Evangelicals and Catholics have much in common.
He is probably known among Catholics almost entirely as the man who last July gave the Holy Father a high five. I happened to meet the Evangelical evangelist James Robison recently at a gathering to discuss a common project, and was surprised when he said, to a group mixing conservative Evangelicals and Catholics (two of us converts), “I’ve met the pope. I love that man.”
The high five, which left some Catholics I know muttering, he explained in the Huffington Post a few days afterward. At a three-hour meeting at the Vatican, Francis listened to several Evangelical leaders talk about their faith and their passion for evangelism. He then responded with “a dynamic evangelical message.” He “wanted everyone to have a personal life-changing encounter with Christ and enter into a personal relationship with Jesus and become bold witnesses for the Gospel. Religion is not the way; Jesus is.”
Robison, sitting next to the pope, was pleased. “So fervent was his message that as he concluded I said, ‘As an evangelist, I want you to know what you just said deserves a high five!’” The translator apparently had to explain this idiom to the pope and when he understood what his Evangelical friend wanted, Francis raised his hand. In the picture, both men are smiling, though one of them looks as if he hadn’t done this before.
As I say, some Catholic friends muttered and grumbled at what they apparently thought was an unpapal act. It was, I think obviously, an act of kindness and friendship, with Francis adapting himself to someone else’s way of doing things. If Jesus could eat with prostitutes and tax collectors, popes can exchange high fives with American Evangelicals.
James Robison comes from a world very different from mine, and even more different from Francis’. Part of the difference is cultural, but the more important difference is religious. The Catholic and the Southern Baptist understand the Church differently, the Bible differently, the way God forms and transforms us differently. Our churches have a crucifix and a Tabernacle, theirs may have a cross (but probably don’t) and definitely don’t have a Tabernacle.
It would be wrong to understate the differences in the spirit of Christian friendship. The Catholic forced to worship in a Baptist church would feel the room empty, the Baptist forced to worship in a Catholic church would feel it filled with idols. Each might, out of charity, treat the other’s church as if it were a version of his own, but that would be only a polite fiction.
And yet. Eating together in Rome, the Catholic pope and the Evangelical pastors listening to each other listened to men who spoke of souls and of Jesus Christ in the same way, who talked in similar ways about someone they knew and served, who shared the desire that others come to know and serve him too.
Sitting round a table with Robison and his peers and two other Catholics, I felt the same thing. They speak a different language than I do as a Catholic. Our Lady and the saints were not presences they felt and friends they would claim. They do not enjoy the sacraments. They do not look to the Magisterium for help in knowing what Christians believe and how they ought to live. They do not, the Catholic would say, have all the gifts of God that bring us happiness.
And yet. Here are men who love Jesus. If Jesus walked into the room, they’d hit their knees as fast, if not faster, than the Catholics with them. If he told them, “You go join their Church,” they’d do it. Perhaps not right away, and not without grumbling, and only after double- and triple-checking, but they would do it.