Holly and I had a unique opportunity to meet Pope Francis in person this week, spending a few hours in conversation at his residence in the Vatican. Papa Francesco (as he’s affectionately called in Italy) is renowned as a bridge-builder, and he wanted to meet with a small group of young evangelical pastors from the US. We were humbled and honored to be part of this delegation.
I’ve respected Pope Francis for awhile now from afar. Then in preparation for the trip, I read his biography and a bunch of his writing and that respect increased ten-fold. Our time with him in person only further displayed his Christ-like humility, inspiring wisdom, and down-to-earth humor and joy.
He believes (as do I) we have much to learn from each other, and expressed appreciation for evangelicals’ ability to help people personally read the Scriptures and experientially engage their faith. He expressed a desire that, though we may retain certain important distinctions in doctrine, we can seek unity under the sovereignty of Jesus and partner together in areas like prayer and charity.
I wanted to share some highlights from our conversation.
The Uniqueness of Jesus
One of the questions our team asked was around the uniqueness of Christ: what makes Jesus unique, and how do we articulate that as his followers today? Francis chuckled and responded in his typical fashion, simple yet profound:
Jesus Christ is unique because he is the only Lord.
Jesus has all authority and rules the earth, he continued, yet he rules in sacrificial love. “There’s another one who tries to be the Lord,” he said with a chuckle, “but this guy [Satan], he’s the enemy.” He then went on to contrast how Christ’s lordship is displayed in a radically different way from the lordship of the world.
As Christians, when we want to express Christ to the world, we need to make love concrete. Sometimes our actions can be more powerful than our words. He shared a negative example, a story of an army that identified with Christianity winning a victory in the south of France long ago, and telling the Muslims who lost the battle to either be baptized or face the sword. This was a horrible tragedy (and coming home this weekend to the brutal injustice of the tragic massacre in Orlando, I couldn’t help but grieve over the resonance with a modern display of the brutal ways of the world).
Francis contrasted this with Christ’s calling to his followers and the example of the first centuries of the Church, when the pagans said, “Look how they love each other.” If we are Christians, we do good things. Words don’t always get to people; the gestures do. If you do the gestures, this person will think, “this person is rare; unusual.” If we are Christians, we should be known by our love.
Another question was how we should engage the pluralism of our age, in which people are living together (in modern cities, for example) with such a great diversity of ideologies and backgrounds, encountering one another and sharing life together at a more intense level than ever before. Francis responded,
Diversity is a great strength. The greater problem today is not pluralism but uniformity, not diversity but homogeneity.
He went on to explain the dangers of globalization, how we often think of globalization as something like a “sphere,” with economic and other forces often imposing homogeneity and uniformity upon the rest of the world [think of chains like McDonalds and Starbucks, for example, imposing cookie-cutter products around the world from the top-down, or international banks soaking up local resources into global financial centers]. This becomes like a “sphere” imposing its sole image upon everything under its authority, increasing its own domineering wealth and power.
He contrasted this with the shape of a “panoply” [I think I got this word right, there seemed to be a little confusion with the translation and I missed hearing it well], which is united but with a variety of diverse ends and shapes. There is a unity without uniformity:
This is the kingdom of God: diversity in union. And what unites our diversity is Christ in the power of his Spirit.
This is the hope for a pluralistic context, he said: Christ bringing us into union through himself in the power of his Spirit, in a way that animates our glorious diversity.
[Personal note: this mirrors what Francis often talks about elsewhere as a “theology of encounter.” And from what I’ve seen elsewhere in Catholic thought, this powerful insight on retaining our “diversity in union” is grounded in the high view of the Eucharist, that we access the “universal” not by going out and away into the universe, but by going “in” so to speak to the Eucharist, where Christ encounters us as a local community gathered around the bread and wine of the table, forming us as his body and his people within our local context (rather than apart from it), grafted into his universal reign in a way that emphasizes and enhances our local diversity through the immediacy of the power of his Spirit.]
He also talked about unity. What do we share in common? We are the people of Jesus. “When enemies of Christ seek to kill Christians, they do not ask if you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—being Christian is enough.” The problem is simply if you are identified with Jesus.
We are bound together in an ecumenism of blood.
