CASERTA, Italy — Pope Francis made a private visit to Caserta on Monday, his second trip to the southern Italian city in three days.

The purpose of this visit was to meet an old friend from Buenos Aires, pastor Giovanni Traettino, and greet evangelicals and members of the community Traettino founded, the Pentecostal Church of the Reconciliation.

After arrival by helicopter soon after 10am and greeting Traettino and his family, Pope Francis was welcomed by nearly 350 Pentecostals, who had traveled to Caserta from around Italy, as well as from the United States and South America.

According to La Stampa, he acknowledged that “some people are surprised that the Pope has come to find evangelicals.” But for him, he said, “I came to find brothers.”

He continued: “It is a temptation to say, 'I am the Church'; you are a sect. Jesus prayed for unity. The Holy Spirit brings diversity to the Church. He makes diversity. But the same Holy Spirit brings unity, and the Church is one in its diversity — a diversity reconciled by the Holy Spirit.”

The Pope then addressed the sensitive issue of persecution against Pentecostals by Italian fascists in the 1920s and 1930s. Noting that Catholics were among the perpetrators, he said: “I am the shepherd of Catholics, and I ask forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who didn’t understand and were tempted by the devil.”

He also recalled how Pentecostal worship was banned and remembered the many Pentecostal pastors and believers who were arrested. According to La Stampa, the persecution dates back to April 9, 1935, when the Italian fascists sent a circular forbidding worship of Pentecostals because they “expressed extrinsically and concretely religious practices that are contrary to the social order and harmful to the physical and mental integrity of the race.” As a result of this circular, Pentecostal pastors and their followers were arrested and imprisoned.

Asking Forgiveness

Speaking to Vatican Radio, Traettino said pardon and reconciliation were at the heart of the Pope’s words, and to loud applause, the Holy Father asked forgiveness for the words and actions of Catholics who have persecuted Pentecostals in the past.

Calling the Pope “my beloved brother,” Traettino said the evangelical community was “deeply grateful” for the visit, which would have been “unthinkable” until very recently. He said many evangelicals “pray daily” for the Pope and see his election as the work of the Holy Spirit.

He said the Pope stressed that “all of us are sinners” but that each person must continue to “walk boldly” in the presence of the Lord. “Quoting from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, Pope Francis spoke of the diversity of the body of Christ, but he stressed that diversity is reconciled to unity through the action of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Luca Baratto, a pastor from the Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches, said the Pope’s apology was unexpected and greatly appreciated.

“It is very important to remember the racial laws through which the Pentecostals were victims under fascism,” he told the Italian news agency AKI. “We really appreciate the opening of dialogue by this pope.”


Forging Relationships

Following the encounter, Pope Francis had lunch with members of the Pentecostal community in Caserta and returned by helicopter to the Vatican later on Monday afternoon.

Notably absent from the gathering was Pentecostal Bishop Tony Palmer, also an old acquaintance of the Pope from the Holy Father’s days in Buenos Aires. Last January, Palmer used his smartphone to record a message from Pope Francis to send to a Pentecostal conference in the United States. Palmer died July 20 from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in England.

Francis is particularly keen on establishing good relationships with evangelicals, convinced that even though disagreements exist over doctrine, it is still possible to love Christ and witness to him together. He has also sought to heal previous hurt caused by Catholics in the past and to apologize for these wrongs on the Church’s behalf.

Over the past year, he has met and received groups of Pentecostals at his St. Martha residence. During a meeting in June, evangelical pastor Brian Stiller caused a stir when, recalling his conversation with the Pope, he said the Pope told him he “was not interested in converting evangelicals to Catholicism” and that he wished that people “find Jesus in their own community.” Although the remarks have not been verified, the Vatican has not denied them.


Second Trip to Caserta

This was Pope Francis’ second visit to Caserta in 72 hours, having celebrated a public Mass there and met the region’s priests on Saturday, the feast day of St. Anne, the city’s patron saint. In his homily, the Pope warned against corruption and lawlessness and underlined the importance of safeguarding the environment. The city is notorious for the Camorra organized crime gang.

After today’s prayer ceremony, the Pope dined with about 70 guests, mostly evangelical pastors with their families, at a local guesthouse.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.