Pope Francis: What this new leader means for evangelicals

A Roman Catholic cardinal from Argentina has generated worldwide applause and some disquiet: what does his election as pope mean for Mennonites and the evangelical community?

Pope Francis brings an attractive mystique. A man of strong conviction with humble Italian roots in a Latin American setting, well-educated but steadfastly committed to a modest lifestyle, comfortable working in the slums of Buenos Aires, former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become known as a deeply devout Christian leader willing to both articulate and live out his faith.

Clamour for change

Media discussion in the days leading up to the papal election could not help but impress the listener with the need for change. Will a new pope bring revitalization of faith for many on the edges? How will he deal with the history of sexual abuse by priests? How will he address the issues within the Roman curia? What will he do for women in the church?

For Catholics, the clamour for change includes demands the Roman Catholic Church cannot meet: opening doors to acceptance of same-sex practice and homosexual marriage, for example. Other shifts could be envisioned: might it be possible for rules about clergy celibacy or the role of women in the church to change?

Catholic historian George Weigel, author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church observes “the call for reform is virtually universal, while the terms of reform are comprehensively disputed.”

But I was struck by Catholic spokespersons’ frequent expressions of hope that Benedict XVI’s successor would be a man of deep faith, chosen by the Holy Spirit, someone who might lead the church in the way of Jesus Christ.

Growth: gains and losses

The Roman Catholic Church around the world is growing and now stands at 1.2 billion members. The strongest growth has been in Africa and Asia, though the largest numbers of Catholics can be found in South America and Europe.

However, the growth rate in South America and North America is not strong. Time magazine reported in its Feb. 25 issue, as recently as 1996, Latin American countries were 81 percent Catholic and only 4 percent evangelical; by 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70 percent and evangelicals had risen to 13 percent. This surely will be on Pope Francis’s mind.

Common ground

For a number of years, as part of a discussion group that included a half-dozen Mennonites and an equal number of Catholics, I gained an appreciation for Catholic colleagues and learned a lot.

I was quickly disabused of any notion that these Catholics did not think deeply about their faith. They didn’t worship Mary, though I would still have disagreed with their view of her. Their faith was anchored in Jesus Christ and his work for us in his death and resurrection, though again I would have argued with their view of the church’s role in salvation. They were reading the Bible, and they pointed back to Vatican II and the encouragement since then for people of the church to get into Bible reading.

It was exciting to discover the commonality we sensed as we talked about life as Jesus followers. The Catholic co-chair of our discussions had even baptized more adults than children during his years of priestly ministry.

From my experience, I would offer that evangelicals and Catholics will find more and more occasions where they stand on common ground with one another. There are several reasons for this.

• Both hold high views of the authority of Scripture (though with some nuanced
differences).

• Both affirm the historic creeds of the church and hold to a vigorous Christology.

• Both agree substantially on issues surrounding the sanctity of life, sexual morality, marriage, and death.

• Mennonites more than most evangelicals generally have a vigorous ecclesiology and of course Catholics do too, though the expression is quite different.

Rejoin Rome?

After Benedict XVI announced he would step down, Canadian Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, wrote a column asking “Is now the time for Protestants to rejoin Rome?” It was only partly asked tongue in cheek. He was not advocating it, but he also stated that “not in 500 years have the two sides been so close and friendly.” Within the Global Christian Forum, several streams of Christianity are working together on significant issues.

One thing is quite certain. Pope Francis is likely to continue in the direction his recent predecessors took, which involves, as Weigel writes, “[reclaiming] the essential, Christ-given form of the church.” It embraces a call “to preach the Gospel in a new, and perhaps unprecedented, cultural situation.”

It also involves a recognition that “the challenge today is to recognize the distinctive character of that cultural hostility, which was born of an indifference to biblical religion that mutated in the 19th century into the claim that the God of the Bible is the enemy to human freedom, human maturity, and progress in the natural sciences.”

Pope Francis will want to bring followers of Jesus Christ under the nurture of the Roman Catholic Church, as he rightly should. And evangelical Mennonites will want to learn all they can from his example, without forsaking what their history both gives and teaches them. This is a history of direct encounter with Christ, of active faithfulness to the Scriptures, of witness and suffering, of lively engagement in a community of fellow believers, and of practical ministries of all kinds.

In that spirit, evangelical Mennonites and Roman Catholics can hold out strong hands of fellowship to one another.

Harold Jantz is former editor of the MB Herald, founder of Christian Week, and a member of River East MB Church, Winnipeg. He participated in a Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group for seven years.  

 

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