The whole Christian world has watched with fascination as Pope Francis, over the past several months, has reached out to evangelicals. Who can forget the mesmerizing iPhone video, filmed by the Pope’s (late) friend Bishop Tony Palmer, in which the Bishop of Rome communicated, with father-like compassion, to a national gathering of American evangelical leaders? His smile, his tone of voice, and the simple, direct words that he chose constituted a bridge between Catholics and evangelicals. What I found particularly moving was the remarkable reaction of the evangelical audience after they had taken in the video: a real prayer in the Spirit.
And who could forget the high-five — reportedly the first of Pope Francis’s life — exchanged with Pastor James Robison, after the pope insisted that a living relationship with Jesus stands at the heart of the Christian reality? Many Catholics were surprised when the newly elected Pope Francis asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him, but evangelicals from Argentina weren’t taken aback, for they had witnessed something very similar. In June of 2006, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was attending a meeting of evangelical pastors in Buenos Aires, and after he had spoken to them, he knelt down on the stage and asked them to pray for him and to bless him.
No one doubts that Pope Francis has a genius for the provocative symbolic gesture: washing the feet of women and non-Christians on Holy Thursday, paying his own hotel bill in Rome, opting to reside, not in the opulent Apostolic Palace but the far more modest Casa Santa Marta, driving in a tiny car while at World Youth Day in Rio, etc. But does his outreach to evangelicals go beyond the merely symbolic? Is it grounded in more substantial theological commitments? I would argue the affirmative and to do so on the basis of Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
The third paragraph of that encyclical commences with this ecumenically remarkable sentence: “I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” Catholics have tended to be suspicious of the language of personal relationship with Jesus, especially as it has appeared in evangelical Protestant rhetoric over the past half century (accepting Jesus as my “personal Lord and savior”), and this for two basic reasons. First, it seems to undermine or at least lessen the importance of the properly mediating role that the Church appropriately plays, and secondly, it tends to compromise the communitarian dimension of Christian life. I do not for a moment think that Pope Francis is unaware of those dangers, but I think he is more concerned that a hyper-stress on the ecclesial can render Christian life abstract and institutional.
In paragraph seven of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis says, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI, which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’” Christianity is not a philosophy or a set of ideas, but rather a friendship with Jesus of Nazareth. In paragraph 266, we hear, “It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him.”