When the Pope Meets Protestants

When the Pope Meets Protestants
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A friend met an old-time friend on Monday. This description, though factual, does not capture the full import of Pope Francis's visit to Pentecostal pastor Giovanni Traettino in Southern Italy. Theirs was not an inconsequential stopover; it signals a realignment of ecumenical lines.

If the chatter and backstage moves of previous weeks serve as an indication, relations between Christian confessions are undergoing a shake-up. Major Evangelical entities in Italy (such as the Evangelical Alliance and the Federation of Pentecostal Churches) have issued a joint statement distancing themselves from ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican. On the Catholic side, plans had to be revisited not to offend sensibilities in the diocese of Caserta, where Traettino's church is located.

The changing ecumenical approach is a direct result of Pope Francis's personal style. Running parallel to his preference for interviews instead of encyclicals, off-the-cuff remarks to scripted texts, gestures to words, Pope Francis seems to approach the ecumenical task through the lenses of friendship. Instead of (or at least in addition to) institutional dialogue with official bodies, Francis favors personal contact with individual leaders.

The dialogue partners have changed too. While mainline Protestant bodies have dominated the seat opposite to the table up until recently, Traettino and many contacts of Francis are Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic pastors. Just in the month of June, they have included Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, and televangelist Kenneth Copeland.

These realignments have generated surprise, appreciation and concern -- often in the same communities. An old-time Evangelical contact of the pope, Jorge Himitian, told the Boston Globe last week that "We've learned that the institutional road...always becomes a dead end because it runs into doctrinal and practical differences," reports John Allen. "The dialogue we have is based on friendship and spirituality...We hope that the rest will eventually fall into place." But such a personal avenue of communication concerns leaders like Leonardo De Chirico, vice-president of the Italian Evangelical Alliance. "Sadly, in many Evangelical appraisals of Catholicism today doctrinal issues vanish and are substituted by sympathy for the pontiff or by a search for a blurred kind of unity."

Warm but unclear, relational but open to interpretation: these seem to be the promises and perils of ecumenism on a personal instead of an institutional note. Proponents argue that any viable ecumenical path starts with face-to-face encounters like the one with Traettino, where words of mutual recognition were exchanged. Others worry that major issues may get sidelined by good intentions, hugs, and, smiles.

That seems to be the question only future developments will tell. Friendship between representatives of different confessions are established, but how much that affects the content of the faith is yet to become clear.

René Breuel, pastor of Chiesa Evangelica San Lorenzo in Rome, is the author of The Paradox of Happiness: Discovering Jesus' Call to Fullness of Life.

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