Catholics. As the pastor of the Catholics, I ask forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil."
His friend, a protestant pentecostal pastor, demonstrated the same Christian virtue of humility when he thanked the Pope for this visit which was "unthinkable until recently." He assured Francis that "even among evangelicals there is great affection for you. Many of us pray for you, every day. Many of us, in fact, believe your election as bishop of Rome was the work of the Holy Spirit."
In his remarks, Pope Francis stressed that we are all sinners and that God's love has gathered us all together in and through His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. He quoted from St Paul's letter to the Corinthians. He spoke of a unity in diversity and the role of the Holy Spirit in healing our divisions and bringing us together.
Pope Francis said that "the Holy Spirit is the source of diversity in the church. This diversity is very rich and beautiful. But then the same Holy Spirit creates unity. And in this way the church is one in diversity. To use a beautiful Gospel phrase that I love very much, reconciled diversity."
Pope Francis is working to heal divisions in the broken Body of Christ. He is encouraging courageous efforts at common Christian prayer and cooperation, what is called spiritual ecumenism.
He has raised the water level in this priority for the whole Catholic Church, by bringing his lived experience in Argentina, along with his unique palate of gifts, to the office of Successor of Peter at a prophetic moment in history.
In a teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ, given during his Wednesday audience of June 19, 2013, Francis made an extemporaneous comment which revealed what his life work has revealed. Jorge Mario Bergoglio has always heard the passionate Prayer of Jesus Christ and made it his own:
"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 17:21)
Here are a few heartfelt words from his March message:
"Divisions among us, but also divisions among the communities: evangelical Christians, orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, but why divided? We must try to bring about unity. Let me tell you something, today, before leaving home, I spent 40 minutes more or less, half an hour, with an evangelical pastor. And we prayed together, seeking unity."
"But we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians. Pray that the Lord gift us unity! Unity among ourselves! How will we ever have unity among Christians if we are not capable of having it among us Catholics, in the family, how many families fight and split up? Seek unity, unity builds the Church and comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to build unity!"
With this clear and courageous commitment to unity, Francis has stepped into the trajectory of his two predecessors, Saint John Paul II and His Holiness Benedict XVI. One of his evangelical friends from Argentina, protestant evangelist Luis Palau, was straightforward and enthusiastic about his friendship and prayer with Francis.
His interview with Christianity Today, given the day after the Pope was selected, is well worth the read for anyone wondering where the Pope is headed as he steps into this trajectory of his predecessors and responds to the imperative of healing the divisions among Christians.
A scholar and leader among evangelical Protestants in the United States, Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School, wrote a piece for the same publication which is also a must read. It is entitled, Our Francis, Too: Why we can enthusiastically join arms with the Catholic leader. George wrote:
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"Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict XVI was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd. Catholics and evangelicals are the two largest faith communities in the body of Christ. Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world."
Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. Ecclesiology is the theology of the church. All who are validly Baptized already have a form of communion, albeit incomplete.
We are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for full communion and visible unity our own - in the way that we relate to other Christians, pray with them, walk with them and work with them. We should use the language of communion which the Catholic Church encourages. St . John Paul II wrote in an encyclical letter on unity:
"It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters."
"Again, the very expression "separated brethren" tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions."
"Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities".
"The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes" There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ."
John Paul also wrote concerning the urgency of building good relationships with other Christians:
"Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant".
"This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved."
There is an adage in the Gospels which has application in this arena, "To those to whom much is given, much more will be required" (Luke 12:48). Yet, one of the most difficult obstacles in making progress toward the visible unity of the Church is the reticence of some Catholics to accept the leadership of the Magisterium, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the Catholic Church on its priority.
Pope Francis, in a bold, deliberate, prophetic and loving manner, is now showing us the way to walk the talk. Let us take our lead from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These paragraphs are found in the section entitled "Wounds to Unity". I share them because I do not believe that many Catholics even know they are in the Catechism:
"817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."
820 "Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit."
The papal trip to Caserta was consistent with the mission of spiritual ecumenism in which Pope Francis is enthusiastically engaged. It challenges us to live our lives differently. The trip certainly had its detractors, both Protestant and Catholic. However, now that it has happened, the emphasis should be on the work which is to be done. This good Christian, Pope Francis, went to pray with another good Christian, Pastor Giovanni Traettino.
It is really not all that complicated.
This kind of brotherly affection in the Lord, and shared prayer between Christians, is what the Catechism refers to as spiritual ecumenism. In addressing the topic the Catechism commends "prayer in common, because "change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name 'spiritual ecumenism (#861)
Some Catholic journalists, including John Allen, have speculated that with the untimely death of Bishop Tony Palmer, some of the momentum in this mission of spiritual ecumenism may slow down. I disagree. This work of the Holy Spirit is only in the early stages of an historic movement which is about to change history.
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