.- Pope Francis’ attendance for the second consecutive year at the Catholic charismatic movement’s Renewal with the Spirit convocation shows his attention to charismatic movements as means to foster ecumenical path.
Not by chance, Renewal with the Spirit styled the convocation to be heavily ecumenical.
During the meeting with Pope Francis’ in St. Peter’s Square, prayers were raised by Cardinals Kurt Koch and Leonardo Sandri, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches; the Anglican Archbishop David Moxon, who represents the Archbishop of Canterbury toward the Holy See; and Msgr. Barnaba El Soryani, Coptic-Orthodox Bishop, as a delegate of Theodore II, Patriarch of Alexandria.
Also present were Msgr. Athanasisu Matti Shaba Matoka, Syriac-Catholic archbishop emeritus of Baghdad; His Eminence Polycarpus Eugenio Aydin, vicar of the Syriac-Orthodox diocese of the Netherlands; Rev. Louie Giglio, from the Passion City Church of Atlanta; Jonas Jonsoon, from the Lutheran Church of Sweden; and Giovanni Traettino, president of the Evangelical Church for Reconciliation in Italy.
This varied presence aligns with Pope Francis’ commitment to ecumenism. Beyond the recently opened dialogue with Orthodox and Anglican Churches, the Evangelical world is a big challenge for ecumenism, and perhaps one of the most important ones.
Dialogue with evangelical groups, especially Pentecostals, has been called “the fourth ecumenism” by several authors, including the Catholic sociologist Massimo Introvigne, an international authority on religious sects.
According to Introvigne, the fourth ecumenism – that of the new Protestant sects born at the beginning of the 20th century – is perhaps the most fruitful ground for ecumenical dialogue.
Attempts at such dialogue have limits: for example, a search for parties to represent the Pentecostals. Although they make up three-quarters of Protestants in some parts of the world and as much as one-third of all Christians, Pentecostals are very fragmented. The diversity within the group presents difficulties for dialogue.
This might be why Pope Francis has chosen to foster dialogue specifically with individuals and small groups.
On July 28, 2014, the Pope paid a private visit to the evangelical pastor Giovanni Traettino’s Church in Caserta. The two had met in 2006 and have maintained good relations ever since.
That meeting came at the end of a series of meetings Pope Francis had with evangelical leaders in 2014.
Televangelist Joel Osteel, pastor Tim Timmons and president of the Evangelical Westmont College Gayle D. Beebe visited Pope Francis June 4, 2014.
Pope Francis then met June 24 of that year with the televangelists James Robins and Kenneth Copeland, with the bishop Anthony Palmer of the Communion Evangelical Episcopal Churches, with the spouses John and Carol Arnott from Toronto and – among others – with Geoff Tunnicliffe and Brian C. Stiller, respectively general secretary and ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance.
According to the prominent Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister, through these meetings Pope Francis is putting into action a broad effort to “win the favor of the worldwide leaders of those ‘evangelical’ and Pentecostal movements which especially in Latin America are the most fearsome competitor of the Catholic Church, from which they are snatching enormous masses of the faithful.”
Attending the Renewal with the Spirit convocation is part of this effort. Pope Francis himself acknowledged – during his trip back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro – that he used to look at charismatic movements with suspicion, and that he later changed his mind, and now he believes that “this movement does much good for the Church overall.”
Renewal with the Spirit president Salvatore Martinez, an academic of music and musician, who has been committed to the movement since his youth, had the occasion to meet with Pope Francis at the very beginning of the pontificate, after the Mass the Pope celebrated in the Vatican parish Sant’Anna March 17, 2013, four days after his election.
After that, Martinez had a private meeting with Pope Francis in September 2013, and there the invitation to the 2014 annual convocation was forwarded directly to the Pope, who accepted, probably considering it as a part of his ecumenical commitment.
Speaking in front of the convocation June 1, 2014, the Pope voiced hope that both evangelical and Catholic charismatic groups, gathered in the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services, would share the same office as a sign of ecumenism. They did it.
Meeting with them Oct. 31, 2014, the Pope praised the decision, and stressed that “unity is not uniformity… it does not mean doing everything together, nor thinking the same way, nor losing identity.”
Pope Francis went further. Last May 23, he sent a video message to the participants of the Day of Dialogue and Prayer organized by the Diocese of Phoenix, which gathered Catholics and evangelical Pentecostal pastors. In the message, the Pope asked them to pray “together for the grace of unity,” that unity that “is flourishing among us, and begins with the only Baptism all of us received.”
All of these signals suggest that Pope Francis has indeed changed his mind and, starting from an initial skepticism, he later found in charismatic movements a privileged path to seek ecumenism.
There could be another pressing factor in the Pope’s enthusiasm for such meetings – a wave of conversions, particularly in Latin America, where it is estimated that100 million Catholics have converted to evangelical Christianity. Now, it appears that Pope Francis would like to evangelize the evangelicals.
His spiritual ecumenism, putting prayer at the center, and even making it a diplomatic tool, represents the most logical meeting point with the Protestant world.
Attending a large Catholic charismatic event could be the bridge the Pope needs to reach his final goal, to turn the evangelicals from rival to allies and push ecumenical efforts forward.