We should be willing to share this, suffering together for our identification with Jesus. There is great diversity in the Church, but what holds us together is, Paul tells us, “one baptism, one faith, one Lord.” These are the things which unite us, he said, and though they are only a few simple things they bring our great diversity together in the power of Jesus’ Spirit as his people.
[Side note: while there, I learned part of the backdrop to this gathering was the relationship between Catholics and Pentecostals in Italy. Given the strong Catholic culture in Italy, many Pentecostals have experienced significant persecution in recent history (jail, being denied employment, rocks thrown at children on way to school, etc). One of Francis’ early actions upon moving to Rome as pope was to build relationship with Giovanni Traettino, a Pentecostal leader, then visiting his church in Caserta (where significant persecution had taken place) and publicly apologizing for the mistreating of Pentecostals, bending down to wash Giovanni’s feet, and visiting in his home (the only home in Italy he’s personally visited to be entertained in). This was a shocking and healing action for the Pentecostal community. Giovanni and his wife, Franca, have become close friends of Francis and were some of the central organizers of this gathering we were a part of.]
Religious movements have experienced tremendous growth around the world in recent decades, but this has also been accompanied at times by a rise in fundamentalism. Francis shared his perspective on fundamentalism:
Fundamentalism in history has become rigidity.
We all in our churches have examples of rigidity. Take for example the situation in Caserta [described above]. My love for Giovanni has angered some rigid people, he said. This is fundamentalism; fundamentalism is being closed.
Jesus asks us to go and preach, and Jesus brings joy. “Fundamentalists are not able to see joy; they only see rigidity.” They keep their hearts closed. There are fundamentalists everywhere: Catholics, evangelicals, Jewish, and more.
He went on to describe his love for the movie Babette’s Feast, and how in that movie, “We see the passage [of people] from the rigidity of the Law to the joy of overwhelming grace.”
He then smiled and, in his characteristic humility, said, “This is what I think, but what I think is relevant.” As if to say, This is me thinking out loud as Pope, but I’m also another flawed human being and it could just be my opinion.
[Personal note: I was struck by his humility throughout the conversation. When it opened, for example, he was seated in a larger chair set out a little at the front and center of the room, and one of his first comments was, “I wish I could just be sitting in one of your chairs there with you all.” There seems to be a constant deflection in his words and actions to draw attention to Jesus and others instead of himself, to see his leadership as a call to serve the people rather than exalt himself over the people, a radical contrast to the ego and pride we see so much of in the leadership culture of our world (including, sadly at times, the church)].
We also asked him about the mission of the Church and the role of the laity [people who are not priests or clergy]–this was the question I’d proposed for our team. He lit up with excitement to talk about this and said this is the sense of the “synodality” of the Church, which begins in the local parishes. “I told a gathering of bishops in Latin America,” he said, that:
Clericalism is one of the biggest problems in the Church.
This is the problem when the people of the church exist to support the clergy, he continued, rather than the clergy to serve and build up the church. The lay person, through his baptism into the Church, has a mission. He is not there to serve the priest, he has the voice of the Spirit in the Church. Clericalism has not helped the Church grow, and we need to go deeper in reclaiming the centrality of the laity in the Church.
When I think of clericalism, he said, I think of Eli in the Bible. I am sympathetic towards him, because he has the excuse of being old and weak, like I am. [smile] And his children were really gangsters, like they always had guns. [chuckle] But Hannah is praying because she wants a child to dedicate to God, and Eli reprimands Hannah when she’s praying, saying, “Go finish your drunkenness somewhere else.” But the meekness of Hannah moved his heart.
[Side note: This story is in 1 Samuel 1, and he was basically saying Eli suffered from clericalism, but Hannah, as a picture of the everyday people of God, was able to move Eli’s heart as a priest to contribute to God’s redemptive movement in the world.]
Our team leader remarked how many evangelicals don’t have much experience with Catholicism, only rumors, so when they think of the pope they often unfortunately think of “ultimate clericalism.” To which Francis laughed and humorously responded, “I understand it very well! I understand!!” as if to say, Believe me, try sitting in my shoes for awhile, I know!!
Before wrapping up, here are a few other things that stood out to me during the conversation, in no particular order.
The Lord of Surprises
One person asked Francis’ thoughts on Jesus being the only way of salvation, to which Francis responded:
The Lord is a Lord of surprises.
