WASHINGTON — As Pope Francis visits a evangelical Protestant church in Italy today and is expected to offer an apology for the sins of Catholics, evangelical leaders in the United States who met him recently have praised him for promoting a deeper understanding between Christians and a focus on having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis is set to preach at the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation in Caserta, a church about 130 miles south of Rome, which is run by pastor Giovanni Traettino, whom he knew from Buenos Aires,.
After the visit was announced, Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), revealed on his blog that the Holy Father had privately informed them during a meeting in late June, organized by the late evangelical Bishop Tony Palmer with evangelical leaders at the Vatican, that he was going to make this visit and why.
“He listened and then told a remarkable story,” Stiller recounted. “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.”
James Robison, a founding pastor and televangelist with his wife, Betty, of the LIFE Outreach International, was there as well. He told the Register he believed the Pope wanted to correct and see healing for the wrongs against any person.
“He thinks there was reason to apologize to this group, and I clearly got the impression [he seeks to apologize] to evangelicals and Protestants in other parts of the world where Catholics had in any way been unkind [to them],” he said.
Robison said he and the others went back and forth with the Pope through a translator. He emphasized that they communicated to the Pope that they are encouraging fellow Christians to build Christ-filled relationships with Catholics.
“One of the things that we try to do, and I think the Pope appreciated that, is to stop the unkind attacks from Protestants on Catholics and really seek understanding,” he said.
Robison added, “Both sides still need to learn; both sides have repentance to do to answer for their very un-Christlike attitude toward one another. We need understanding of the times, like the men of Issachar under King David, and in order to do that, we need to have a better understanding of one another.”
Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general and CEO of the WEA, said the opportunity to spend personal time with Pope Francis was helpful.
“I have discovered through years of building relationships of trust and friendship that you can have a deeper and more authentic dialogue,” he said. Tunnicliffe said he could not speak for the Italian evangelicals, but he saw the gesture as a positive reminder for Catholics and evangelicals to work for greater respect and understanding of each other.
“On the wider front, there are countries in which evangelicals are marginalized, and in some real cases, maligned and hurt by bishops and those in power who are Roman Catholic,” he said.
“It really matters to us at this global level, to have understanding on what each of us can do when one group is harassed by the other,” Tunnicliffe added. “This we will seek to do in our growing working relationship with the Vatican.”
Personal Relationship With Jesus
Part of the evangelical leaders’ discussion with Pope Francis emphasized the need for all Christians to develop a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
“It was obvious in his language that his personal sense of following Christ was high on his priorities,” Tunnicliffe said. “I’ve always suspected that he was a devotional person.”
Robison said he and Pope Francis spent much time discussing that true Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, must “have a real relationship with Christ.”
“And this Pope wants everyone to have a personal encounter and personal relationship with Christ — and not just be satisfied with being christened, baptized or confirmed. … Because you can have a religion and miss Christ,” he said.
“That was a very strong impression, and that was the reason for our high five. He gave the first papal high five to me, saying he wants everybody to know Christ. I think that’s wonderful.”
Tunnicliffe said the discussion was “more personal” than discussing any action agenda, which he expected would come in later meetings.
“We did connect at a heart level on some issues of deep mutual concern, including persecuted Christians, the poor and the marginalized,” he said.
Robison said he told Pope Francis that many people in the United States had been claiming that his apostolic letter The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) was “promoting socialism, statism and collectivism.”
“He made very clear with great conviction that was absolutely not the case,” he said. “In other words, no new pharaoh to depend on. We depend on God, and in order for people to succeed, he understood that freedom is an imperative for us to be prosperous and to have the ability to alleviate suffering and help the poor.”
“He thoroughly understood my concern, which is you can’t gain wealth and hand it off to a government entity to then become the source and all-provident caretaker of the people,” Robison said, “where they depend on that source rather than looking to God. And the people, who have handed off personal responsibility to really care for their neighbor and love them, they never have personal contact with the very people they made feel entitled.”
A meeting of this kind, however, is not without risks for the evangelical leaders, who face criticism from some in Christian churches of compromising their beliefs by meeting with the Pope.
Stiller anticipated the criticism in his blog post and said that while their doctrines differ from the Catholic Church, evangelicals should not “dismiss friendship with the Pope.”
“For evangelicals and Protestants of all shapes and sizes, the state and condition of the Roman Catholic Church matters,” he said, adding that when “its spiritual and ethical authority is diminished, it affects the entire world, and when she fades from view in strongly declaring the nature of faith, we all lose. 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 effect on us all.”
Robison said he has heard the charge from some evangelicals that the Pope is trying to pull the wool over their eyes and just wants them to become members of the Catholic Church.
“I don’t agree with that assessment,” Robison said. “I hear him saying really love Christ.”
He said the focus that he and the Pope shared was on “making disciples of Christ.”
“He wants everyone to come to Christ personally,” Robison said, adding that the Pope has reminded Catholics to recognize that non-Catholic Christians are also part of Christ’s church.
“Everybody who knows Christ is part of his body, which is his church.”
Bishop Palmer’s Legacy
But at the Pope’s historic visit, one important evangelical leader will be missing, although no doubt present in spirit. Evangelical Bishop Tony Palmer, a member of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, was expected to accompany Pope Francis to the Pentecostal church in Caserita. Tragically, he died July 20 in a head-on collision with a motorist driving the wrong way down a highway in England.
In January, Palmer shared a video message from Pope Francis taken on his iPhone, in which the Holy Father gave a heartfelt message to Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland and his church.
Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries said in a statement provided to the Register that Palmer “became a bridge between Catholics and Protestants in the body of Christ.”
He noted that Palmer and Pope Francis developed a strong friendship during their time in Argentina and that they became “spiritual father and son in the Lord.”
Copeland said the video message from Pope Francis that Bishop Palmer brought to his congregation was “a marvelous and very anointed moment in all our lives” and eventually led to the Pope’s invitation for him and seven others to meet with Pope Francis.
“We all, hosted by Tony, had one of the most anointed and wonderful experiences of our lives,” he said. “The bridge was built, and we stood on it together in the glorious presence of a very pleased Lord and Savior.”
Tunnicliffe said that while Palmer has passed from this life into the next, others will continue to carry on the work of building spiritual unity among Christians, despite differences of doctrines or organizations.
“There are many, like Bishop Tony, whose legacy has been to inspire new levels of understanding and true fellowship.”
Robison said the crash that cost Palmer his life showed that the devil, “the deceiver and the destroyer,” seeks to stop the prayer of Christ for “true believers becoming one with the Father and with one another, in supernatural unity. I just pray that Christians will fearlessly and faithfully seek to learn what it really means to love one another and God the Father and the lost world that Jesus came to redeem.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.