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?
Perhaps more than we might think.
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, the 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 (and, by extension, many of us), 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?
“The New York Times has its idea of what Catholic reform would look like,” says Catholic biographer and historian George Weigel, author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. “So does the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano; so do hundreds of thousands of bloggers and internet commentators throughout the world. There the resemblance stops. The call for reform is virtually universal, while the terms of reform are comprehensively disputed.”
This is the challenge Pope Francis faces. Some of the changes, of course, may be merely administrative. 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. A Catholic priest with whom I go curling said he hoped the new pope might be “someone given by the Holy Spirit.”
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 – nearly the same – is not strong. In fact, large numbers in Latin America are leaving to become evangelical and charismatic Christians. As 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.
For a number of years, I was part of a discussion group that included a half-dozen Mennonites and an equal number of Catholics. We met at regular intervals and covered a wide range of topics. I gained an appreciation for the Catholic colleagues in our discussion and learned a lot. I participated quite intentionally as an “evangelical Mennonite.”
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.
Our Catholic discussion leader once said, “The difference between Mennonites and Catholics is this: Catholics are strong at the centre and weak at the edges. You Mennonites are weak at the centre, but strong at the edges.” Not far off the mark, I thought.
After Benedict XVI announced he would step down, Canadian Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, wrote a column asking whether this might be 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 – evangelicals included – 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 forms 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.
Other evangelical responses to papal appointment:
“We will be in prayer for Pope Francis as he gives leadership to the Roman Catholic Church and for his influence on the broader Christian movement worldwide. We affirm his passion to care for the vulnerable and marginalized, and share his concern for Christians, and indeed all persons, who are persecuted for their faith.”
World Evangelical Alliance secretary general Geoff Tunnicliffe congratulates the newly elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church:
“We look forward to building on some of the good work we have done together in the past…. The need to find common ground for conversation and action in this world are fundamental if we are to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ and his kingdom on earth.”
Mennonite World Conference responds to election of new pope:
“Sharing in the same Latin American background, I was especially touched by Francis’ attitude when he bowed to the crowd after asking prayer from the many people that had come to receive him,” says MWC general secretary César García. “His attitude of humility has been a special blessing for me as a Latin American.”