[that] he knew God the father personally. The way he prayed, the way he talked to the Lord, was of a man who knows Jesus Christ and was very spiritually intimate with the Lord. It’s not an effort [for him] to pray. He didn’t do reading prayers; he just prayed to the Lord spontaneously. It is a sign that good things will happen worldwide in the years of his papal work.
He’s gentle in his conversation. He’s always asking people for prayer. It’s surprising that he did it in public [at his first address], but anybody who knows him, [knows that] he always would say, ‘Please pray for me.’ He really meant it. He said it always.
What can you tell me about Bergoglio’s leadership style?
He’s a very Bible-centered man, a very Jesus Christ-centered man. He’s more spiritual than he is administrative, although he’s going to have to exercise his administrative skills now! But personally, he is more known for his personal love for Christ. He’s really centered on Jesus and the Gospel, the pure Gospel.
Although he’s gentle, he has strong moral convictions and he stands by them even if he has to confront the government. And he’s done it before. With the evangelical community, it was a very big day when we realized that he really was open, that he has great respect for Bible-believing Christians, and that he basically sides with them. … They work together. That takes courage. That takes respect. It takes conviction. So the leaders of the evangelical church in Argentina have a high regard for him, simply because of his personal lifestyle, his respect, his reaching out and spending time with them privately.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media already about Bergoglio’s heart for the poor. Do you think that’s what he’ll focus on during his papacy?
The fact that he is inclined toward the poor doesn’t mean he’s a revolutionary church leader. He does not engage in class warfare.… He is for the poor, he works for them … but it isn’t by exacerbating emotions or through the old liberation theology. It isn’t that at all in his case.
In our conversations through the years, he was always especially concerned for the young people…. His bias toward the poor is rightly being pushed heavily. But in personal conversations, my memory is more for the young people in Argentina, who simply have become secular. Every time we talked about the state of Christianity in the world, he would bring up secularization and the distancing of the church from the young generation. … There’s been talk about a new wave of evangelization in the Roman Catholic Church … and there is a desire for the pure gospel of Jesus to go out around the world. I think this will have an impact, because he definitely knows and is committed to the pure gospel.
One day we were on the way to a campaign … and he and I met for a word of prayer and I asked for a word of counsel. He said, ‘Give those young people the gospel. … They need to hear the pure gospel.’ And he knows what he is saying when he says the gospel.
If that’s the case, what can evangelicals expect from the Francis papacy?
He’s a man of strong convictions. He isn’t swayed by the powers that be of any kind, even political. He’s very strong on moral issues. I think we’ll see a papacy that will make relations easier and lessen tensions. It doesn’t mean [evangelicals and Catholics] will agree on every angle; that should be said. He is the Roman Catholic pope, and there are issues that need to be talked about, prayed about, looked at the Bible about. … Those differences in doctrine are there, but when there’s a proper attitude toward one another and to the word of God, and you take it seriously, light comes from the Lord.
The largest number of Catholics live in Latin America. Even though millions have turned to Jesus Christ in an evangelical Christian way … no less than 70 percent of Latin America still would profess that they’re Roman Catholics. That’s undoubtedly one reason—to represent them worldwide—he would have been elected. Not many decades ago, there was a confrontational attitude and it was not pleasant. There are very few places where there is physical risk to believers, but nothing like it was 50 years ago. [Now] the tensions are more theological … mostly doctrinal on the basics, where there’s a difference on beliefs.
So, tensions will be eased. There will be no confrontational style….He has proved it over and over in his term as the cardinal of Argentina. There was more building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but majoring on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, his resurrection, the second coming.
Do you have any personal stories or memories of him that really exemplify his relationship with evangelicals?
One day I said to him, ‘You seem to love the Bible a lot,’ and he said, ‘You know, my financial manager [for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires] … is an evangelical Christian.’ I said, ‘Why would that be?’ And he said, ‘Well, I can trust him, and we spend hours reading the Bible and praying and drinking maté [an Argentine green tea].’ People do that with their friends, share and pass the mate, and every day when he was in town, which was often, after lunch he and his financial manager would sit together, read the Bible, pray, and drink maté. To me, he was making a point [about his relationship with evangelicals] by telling me that: trust and friendship.
Other Evangelical Responses and My Childhood Memories
Christianity Today also published an article on March 14 by Jeremy Weber which gave the response of a pretty interesting sample of Argentine evangelicals who openly expressed their positive views about the new pope. One of the most common things that these leaders express about Pope Francis is that he has been a man of profound personal prayer. My friend Norberto Saracco, who is the co-leader of the Council of Pastors in Buenos Aires, says prayer in this case is often connected to the new pope’s desire for more visible unity among Christians in his native land. Norberto says he is “passionate for the unity of the church.” On Sunday I read where the new pope has already made a very positive comment about Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former leader of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). This is the office which I met with when I was in Rome in March of 2011. Kasper was sometimes disliked by a minority of conservative Catholics. This dislike has always seemed to me to be because he was so genuinely open towards unity efforts with non-Catholic Christians.
But what about Luther’s criticism of the pope and how does this apply to Protestant evangelicals as his successors? Are we to engage in cynicism and verbal bombs in light of our own traditions opposition to the papacy? Some will answer with a resolute yes. I think the context and times are very, very different. Blogger Matt Redmond captured something of the right spirit of this on his recent blog post about Luther and how we might consider relating his anti-papal statements to our own time in history. I think there is a lot here to force a significant rethink about our criticism and where we aim it.
When I read words like these (especially from the Luis Palau interview) I smiled, wept tears of incredible joy and then promised to pray for Pope Francis. The disagreements that I have with Catholic theology, in particular with the Catholic view of authority which I see as central to my remaining separated from the Catholic Church, remain very strong. I would love to say, “These differences do not matter so let us simply unite as one church.” I cannot do that in my conscience. My conscience is captive to the Word of God and my conscience cannot be changed by a mere act of good will. Having said that I love the church, all the church. I love the Catholic Church. In fact I think I love it more than most Catholics that I meet day-in and day-out. I love it because it is from this historic Church (including the Orthodox Church of the East) that most of what I hold as central to my faith was formulated in the early centuries of Christianity. And it is from this church that my theological fathers on the Reformed side came. While I do not see any way that we will ever become one again, at least formally, I can never say what God will, or will not, do. I believe we can, indeed we must, work for greater unity in our relationships and form real friendships that foster a deeper commitment to stand together as the people of God in the modern world.
I still recall summers in North Carolina in the 1950s where I heard missionaries tell about how they had been forced to flee a town in Latin America under the threat of physical attack. Some suffered the loss of personal property and their church buildings. Others saw their children ridiculed and shamed among their peers. Some even experienced physical attacks that came from Catholic mobs who had the support, at least tacitly, of their local priests. When I thought about all of this last week I said to myself, “In my lifetime this has changed and changed dramatically for the better.” At the same time I could never have imagined that one day we would have an Argentine pope who loved the gospel and evangelical Christians like Pope Francis.