Following the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February 2013, a papal conclave elected Argentine Jorge Bergoglio as his successor. He chose Francis as his papal name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis is the first Jesuit pope and a few months after his election, the newly elected Pope met with Jesuit students of all ages.
A new pope, with a new approach
In a brief Q&A session, a little girl asked Francis if he wanted to be the Pope. He made a few jokes before getting serious and flatly saying, “I didn’t want to be pope.”
Ever since his election, Pope Francis has taken a series of actions that seem to be very, well, un-popelike: He used public transportation as a cardinal, lives in smaller quarters than he could and he humbles himself to ask others for their blessing and prayers.
The people’s pope
Never before has a pope become so widely accepted by Protestants and Evangelicals. As you look at the stories surrounding the new pope, it’s very difficult to dislike him. Through his actions and profound, visible humility, Pope Francis has demonstrated not only Christ-like rhetoric, but also exemplary Christian behaviour. This has brought him respect across the spectrum of Christianity.
Before delivering his message at the Holy Thursday Mass last year, Pope Francis spent time on his knees, washing the feet of young women incarcerated at a nearby prison. This was the first time a pope has ever washed the feet of women - not to mention that one of them was a Serbian Muslim, which is another break in papal tradition.
This type of servant leadership is precisely what has connected the new pope to our younger, more cynical generation. He is breaking the rules in the right places: where they shouldn’t exist.
Embracing humility, rejecting pomp
As Pope Francis accepts his role, a new generation of Evangelicals accepts theirs. As young Evangelicals have rejected the megachurch and the televangelist and embraced a more rugged, grassroots Christianity, these actions by the Pope fit perfectly. He has refused to live in the massive papal quarters in Rome and has chosen to live in the guesthouse, instead.
The youth’s choice
These small things go beyond his radical, public acts of humility and reveal his dedication to simplicity. As Pope Francis leads in simplicity and continues to dedicate himself to living in this way, it will only increase his popularity.
The Pontiff’s simplicity carries over to his language, too. Catholics have always had trouble connecting their message to young people. Many who grew up in the Catholic Church struggled to connect with its liturgy and message. To a newcomer, it’s often overwhelming. But Pope Francis’ language is accessible and concise, which works perfectly with the Twitter-speak of young Christians. His quotes are simple, yet profound: “The Church is a love story, not an institution” and “War is madness. It is the suicide of humanity.”
A contrast to evangelical excess
As we scour the landscape of Evangelical leadership (authors, speakers, mega-church pastors), it is difficult to find a man like Francis. In the age of best-selling books and church auditoriums, we do not see many leaders take the route of Pope Francis. And perhaps this is why the people appreciate him so much: he is leading us in a way we are not leading ourselves right now.
For Catholics and Protestants alike, Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. He did not see the office of Pope as something to be grasped, but instead made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, which is an imitation of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).
A servant leader
This adoption of servanthood has turned critics into followers. Because it’s difficult to be critical of someone who serves the poor and spends time with the victims of the world’s worst violence. Pope Francis knows what
Jesus knows and what many so often forget: True power comes from true humility, and true leadership comes out of true service. 1
So who is this pope?
For many born-again Christians who have never specifically been interested in the Catholic Church or the Pope, Francis has been a figure of curiosity and commendation. Born in 1936 in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario
Bergoglio, worked briefly as a chemical technician and nightclub bouncer, before beginning seminary studies.
He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1969, and became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and later a cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II.
Throughout his public life, both as an individual and as a religious leader, Pope Francis has been noted for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a way to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths. He is known for having a simpler and less formal approach to the papacy.
His position on key Biblical issues
The Pontiff has affirmed Biblical doctrine on abortion and homosexuality. Whilst maintaining the Church’s teaching against homosexual acts, he has said that gay people should not be marginalised. As a cardinal, he opposed same-sex marriage in Argentina. Furthermore, he has emphasised the Christian obligation to assist the poor and the needy. To the disdain of some Christians, he has promoted interfaith dialogue, though merit can be made for his role in furthering peace negotiations in the fractious Middle East battles. Not one to shy away from criticism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also announced a zero-tolerance policy towards sex abuse in the Church.
Building bridges amongst all men
Bergoglio’s approach to relationships with Evangelicals are one of “building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but majoring on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, His virgin birth, His Resurrection, and the Second Coming.
Recently the Pope made a video which is essentially a message to all Christians who identify themselves as born-again. This would include Charismatics, Evangelicals, Traditionals as well as general “Bible Christians.”
A ground breaking video
In his video (which was shown at a Kenneth Copeland conference), Pope Francis makes a heartfelt plea for Born Again Christians to recognise Catholic Christians as spiritual “brethren” and thus embrace each other as such. It is an appeal to recognise and acknowledge Catholics as Christians, and work together in the years ahead, to try to bring unity between the groups. There are no calls for conferences, or meetings, or ecumenical synods.
