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More Catholic Than the Pope? Francis Calls Catholics to Work and Pray with Evangelical Protestants

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On Thursday, November 6, 2014, Pope Francis met with leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance. The Alliance represents over 420 million evangelical Protestant Christians around the world. This meeting garnered very little press but reflects one of the most significant aspects of the new Franciscan papacy. You can read his full message here.

I believe this meeting and address both point to a future of historic and bold initiatives aimed at the healing of age-old wounds. They also invite all Christians — Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox — to an examination of conscience, a rejection of inherited prejudice, and a response of action. Finally, I believe that this is simply one more part of a growing movement toward historic Christian collaboration which is being led by the Holy Spirit.

Along with many others, I have followed with great interest and sincere hope this movement toward healing between evangelical protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. Working alongside of evangelical Protestants in the major issues and causes of our age has been a mainstay of my own life work.

I literally, as the saying goes, “wrote the book on it” decades ago. In my book “Evangelical Catholics“, I coined the phrase twenty five years ago, before it was acceptable in either Protestant or Catholic circles. That book is out of print, but the mission continues.

I am currently writing a book entitled “Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic ” and looking for a major publisher – in the event any representatives of publishing companies are reading this article.

In the Thursday meeting with evangelical Protestant leaders, Francis expressed his hopes that the Holy Spirit will “inaugurate a new stage in the relations between Catholics and Evangelicals–a stage that allows us to realize more fully the will of the Lord to bring the Gospel even to the furthest ends of the earth.”

Pope Francis realistically acknowledges the differences and distinctives in doctrine and practice – as well as the divisions among us. However, he focuses on our common Baptism and shared mission in this decisive moment in Christian history. His message is powerful, prophetic and should be read by every Christian, as well as every other person of faith and good will.

Pope Francis carries the burden for Christian unity in his heart, proclaims it in his words, and steps it into his actions. The hoped for healing of our divisions and call to collaboration proceeded from the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church and was championed by Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

He bears the burden which the priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus should place upon the heart of every Christian, regardless of our confessional identification:

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:21)

That burden should compel our action and inform our prayer. However, the reaction in some circles of the broader catholic community to the bold moves, animated by love, offered by Pope Francis, remind me of new application of the old question, are some Catholic Christians trying to be “more Catholic than the Pope?”

I write this particular article to a mostly Catholic Christian readership. I begin by affirming that I fully embrace the Catholic teaching that the fullness of truth is found within the Catholic Church. Because of that I also carry an immense burden to see the Prayer of Jesus in John 17 answered.

There is a vital connection between these two affirmations. Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with sides and camps at enmity with one another, the Catholic Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God.

However I believe that among all Christians, Catholic Christians have the highest obligation to work toward authentic Christian unity. There is an adage in the Gospels which has an important application in this arena, “To those to whom much is given, much more will be required” (Luke 12:48).

If the fullness of truth subsists (a word carefully chosen) in the Catholic Church, that should not make us haughty, but humble! There is no room for triumphalism. The divisions among Christians should break our hearts, call us to our knees, and move us to exactly the kind of collaboration this Pope is championing.

In a teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ given during a Wednesday audience of June 19, 2013, Pope Francis made an inspiring, personal and extemporaneous comment. It revealed what his life work has revealed for years. Throughout his service as Priest, Bishop and Cardinal, and now Pope, this humble man of God named Jorge Mario Bergoglio clearly hears the passionate Prayer of Jesus Christ:

Here are some of his heartfelt words:

Divisions among us, but also divisions among the communities: evangelical Christians, orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, but why divided? We must try to bring about unity. Let me tell you something, today, before leaving home, I spent 40 minutes more or less, half an hour, with an evangelical pastor. And we prayed together, seeking unity.

But we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians. Pray that the Lord gift us unity! Unity among ourselves! How will we ever have unity among Christians if we are not capable of having it among us Catholics, in the family, how many families fight and split up? Seek unity, unity builds the Church and comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to build unity!

The comfortable way in which he shared from his heart that he had prayed with an evangelical Protestant pastor before giving his Wednesday Catechesis made my heart leap. He is what I often call being comfortable in his Catholic skin. Do we live and act in the same way? To my fellow Catholics, are we comfortable in our Catholic skin?

