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.
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.”
The Pope concludes with a wonderfully understated rhetorical question: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” Why not indeed? Displaying his penchant for finding the memorable image, Pope Francis excoriates Christians who have turned “into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses,’” and whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter.” Such people might be smart and they might even be morally upright, but they will never be successful evangelists.
In the early 1940’s, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth conducted a seminar in Basel on the texts of the Council of Trent, and to that seminar he invited Catholic thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar. I’m not at all sure that these two giants resolved anything, but I remain entranced by the image of the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century and arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century coming together for serious conversation regarding the central issues of the Reformation. I am exceptionally glad that in many circles we have moved well beyond the stage of hurling invective at one another and that we have indeed found many, many points of contact, especially concerning the centrality of evangelization. But I would still welcome more and more encounters along the lines of the Barth-Balthasar seminar. Toward that end, may we all follow the evangelical drumbeat of Pope Francis.
Read more commentary here.