Papal Audience with Ecumenical and Interreligious Representatives

March 20, 2013

Last evening, we were informed that Pope Francis I needed to postpone our audience with him by one hour.  Thus, following a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, which we shared with General Linda Bond, about 25 people boarded the special bus to take us to the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City.  At 10:45 AM, we were escorted by the Carbonieri, with lights flashing and sirens wailing.  Fortunately, it was no longer rush hour and our trip was a quick one.  While the sky was clear when we rose, by the time we left for the Apostolic Palace, it was raining, and it rained steadily for most of the day.

Upon our arrival at the Vatican, we were driven through the Vatican gate next to the Doma Santa Marta as we were yesterday, and then we were driven around the back of St. Peter’s Basilica to the far side near the Vatican gardens, entering through two more gates and into a plaza or square around which the Apostolic Palace is built.  For several years, St. Peter’s Basilica has been under external restoration, and the marble walls on the front of the basilica and on its left side are now completely restored.  The marble of the Basilica and the statues that inhabit various niches along the wall and around the back is now beautiful and brilliant, giving observers a sense of what the entire building must have looked like when first constructed.

Upon our arrival in the square, we were greeted by a line of about 15 members of the Swiss Guard and their leader.  Upon disembarking from the bus, they stood at attention, dropped their spears together, and saluted us.  They were dressed in uniforms of blue and gold designed by Michelangelo.  Other guards guarded the doorways leading to the Apostolic Palace.  Already present was a group of about 25 Orthodox bishops representing both Eastern [Russians, Greeks, and those attached to the Ecumenical Patriarchate] and Oriental [Syrian, Armenian, and Coptic (Egyptian)] branches of Orthodoxy, all led by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.  Additionally, there were about 15 Anglican leaders present.  Three or four more, smaller busses arrived as we waited delivering yet another group of Christian leaders including Mennonites, Methodists, and others.  The remaining vans carried religious leaders including several Muslim muftis and imams from Serbia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, about 8 Japanese Buddhists Jainists conveying gifts, a Sikh with a book (most likely a copy of the Sikh scriptures known as the Granth or Nam) and a sword, a Hindu carrying a silver relief of “The Last Supper”, about 20 Jewish leaders from various places around the world, and a number of guests whose identity was unclear.  In all, there were perhaps 160 people present.

Once all were present, we were taken to an elevator and dropped off about 3 stories up into a long hallway that led to a room completed in 1595 by Pope Clement VIII, in honor of the First Century Pope, Clement I.  Clementine Salon, as it is called, is about 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 30 feet high.  The floor is composed of highly polished marble designs in many different colors.  The walls and rounded ceiling carried frescoes and friezes.  They include the baptism of Clement as well as his martyrdom.  They also include allegorical depictions of both the cardinal and theological virtues done in pastels, with light blue being the dominant color.  The ceiling shows the glorification of Clement as he arrives in heaven.

Everyone who attended the audience was assigned a seat, with a certain pecking order depending upon the relationship that the group has with the Catholic Church.  Seats lined the perimeter of the building, with those representing religions other than Christianity seated down the wall to the left of the Pope, and Christians seated on the right.  The left hand side brought the Jewish delegation closest to Pope Francis, followed by Muslims, and then other religions were spread out along the wall with the Buddhists and Jainists furthest away.

On the Christian side, the Orthodox received prime seats, clearly recognizing them as “Church” in the technical use of the term.  Next came the Anglican delegation, followed by other delegations representing the “ecclesial communions” most of which stem from the time of the Reformation.  Patsy and I represented the Pentecostal Movement along with Prince Guneratnam, Chairman of the Pentecostal World Fellowship.  Dr. Larry Miller represented the Global Christian Forum.  General Linda Bond represented the Salvation Army.  The World Council of Churches was represented by its General Secretary, Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit.  The President of the Lutheran World Federation was represented by the Palestinian Bishop Younan who serves as its current President, and by the General Secretary, a Chilean, Dr. Martin Junge.  Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and his wife, Akpene represented that body.   Other groups were also suitably represented.

After waiting for about 20 minutes for the audience to begin, Pope Francis I entered.  Everyone stood and applauded as he came in.  He made a special effort to greet the Ecumenical Patriarch, before taking his seat.  Interestingly, all seats, including his, which was a beige chair, slightly larger than the rest, were set at the same level.  In the past, popes have typically had their seats on a raised platform a step above the rest.  This placement of the chair today seems to suggest that Pope Francis will take a more egalitarian approach.

