Pope Francis and the evangelicals, part one Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Part one of a two-part series.

The whole Christian world has watched with fascination as Pope Francis, over the past several months, has reached out to evangelicals.

Who can forget the mesmerizing iPhone video, filmed by the pope’s (late) friend Bishop Tony Palmer, in which the Bishop of Rome communicated, with father-like compassion, to a national gathering of American evangelical leaders?

His smile, his tone of voice, and the simple, direct words that he chose constituted a bridge between Catholics and evangelicals. What I found particularly moving was the remarkable reaction of the evangelical audience after they had taken in the video: a real prayer in the Spirit.

And who could forget the high-five --reportedly the first of Pope Francis’ life -- exchanged with Pastor James Robison, after the pope insisted that a living relationship with Jesus stands at the heart of the Christian reality?

Asking for prayers

Many Catholics were surprised when the newly-elected Pope Francis asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him, but evangelicals from Argentina weren’t taken aback, for they had witnessed something very similar.

In June of 2006, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was attending a meeting of evangelical pastors in Buenos Aires, and after he had spoken to them, he knelt down on the stage and asked them to pray for him and to bless him.

No one doubts that Pope Francis has a genius for the provocative symbolic gesture: washing the feet of women and non-Christians on Holy Thursday, paying his own hotel bill in Rome, opting to reside, not in the opulent Apostolic Palace but the far more modest Casa Santa Marta, driving in a tiny car while at World Youth Day in Rio, etc.

But does his outreach to evangelicals go beyond the merely symbolic? Is it grounded in more substantial theological commitments? I would argue the affirmative and to do so on the basis of Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

Personal encounter with Jesus

The third paragraph of that encyclical commences with this ecumenically remarkable sentence: “I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Catholics have tended to be suspicious of the language of personal relationship with Jesus, especially as it has appeared in evangelical Protestant rhetoric over the past half century (accepting Jesus as my “personal Lord and savior”), and this for two basic reasons.

First, it seems to undermine or at least lessen the importance of the properly mediating role that the Church appropriately plays, and secondly, it tends to compromise the communitarian dimension of Christian life.

I do not for a moment think that Pope Francis is unaware of those dangers, but I think he is more concerned that a hyper-stress on the ecclesial can render Christian life abstract and institutional.

In paragraph seven of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis says, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’”

Christianity is not a philosophy or a set of ideas, but rather a friendship with Jesus of Nazareth. In paragraph 266, we hear, “It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.”

Jesus and his Church

According to Catholic ecclesiology, the Church is not primarily an institution, but rather the prolongation of the Incarnation across space and time, the mystical body of Jesus through which people come to an encounter with the Lord.

When this organic relationship between Jesus and his Church is forgotten or occluded, a stifling institutionalism can follow, and this is precisely why Francis insists, “We cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings; we need to move from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.”

This evangelical urgency, which Pope Francis gets in his bones, is the leitmotif of this entire Apostolic Exhortation. He knows that if Catholicism leads with its doctrines, it will devolve into an intellectual debating society and that if it leads with its moral teaching, it will appear, especially in our postmodern cultural context, fussy and puritanical.

Leading with joyful news

It should lead today as it led 2,000 years ago, with the stunning news that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and the joy of that proclamation should be as evident now as it was then.

The pope helpfully draws our attention to some of the countless references to joy in the pages of the New Testament: “‘Rejoice!’ is the angel’s greeting to Mary”; in her Magnificat, the Mother of God exults, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior”; as a summation of his message and ministry, Jesus declares to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete”; in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that “wherever the disciples went there was great joy.”

The pope concludes with a wonderfully understated rhetorical question: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” Why not indeed?


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org