ROME — In the abstract, the election of a pope from Latin America almost three years ago probably didn’t strike people passionately committed to ecumenism — the push for Christian unity — as necessarily being good news.
After all, Latin America for centuries was an almost homogeneously Catholic continent, without much of a presence of other Christian traditions. Today, the primary Christian “other” is the mushrooming Evangelical and Pentecostal footprint, and its relationship with Catholicism is often antagonistic.
As it happens, however, the Latin American who was elected in March 2013 was among those prelates from the region most committed to Christian unity, both personally and theologically, and he’s gone on to lead a distinctly ecumenical papacy.
On Monday, Pope Francis will head to Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to celebrate an ecumenical vespers service for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which will also mark the closing of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which runs each year from Jan. 18 to 25.
All recent popes have been committed to pursuing greater unity among Christians, but Francis brings some unique personal background to the quest.
When he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio developed a close friendship with several Protestant leaders through a movement called “Renewed Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Spirit.”
Participating in that fellowship is how he met Italian Evangelical Pentecostal pastor Giovanni Traettino, to whom Francis paid a visit in July 2014. During his one-day visit to Traettino in the southern Italian city of Caserta, Francis delivered an historic apology for Catholic persecution of Pentecostals.
“I ask for your forgiveness for those who, calling themselves Catholic, didn’t understand we’re brothers,” he said at the time, receiving a standing ovation.
In 2006, Bergoglio and Traettino participated in a prayer service that drew 7,000 people to Luna Park in downtown Buenos Aires, a venue normally used for boxing matches.
On that occasion, the future pope allowed himself to be prayed over by a delegation of Protestant clergy, drawing fire from more conservative quarters in both the Protestant and Catholic worlds.
In multiple ways, Francis has made ecumenical outreach part of his agenda.
In 2014, during a three-hour long meeting with Texas’ televangelists Kenneth Copeland and James Robison, Francis delivered the first-ever papal high-five.
Robinson said that he had been so moved by Francis’ message of the gospel that he asked the translator to ask the pope for a high-five. The pope obliged, raised his arm, and the two men smacked hands.
The encounter came just weeks after the pontiff met with televangelist Joel Osteen and another old friend, Bishop Tony Palmer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches.
Dialogue with Pentecostals is usually tough, since, despite representing as much as one-third of all Christians, they’re highly fragmented. Although he’s never said so out loud, observers believe this fragmentation is why Francis tends to foster dialogue with Pentecostals through individuals and small groups.
One of those individuals was Palmer, who died in a motorcycle accident soon after his meeting with Francis in the Vatican. The friendship between the two dated back to Argentina.
During one of his visits to Rome, Palmer shot a video of Francis, which was showcased at conference organized by Copland. After showing the video, he told the assembly that he believed God intended to use their connection to accomplish something big, saying he and Francis had made a covenant to work together for the “visible unity of Christians.”
Although Palmer, who once worked for Copeland’s Pentecostal ministry and who raised his kids as charismatic Catholics to reflect his wife’s Italian heritage, has proven hard to replace, Francis has continued to forge personal relationships with other Christian leaders.
This is the case, for instance, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered the first among equals in Orthodox Christianity, with whom Francis has a close rapport.
In 2013, Bartholomew was the first spiritual head of Orthodoxy to attend a papal inauguration since the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. Since then, the two traveled together to the Holy Land in 2014, and soon after Francis went to Turkey to visit the patriarchate.
The friendship is also rooted in more “down-to-earth” matters such as the care for creation (the environment), and by forming a united front against the persecution of Christianity in the Middle East, where the number of Catholics and Orthodox have dwindled in recent decades.
In fact, anti-Christian persecution has generated an unintended ecumenical bond.
In a message addressed to Orthodox Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Egypt, dated May 2015, Francis made an appeal for reconciliation arguing that today more than ever, an “ecumenism of blood unites us.”
The pope has used this expression several times. In a 2013 interview with Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli, Francis said, “In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible, and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, or Orthodox.”
“To those who kill we are Christians,” the pope continued. “We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps toward unity between us, and perhaps the time has not yet come.”
However, when it comes to Francis and ecumenism, it’s not all about personal relations or tragedy.
The year 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is planning to go to Lund, Sweden, to participate in a Joint Ecumenical Commemoration of the Reformation on Oct. 31.
According to a statement released by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, the Lund event is part of the reception process of the study document “From Conflict to Communion,” published in 2013.
The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Rev. Martin Junge, said he’s “carried by the profound conviction that by working toward reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working toward justice, peace, and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence.”