The Pope met for three hours June 24 with several evangelical and charismatic leaders over lunch at his residence inside the Vatican. Occurring outside of the Pope’s official schedule, the meeting had no formal agenda or secretaries present.
Bishop Tony Palmer, ecumenical officer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches (CEEC), said the meeting could lead towards concrete steps for a visible unity after 500 years of division.
Following a discussion about religious persecution and religious liberty, the Pope and his guests discussed the creation of a global initiative specifically for the persecuted Church, according to Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
In a report for Revival Magazine, Bruno Ierullo, co-chairman of United in Christ North America, who did not attend the meeting, said it marked “the beginning of a Joint Declaration between this large faction of the Evangelical world and the Roman Catholic Church.” United in Christ promotes ongoing dialogue between emerging charismatic churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
A Vatican spokesman said the meeting was an example of the Pope’s outreach to all Christians.
“The Holy Father’s passion for authentic ecumenism flows from the heart of a seasoned pastor who has spent many years of priestly and episcopal ministry in building bridges, not walls,” said Fr. Tom Rosica, English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office and CEO of Canada’s Salt + Light Television. “What he does now as Bishop of Rome is in continuity with his ministry in Argentina, and in perfect harmony with the message of the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of the Church.”
Rosica said Pope Francis expressed to one of the pastors, who was well known to the him from their time together in Buenos Aires, his desire to visit the pastor's church in Caserta. The visit will be a strictly private, simple and quick visit that would most likely take place on July 26.
The driving force behind the meeting was Palmer. He acted as translator for Pope Francis, who spoke in Italian to the English-speaking group. For the past 10 years under three popes, at the invitation of the Church, Palmer has worked with the Catholic charismatic movement in Rome and elsewhere, including a stint in Buenos Aires, where he befriended the future pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
“We met Pope Francis — we are accepting his call and trying to put an end to division,” Palmer said in an interview from South Africa where he was attending a meeting.
The delegation asked Pope Francis “to offer us further insight into how we can make a common declaration — a public, visible joint declaration of our unity in the faith and unity in mission,” Palmer said.
“Pope Francis agrees with me when I say diversity is divine, but division is diabolic,” Palmer said.
Palmer said this is “uncharted territory” and that there is “no protocol for what we are doing.”
“We are trying to be courageous men of God,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is our captain.”
As a result of this initial discussion, the WEA will have three days of formal meetings with various dicasteries in Rome (including another meeting with the Pope) on fall dates to be determined, said Stiller, who spent 16 years as president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and another 16 as president of Tyndale University in Toronto.
In addition to Stiller and Ierullo, the June 24 meeting included WEA head Geoff Tunnicliffe, WEA’s theological commission chair Thomas Schirrmacher, and Canadians John and Carol Arnott, founders of Catch the Fire. Also attending were popular American televangelists James and Betty Robison, founders of Life Outreach Int., and Kenneth Copeland, founder of KCM Ministries.
Stiller said the leaders are interested in finding “ways we can work together on the broad apologetics.”
“Make no mistake, this Pope is tough,” he said. “He will not put up with nonsense. But he is also loving and very much in tune with the life and the ways of the Spirit.”
The Pope stressed focusing on areas of friendship and companionship in Christ, not on doctrinal differences, Stiller said.
“I understand Rome will not give up anything,” he said. “They will hold to their classic doctrine. Jesus’ prayer for unity does not mean sameness and we both agreed that there was strength in diversity and our diversity as Christians is not something to be trifled with.”
Stiller noted that in Canada, the EFC and the Catholic bishops have worked together on many issues. There is so much agreement on doctrines such as the Trinity, on human sexuality, marriage, on the persecuted Church, the importance of Scripture. “The places of co-operation are huge,” he said.