In the video, the Pope promises to pray for born-again Christians and sends them his blessing. Likewise he asks for the same prayer and blessing in return. Some of the content covered in the video is as follows:
Affirming what Catholics believe
“For those of you who are born-again Christ-ians, there are some common questions you may have about Catholic Christians. Perhaps some of these facts below will be of help...
- We Catholics are Christians. We are very ancient Christians from a very ancient Church.
- We Catholics only worship God as the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We do not worship anyone or anything else. We do not worship Mary. We do not worship the pope. We Catholics trust in Jesus Christ as our one and only Saviour and Lord. We regularly ask Jesus to live inside of us every week at holy mass.
- We Catholics confess our sins to priests, but we ask for forgiveness from God.
- We Catholics do not believe we are saved by our good works apart from God’s grace.We believe God’s grace is present in everything, both our faith and our works, and that it is the Lord alone who saves us through Jesus.
- We Catholics do pray to Mary and the Saints, but when we do, we do so through the Holy Spirit, because we know that to the Christian “death has no sting” and that means the dead in Christ are not dead at all. They are just as connected to the Holy Spirit as we are, if not more so. Protestants may not agree with it, and that is fine, but there is nothing in the Bible against it.
- We Catholics acknowledge, as a matter of faith, that Protestants (those baptised in the name of the Trinity) are our spiritual brethren in Christ. This is written into our Catechism and the most important documents of the Church.” 2
Attempting to foster unity
Pope Francis became the first pope to make an official visit to a Pentecostal church, after he recently spoke at the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation in the southern city of Caserta, Italy. The Pontiff apologised for persecution of Pentecostals the Roman Catholic Church was involved with in the past, and reached out with friendship to Evangelicals.
“Among those who persecuted and denounced Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy people trying to ruin the race, there were also Catholics,” Francis said, referring to Italy’s fascist regime when the Pentecostal practice was forbidden.
“I am the pastor of Catholics, and I ask your forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who didn’t know and were tempted by the devil.” Francis spoke before 350 worshippers at the church and met privately with the Pentecostal preacher Giovanni Traettino.
Acceptance by some in Evangelical quarters
Traettino returned the sentiment, and called Francis “my beloved brother” when welcoming him to the church. He added that there is “great affection” for Francis even among Evangelicals, and said that many pray for the Pope every day. “Many of us, in fact, believe your election as Bishop of Rome was the work of the Holy Spirit,” the Pentecostal pastor added.
Francis and Traettino first met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the late 1990s, where the pastor was establishing ties between Charismatic Catholics and Pentecostal Protestants.
Francis has reached out to other Christian denominations as well with a message of Christian unity, and in June told Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, during a meeting, that their division is a hindrance to preaching the Gospel. “We cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the world,” Francis told the Anglican head. Pope Francis urged Christians to celebrate their unity and their diversity, the latest in a string of ecumenical overtures toward Protestants.
Reticence and warning from other Evangelical leaders
Despite Pope Francis’s unprecedented visit to a Pentecostal church and apology for past treatment of Pentecostals by Catholics, many Italian Evangelical leaders remain concerned about how Evangelicals in the United States (and other nations) are cosying up to the popular pontiff.
“There is much naiveté and superficiality,” wrote Italian church planter Leonardo De Chirico. “Some analysis is based on personal impressions or the seemingly Evangelical language of the Pope, or on truncated bits of information that fall short of taking notice of the complexity of Roman Catholicism.”
An overwhelming majority of Italy’s Evangelical churches and organisations - including leaders for the Italian Evangelical Alliance (IEA), the Federation of Pentecostal Churches, and the Assemblies of God in Italy - agree with De Chirico (or at least did so before the Pope’s apology). The statement stresses that “it is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture to have a church that operates as mediator of salvation and that presents other figures as mediators of grace since God’s grace comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8) and without the agency of other mediators (1 Timothy 2:5).”
Church leaders also note that “What appear to be similarities with the Evangelical faith and spirituality of sectors of Roman Catholicism are not, in themselves, reasons for hope in a true change.”
United we stand, divided we fall...?
Brian Stiller, the World Evangelical Alliance’s global ambassador, explained the rationale behind building bridges with the papacy: “I know some will wonder if we lack discernment, dining as we did with the head of a church many see as heretical...No one is interested in rewinding the clock. Such plans do not lead us to fulfil 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. In places where Evangelicals are marginalised, having this official connection allows us to raise issues and ask for responses we would never otherwise get.”3
With Catholic Church membership in 2011 at 1.214 billion (17.5% of the world population), it seems Stiller has a valid point. With the rise of extremist Islamic terrorists, liberal Western governments, and increasingly apathetic young people, perhaps the time has come for Christians to find common ground with their Catholic counterparts, and, following the Pope’s example, reach out to a lost and dying world.
By Jackie Georgiou