A recent meeting of ministers associated with the prosperity-preaching Word of Faith branch of charismatic Christianity received a surprise announcement: Pope Francis had sent a message to the conference. It was something of a historic moment.
Beginning around the thirty-minute mark of the above video, Francis speaks in Italian and English subtitles are provided at the bottom. As part of his greeting, the pope chose to highlight two themes, his joy at their desire to worship together in prayer to the Father for the Spirit to come and his yearning for Christians to become one again.
Francis described the current state of Christianity as one of separated families, by which he meant both biological families and the family of God. It was not lost on the Holy Father that the fractures in Christianity are also fractures between individuals. He asks, “Who is to blame for this separation?” and answers, “We all share the blame. We have all sinned.” Such a statement expresses the fraternity Francis wishes to restore, nothing more, nothing less. He went on to say that his desire is for this separation to end and a communion to begin again.
Francis referenced the reunion between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. While the brothers journeyed to Egypt to buy food, they in fact discovered a long lost family member. Such a serendipitous union is what Francis desires. He then said that both groups have great cultural riches, religious riches, and diverse traditions, “but we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love.”
He concluded his greeting by saying that he was speaking to the group of ministers as a brother and in a simple manner. His desire was that through the joy of proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Lord of history, a desire to embrace one another as family might grow. He then told the audience to pray for him as a way of giving one another a spiritual embrace. When the greeting concluded charismatic minister Kenneth Copeland, who was hosting the conference, took the stage and led the conference in a prayer for Pope Francis.
That the pope would say this to a group of charismatic ministers in the United States is significant, all the more so since a pope who identifies so much with Il Poverello, Francis of Assisi, was speaking to a branch of the charismatic movement that emphasizes prosperity.
It seems to me that Francis models for us how dialogue can move forward. It must begin with a mutual embrace that refuses to give in to stereotypes about the other. Yes, there are clear doctrinal differences, which Francis does not deny. His greeting, however, suggests that the hard task of finding common ground begins with calling one another brother and sister. Francis did not rush to offer a theological critique of the prosperity gospel although he certainly could have. Instead, he presented the option of moving closer theologically by mutual recognition and embrace. I have been privileged to do just that through Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Francis has invited all of us to do the same.
When people wonder why Evangelicals embrace Francis, they fail to see that Jorge Bergoglio had been connecting with evangelicals through the charismatic movement for quite some time. This greeting resulted from a relationship that Pope Francis has had with the broader charismatic movement in general and Tony Palmer in particular, who facilitated the connection. Tony Palmer’s vision to bring Christians together merged with Pope Francis’ vision to make this greeting possible. My own colleague at Regent, Vinson Synan has had more than one audience with Archbishop Bergoglio.
There is a way forward together. It’s not easy. But it may just be that we need a man who embodies the spirit of Francis of Assisi. Who will make the surprising moves of crossing lines to speak just as Francis of Assisi did when he broke through the crusader soldiers to speak to the caliph, Malik-al-Kamil. Once again Pope Francis has pointed us toward a future bright with possibility.