I have spent years praying and working with evangelical protestants and orthodox Christians, co laboring in the trenches of the culture on the great challenges of our neo-pagan age. I am so very happy to have the Pope make it so clear that this is is a vital part of our task, our call and our mission.

For those who followed the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope, this came as no surprise. One of his evangelical friends from Argentina, protestant evangelist Luis Palau, was straightforward and enthusiastic about his friendship and prayer with Francis.

His interview with Christianity Today, was given the day after Francis was selected as Pope. It is well worth the read for anyone wondering where this Pope is headed as he steps into the trajectory of his predecessors and responds to the imperative of healing the divisions among Christians.

An emerging scholar and leader among evangelical Protestants in the United States, Timothy George, the  dean of Beeson Divinity School, also wrote a piece for the same publication which is also a must read. It is entitled, Our Francis, Too: Why we can enthusiastically join arms with the Catholic leader. George wrote:

Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict XVI was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd. Catholics and evangelicals are the two largest faith communities in the body of Christ. Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world.

On March 20, 2013, Francis spoke these words to delegates of the Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West:

Let us all be intimately united to our Savior’s prayer at the Last Supper, to his invocation: ut unum sint. We call on the merciful Father to be able to fully live the faith that we have received as a gift on the day of our Baptism, and to be able to it free, joyful and courageous testimony. The more we are faithful to his will, in thoughts, in words and in deeds, the more we will truly and substantially walk towards unity.

The Gospel proclaims that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God – and through Him, in the Holy Spirit, with one another- is the plan of God for the entire human race. The Church is the way to that unity. For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord’s plan that the Church be divided. It is His Plan that she be restored to full communion.We are called to participate in that plan.

I am one of many who called Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI the Pope of Christian Unity. He placed the full communion of the Church at the forefront of his Papacy. This was clear in his overtures toward our Orthodox brethren – whom we recognize as a Church and whose priesthood and Sacraments we recognize. It was also evident in his outreach to the separated Christians of the Reformation communities of the West.

On the 4th anniversary of the death of Saint John Paul II, Benedict reminded us of John Paul’s passionate commitment to the full communion of the Church. That teaching is summarized in the Encyclical Letter May they be One (Ut Unum Sint) . To be Catholic is to enter into the prayer of Jesus for the Unity of His Church, and to make it our own, in both word and deed.

In Benedict XVI’s first message as the successor of Peter he signaled his commitment to this unity:

Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope in the Upper Room. The Successor of Peter knows that he must make himself especially responsible for his Divine Master’s supreme aspiration.

Indeed, he is entrusted with the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22: 32). With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter’s current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty.

Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. All who are validly Baptized already have a form of imperfect communion. We are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for full communion and visible unity our own in the way we relate to other Christians. We need to show the love so evident in the words and witness of Benedict, St. John Paul and Francis.

We should learn – and use – the language of communion which the Catholic Church now encourages. Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter on unity:

It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression “separated brethren” tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions.

Today we speak of “other Christians”, “others who have received Baptism”, and “Christians of other Communities”. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as “Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes” There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ.

John Paul also wrote these words concerning the urgency of building good relationships with other Christians:

Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.

This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: “Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved.

Misguided Triumphalism is not the way toward Christian unity. It is not being comfortable in our Catholic skin. We need to reject it. Sadly, it seems to be be reemerging in some segments of the Catholic community – and is all too often championed on some segments of the Catholic blogo-sphere.

One of the most difficult obstacles in making progress toward the visible unity of the Church is the reticence of some Catholics to accept the leadership of the Magisterium, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the clear teaching of the Catholic Church on the priority of Christian cooperation and the goal of full communion among Christians.

Let us take our lead from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as we consider the disunity among Christians, and how we should properly respond. These paragraphs are found in the section of the Catholic Catechism entitled “Wounds to Unity”. I offer them because I have found that many Catholics do not even know they are in the Catechism:

817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism – do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

818 ” However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

819 ” Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”

820 ” Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.” Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.”



 

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