A personal testimony
I first met Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, in 2001. That year has a special place in the memory of all Argentinians: in the month of December we were forced to face the worse economic and social crisis in our history. Concurrently, the National Council of Evangelicals and the Argentine Catholic Episcopacy were meeting for the first time in order to work on a new law for religious equality.
After the opening devotional, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke, saying, “We can’t be in here working on this new law while outside our people are convulsed and desperate.” He continued with a new proposal for the meeting, saying, “Let’s plan to do something together. Let’s gather all our resources for the service of the people.”
Two years later, as a consequence of a visit by Professor Matteo Calisi, a key figure in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, we began a process to regularly bring together evangelical pastors and laypeople with Catholic priests. This resulted in the formation of CRECES (the Renovated Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Holy Spirit). Our purpose was: “To proclaim Jesus Christ.” Cardinal Bergoglio has totally supported this initiative.
An important highlight of the CRECES movement was the Third Encounter in June 2006. After expressing his joy upon seeing the multitude of evangelicals and Catholics in what he called “a reconciled diversity,” and sharing a brief message, Cardinal Bergoglio asked, as was his custom, that we pray for him. Those of us who were on the platform gathered around him. The photograph of the kneeling Cardinal surrounded by pastors laying their hands on him had an unexpected impact. A Catholic magazine published the photo on its cover with the large headline, “APOSTATE!”
Nevertheless, and in spite of internal pressures, the support of the Cardinal and his personal relationship with evangelical pastors continued to grow. He promoted several retreats between priests and pastors in which he personally participated, and he encouraged the joint distribution of Bibles, as well as evangelistic efforts and anything that promoted unity between Christians and exalted Jesus Christ.
Two years ago, we evangelical pastors were invited to a Pentecost Sunday mass in the central cathedral. After finishing his homily, Cardinal Bergoglio addressed the crowd, telling how Catholics had persecuted evangelicals. He concluded by publically asking pardon.
We continued meeting for prayer several times a year, whether in his office or in one of ours. We grew to know him as a man of great wisdom and deep spirituality. I called him the day before he left for Rome. At the end of our conversation, he asked, as he always did: “Pray for me.”
Opportunities and challenges
The Catholic Church is passing through one of its worst moments: child abuse scandals, corruption in the Vatican with hints of connections to the Mafia, crisis in the vocational ministries, massive losses of the faithful, and other issues face it. Francis knows that he has accepted the challenge of becoming Pope in order to bring about deep changes.
In the early days of his papacy he has given some interesting signals. Now he has the challenge of moving beyond gestures into the reality of actions. It will not be easy. Both the moving on of the previous Pope and the election of a new Pope continue to cause worldwide commotion for various reasons, not necessarily religious.
It falls on us as men and women of faith to try to discern the times, to understand how the Lord of history is moving in the election of Francis and what he is saying. Let us look at a few signs:
- Upsurge of religious fervour. In many cases this reflects a chauvinistic attitude and in other cases is an expression of popular religion that is not necessarily Christian. But it also certainly expresses a hunger and thirst for God. Millions of people on our continent live in a spiritual desert, and they are seeking God.
- The power of personal testimony. The impact of Francis comes, not from his discourses (although his words are both powerful and meaningful), but from his life. People are talking about what he did, not what he said. What appear to be devastating arguments from his accusers melt before the testimony of his life.
- The power of love. His gestures of respect and good will toward President Christina Kirchner of Argentina have led to reconciliation and broken the fiery spirit of confrontation that has dominated our society.
- The value of poverty. Francis’s poverty is not poverty in the sense of a lack of goods that leads to misery, but poverty as an attitude of life that gives to one’s neighbor, lives with simplicity, and prioritizes the weakest among us.
While it is certain that many things separate us as evangelicals from the Catholic Church, both in matters of doctrine and of practice, I sense that God is speaking to us in the election of Francis and in what is happening as a result.
- God is calling us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with more fervour and passion. People are desperately seeking God. This is a time of announcement, proclamation, and mission.
- God is calling us to live the gospel. We have crafted a false, hedonist, superficial, emotional gospel. Just as our lives have not changed, neither has our society, in spite of the proliferation of churches. We have fastened our sights on religious marketing strategies that have engorged our churches but not extended the kingdom of God. We need to emphasize the transforming power of the gospel, and this only happens as we teach our people to obey God’s word.
- God is calling us to radically live out his love, by loving and accepting our neighbour, selflessly offering our service, and becoming instruments of reconciliation.
- God is calling us to a lifestyle that honours his gospel. Some are preaching a false gospel of prosperity and consumerism. Many of our leaders have become priests of the god Mammon, the god of riches. This is a ‘gospel’ that exalts the worse aspects of human nature: egotism, ambition, and vanity. It is time to return to the simplicity of the gospel.
The challenge is huge. Because of this, God is calling into unity those of us who believe in Jesus Christ and intend to be faithful to him, be we Catholics or evangelicals. It is not to an institutional unity, but a unity in the holiness of God’s word, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in mission. Pope Francis has before him the difficult tasks of cleansing the church, ridding her of idolatry, putting her on a path toward holiness, and preaching Jesus Christ. He cannot do it alone, and because he has asked it of us, let us pray for him.