All papal audiences are formal affairs, with prepared speeches which are ultimately published in the Information Service, a more or less irregular publication of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and elsewhere.  Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, was invited to speak on behalf of the entire body.  He came with a prepared speech in which he invited pope Francis to travel with him to the Holy Land in 2014, in order to mark the 50th anniversary of the restoration of relations between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.  There were no speeches from any representative of non-Christian religions.  The Patriarch spoke in Spanish and the speech lasted about 10 minutes.  This was an extremely important moment in Christian history.  At the end of Bartholomew’s address, everyone applauded and then Pope Francis took a few moments to thank Bartholomew in an unscripted moment.  He then turned and addressed the entire assembly, speaking to them in Italian.

The pope reiterated several of the points he had made in his inaugural homily.  He told us that all religious leaders should work together to promote peace, justice, and a cleaner environment.  This is consistent with the message given by Pope John Paul II when I first heard him in Los Angeles about 1987.  He went on to say that it is essential for the various religions to care for the poor as well as the future of God’s creation.   The environmental concern is one long held by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, which must have been intended for his hearing.  His Holiness went on to note that in our day, religious leaders whether Christian or not need to remind men and women that God exists and that He has a plan for our lives as well as the way that we behave.  One of the most significant challenges that he pointed out is the frequent reduction of human value to that which we produce or what we consume.  These points also reflect the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi, but they also played well with an inter-religious audience.

The pope stopped several times during his speech as though he were tired or out of breath, but he did a fine job.  He is a good public speaker who is not afraid to use hand gestures even though he sat and read his message.

Following the two speeches, everyone was invited to line up to meet the Pope.  The Orthodox went first, and all Christians were given preference over the non-Christian representatives.  Following the Christians, those representing the non-Christian delegations were similarly invited to exchange greetings.  As the various Christian leaders approached His Holiness, they were individually introduced to the pope by Bishop Brian Farrell.  Normally this task is done by the Cardinal who is President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  Cardinal Kurt Koch would normally have done this task, as did Cardinal Walter Kasper and Cardinal Edward Cassidy before him.  Cardinal Koch is the current President of that Council.  He is from Switzerland, but he has been in the office for only one year, his linguistic abilities outside the German language are limited, and he has had little direct contact with those of us who interface with his office would normally have done this task.  As a result, it fell to the Secretary of the Council to introduce all the Christians.

Patsy was greeted first and Pope Francis shook her hand.  He asked her to pray for him.  I then shook hands with His Holiness, though he held onto my hand while Bishop Farrell introduced me as Co-chair of the International Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue.  He suddenly brightened at the mention of my role, and he thanked me.  I told him that I was looking forward to continuing cooperation between Pentecostals and the Catholic Church through the dialogue and I wished him well.  He then reiterated his request that Patsy and I keep him in our prayers.  “Please pray for me.  I need it”, he said.  I must admit that I was struck by the humility conveyed in that request, as much as I was by his warmth and genuineness.

As we moved on so that Francis I could greet others, we were directed to Cardinal Koch.  We had ample opportunity to introduce ourselves.  I met him at a luncheon in Rome following the trip for peace that I was privileged to take with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.  Cardinal Koch welcomed us and expressed his gratefulness for the work of the Dialogue.  Finally, we were returned by elevator to the ground floor.

Since the Apostolic Palace is highly guarded and for security purposes it is rare that guests are allowed to roam the grounds freely apart from having either a pass that allows them to do so (I was twice given that privilege), all guests must be escorted by a Vatican employee.  That fell to Monsignor Juan Usma Gomez, a Colombian priest who works within the Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  He serves as the Catholic Co-Secretary to the Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue.  He accompanied Patsy and me along with about a dozen other guests to the offices of the Council on Conciliation Way, where we left them in order to eat lunch in a nearby restaurant and explore a few of the local shops specializing in religious literature.

I have now been privileged to participate in eleven papal audiences, six with Pope John Paul II, four with Pope Benedict XVI, and now one with Pope Francis I.  Each time I have been humbled by the realization that there are many who would love to sit in my place, and each time I have wondered at the grace that has brought me there.  I can understand these times only if I view them as manifestations of the Lord’s grace in my life.  I certainly don’t deserve them.  I have sought only to be obedient to His call on my life to engage in the ministry He has given to me.  I recognize that call as yielding a unique vocation in the life of the Church at this time in history and I praise the Lord for making all of this possible.

Finally, I would ask only that you join me in keeping Pope Francis I in your prayers, asking that the Lord provide him with strength, wisdom, and faithfulness to the Gospel, and that you would remember Patsy and me with same requests as we seek to fulfill God’s calling on our lives.