It was fun to hear him go on to unpack this in a line of thought very similar to the “Surprise of Judgment” section in my Skeletons book, and “Is Jesus the Only Way?” video. He emphasized the sovereign grace of Jesus, and his coming to pursue and find any and all who would receive him, and how when Jesus’ salvation shows up it often flips our expectations on their head, like Paul the persecutor of the Church encountering Jesus and becoming the apostle writing a bulk of the New Testament.
Of course he holds to the exclusivity of Christ (it’s a silly question in some ways), he’s the pope of the Catholic Church! But it was cool to hear how he framed it around the sovereign grace of Jesus, the surprising nature of his judgment’s outcome, and how we can trust him, “because he is the only Savior. There’s no one else but him.”
He talked about how the Church needs to continually be called back to the feet of its Lord, at one point saying,
A church with no prophets is a dead church.
I’ve been struck with how Francis has lived this “prophetic humility” out, as I’ve learned how some of his first acts as pope were to fire many powerful figures known for corruption, worldliness, and arrogance, like the prominent German bishop who’d just built himself a multi-million dollar mansion and drove a Mercedes so expensive they don’t even carry it in the US—and was suddenly called to Rome for a rude awakening of being fired, or the leading American archbishop who was immediately sacked upon his becoming pope, or Francis cutting ties with the Mafia and calling in the majority staff of the Vatican bank to be replaced from their position.
He’s been cleaning house… or has he likes to put it “flipping the omelet,” and word on the street are fears of an assassination attempt because of it. Yet he walks with a bold humility, with a seeming impenetrable joy in the midst of what must be monumental pressures and expectations surrounding him, and a clarity of seeking Jesus’ voice and calling all who will come to join at the feet of Jesus.
The Ministry of the Ear
A young pastor asked his advice for those who are more recently entering the ministry. He replied that we need to reclaim “the ministry of the ear.” I know this will sound strange, he said, because one of our primary roles is to proclaim the Word with our voice, which he emphasized as centrally important. “But you know this already,” and we should supplement this with learning “to listen to the people.”
People nowadays need to be listened to, he continued, acknowledging at times “it can be boring, crucifying even,” but the words and the heart of a person is the seed that the Lord wants to make flourish. This is the “body-to-body” aspect of walking with people. “This is my advice.”
My Confession and Blessing
Closing our Q&A time, I made a confession to the pope and received his blessing. I’d originally had other questions I’d wanted to ask that were more doctrinal in nature, but we’d talked about so many of those that, prayerfully in the moment, there was something else I wanted to say:
I have a confession to make.
I said it a bit tongue-in-cheek, and Francis and everyone chuckled and laughed: the image of an evangelical Protestant coming to confess to the pope. I went on to explain how in our city we’re blessed to be part of a network of around 100 evangelical churches working together to serve the city, in areas like caring for refugees, foster care / adoption, anti-trafficking, homelessness, and schools. And it’s had a dramatic impact not only socially but displaying the love of Jesus in the city and a sense of the unity of the Church.
But my confession is that I / we have not worked hard enough to build bridges with our Catholic brothers and sisters in our city as part of the movement of the body of Christ, and when I go back I want to be intentional about that.
Francis got a large smile on his face and blessed me, saying:
The Lord will bless your efforts.
It was a pretty special moment, where God felt tangibly present.
We all ended praying the Lord’s Prayer, to “Our Father,” together.
It was a pretty rad moment, and a humbling honor to be a part. I’m super grateful to Rick McKinley, our lead pastor, for entrusting me with representing us as a church community there. I want to follow through on that commitment and already have a number of meetings lined up to connect with various Catholic leaders in the city.
I’m excited about what that could look like. No one’s saying that we don’t have distinctives in doctrine, but I do believe there’s much we can learn from each other (I’ve learned a ton over the years from Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and William Cavanaugh), and many might be surprised by how much more we have in common (for those interested, this talk I heard a few years back at the Q Conference, “Where Catholics and Protestants Agree,” could be a good place to start).
I’m also excited because, as Francis put it, I believe there are tremendous opportunities to partner together “in prayer and charity.”
For those interested in learning more about Francis’ life, I highly recommend the acclaimed biography, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, by Austen Ivereigh.