Pope Francis’ upcoming encounter with the evangelical Christian pastor Giovanni Traettino continues the path of dialogue he has walked with evangelical denominations since his time in Buenos Aires.
Pope Francis met Traettino in 2006, while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, at the third fraternal meeting of the Renewed Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Spirit.
On that occasion, Cardinal Bergoglio gave a speech on themes such as God’s embrace and the wounds of Christ. Kneeling down, he received the blessing of pastors, priests, and lay people who attended the meeting.
In his intervention, Bergoglio prayed that “the Father close our mouth with an embrace and unite us more and more.”
Other participants at the meeting included Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household and a member of Renewal in the Spirit, the most widespread Catholic charismatic movement; Matteo Calisi, the then-president of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships; and Giovanni Traettino, a leader of the Evangelical Church of the Reconciliation in Italy.
Before he supported the Charismatic movement, Cardinal Bergoglio was indeed very sceptical of it.
Pope Francis himself told the story of his “conversion” during the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013.
“Back at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, I had no time for charismatics,” the Pope said. “Once, speaking about them, I said: ‘These people confuse a liturgical celebration with samba lessons.’ Now I regret it. Now I think that this movement does much good for the Church overall.”
According to Pino Scufaro, coordinator of Renewal in the Spirit in Argentina, Catholic charismatic movements in Argentina “started spreading more than 40 years ago.”
“The first communities of prayer were initiated by Trinitarian and Jesuits religious,” he said.
That kind of spirituality was “unknown to the Catholic Church,” yet “quickly and spontaneously grew, even if sometimes bearing the imperfections of every new experience,” Scufaro said.
This is why Bergoglio, who was Jesuit provincial in Argentina at the time, “had to reproach the charismatic prayer leaders,” Scufaro said.
With time, Bergoglio changed his mind, and started looking attentively to the charismatic movements, both Catholic and Protestant.
The majority of Charismatic movements have Protestant roots. Pentecostalism is seemingly the real star of the show in Latin America. A 2006 Pew Forum survey found that 45 percent of Brazilian Pentecostals were converts from Catholicism.
Bergoglio soon questioned the reason for Pentecostals’ increase. He found that the reason was their enthusiasm in witnessing the faith.
Bergoglio’s reflections were also nurtured by the first meaningful and structured experience of Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue, which took place in Italy during the 1980s with the encouragement of St. John Paul II, and which in 1995 resulted in the joint document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”
The document was not unanimously appreciated, but the sociologist Massimo Introvigne has stressed that “it was a signal that many things have changed,” even if “the dialogue between Catholics and Protestant Pentecostals is still problematic.”
Pope Francis took part in the convocation of the Catholic charismatic movement Renewal in the Spirit in Rome June 1. He then met some U.S. evangelical leaders on June 4. He had a three-hour meeting, including lunch, with some of the most prominent American evangelical leaders June 24.
Pope Francis has prioritized dialogue with leaders of smaller evangelical denominations, such as Traettino, who gained political experience in the ranks of the Italian Communist Party before converting to Pentecostalism and founding his community.
The Vaticanista Sandro Magister underscored in a July 23 article for “L’Espresso” that the Pope’s meeting with Traettino in Caserta is not “an isolated episode” but “part of a broader effort that Pope Francis is making 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.”