Catholics and Evangelicals should not wait for theologians to reach agreement before praying and working together, Pope Francis recently told a group of Pentecostal Anglican bishops in Rome.
To continue to focus on differences between Christian denominations is “sinning against Christ’s will,” the pontiff said, because “our shared baptism is more important than our differences.”
Francis was speaking at a meeting with the ruling body of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches (CEEC), adding: “We all have the Holy Spirit within us, which prays within us.”
The meeting on Oct. 10 and the lunch at the pope’s Vatican residence, Casa Santa Marta, was in honor of Francis’s friend Bishop Tony Palmer, an Anglican evangelical who was killed in a motorcycle accident in August.
The Pope and Palmer had been working together at the time on an historic joint agreement between evangelicals and Catholics.
Palmer’s effort to build support for that joint declaration will now be carried forward by his widow Emiliana, who attended the Oct. 10 meeting, in conjunction with the CEEC’s Archbishop Robert Wise.
Pope Francis said she and Wise would now “carry the torch, this dream which was Tony’s: this dream of being able to walk in communion.”
Also at the meeting was Emiliana’s son Daniele who captured the Pope’s remarks on his father’s iPhone. The video is on the website of the Ark community, founded by Palmer to bridge the divide between Catholics and evangelicals.
“Everyone has their own identity, and I assume that each one of us seeks the Truth,” Francis says in the video.
“But while we do that, we should walk together, and pray for each together, and let’s do works of charity together – Matthew 25, together; the Beatitudes, together,” he said.
“We each have in our churches excellent theologians. That’s another way to walk together also, but we shouldn’t wait for them to reach agreement,” he said.
The iPhone Palmer’s son used Oct. 10 was the same one Palmer himself had employed to record a message from Francis to megachurch leaders meeting in Texas earlier this year, in which he spoke of his longing for Christian unity.
Introducing that earlier message, Palmer said the pope’s invitation showed that the Reformation no longer divided them.
“We preach the same Gospel now,” he told the leaders at the Kenneth Copeland Ministry conference in February. “The protest is over.”
After that video went viral, it led to hundreds of inquiries from evangelical leaders wanting to respond to the Pope’s invitation. In late June, Palmer took a group of evangelical leaders representing millions to meet and lunch with Francis.
Palmer told me afterwards that the leaders had taken with them a draft Declaration containing the Nicean-Constantinople Creed, a reference to the Catholic-Lutheran declaration of 1999 proclaiming theological agreement on the key issue of justification, as well as a final section asserting that Catholics and evangelicals are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel.”
A month later, Palmer was killed after a drunk driver hit his motorcycle on a country lane not far from his home in Bath, England.
Although he remained a Pentecostal evangelical in the Anglican tradition, Pope Francis gave permission for him to be buried in a Catholic cemetery following a funeral led by his Catholic parish priest that was attended by dozens of Pentecostals.
In a message at that funeral read by his widow, Francis said he and Palmer had been close friends and had “prayed often in the same Spirit.”
In his new video, Pope Francis makes clear that he shares the assumption of Palmer’s draft declaration.
While “shared baptism” is more important than any differences, he said, and while “we all have the Holy Spirit within us, which prays within us,” the Devil seeks to persuade people otherwise.
“There is a father of lies, the father of all division, the anti-father, the devil who pushes in and divides, divides,” he told the evangelical bishops.
“Tony and I spoke so much of walking together, of going ahead, in what unites us, praying that the Lord Jesus with His strength help us and not let what divides us divide us even more,” the pope added, to which the CEEC bishops cried, “Amen!”
Francis recalled how Palmer – who was born in England, but raised in South Africa – used to tell him when they met in Buenos Aires how as a young boy in school he had seen black and the white children playing together but then separated at mealtimes.
That experience produced in him “a desire to walk together so we can eat together at the banquet of the Lord,” Pope Francis says.
Palmer’s widow said that the proposed joint declaration is a “process” in which “more dialogue between all parties concerned must take place” before it can be agreed.
Austen Ivereigh’s new biography, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope will be published by Henry Holt on Nov. 25.