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Pope’s Protestant friend dies, but push for unity lives

St. Peter’s Square.

AP/file 2014

St. Peter’s Square.

LONDON – The English surgeons who fought to save the life of a badly mangled motorcyclist on the morning of July 20 might have guessed he was someone unusual, since the hospital was receiving calls from Rome, from the pope himself, asking for updates.

The silver Audi that slammed into a Protestant cleric named Bishop Tony Palmer in a quiet country lane that morning, however, left little chance of his surviving, and he died after a 10-hour emergency surgery. The news stunned not just his grieving wife and young adult children, but many across the Christian world who were aware that, behind the scenes, the unlikely friendship of Palmer and Pope Francis was the catalyst of an extraordinary historic breakthrough in relations between the Catholic Church and the evangelical world.

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An articulate, laid-back, jovial South African in his early fifties, with a penchant for quirky clerical clothes, Palmer didn’t look or sound much like a conventional Anglican bishop. When I first met him in May, at a coffee shop in Bath, close to where he lived with his family, he explained that he had been ordained by the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, or CEEC, whose presiding bishop is in Florida.

The CEEC, which was formed in the 1990s, is Anglican. Yet unlike the Episcopal Church in the United States, it’s not part of the Anglican Communion loyal to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Its leaders see themselves as part of a “convergence” movement, seeking to combine evangelical Christianity with the liturgy and sacraments typical of Catholicism.

That convergence, Palmer told me, “is a precursor to full unity between the Protestant and Catholic Churches.”

Born in Britain, Palmer grew up in South Africa where he worked as a medical underwriter and met and married Emiliana, a non-practising Italian Catholic. After a sudden conversion they began worshipping in an evangelical church. Palmer worked for some years in South Africa for Texas-based Kenneth Copeland Ministries, pioneer of the controversial “prosperity Gospel” which claims that God rewards his faithful with material blessings.

On trips back to Italy to visit Emiliana’s family, the Palmers encountered the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a movement within the Catholic Church which has absorbed the Pentecostal evangelical traditions of praise-style worship, healing, and an expectation of spiritual gifts. Through the charismatics, Emiliana returned to the Catholic Church, and the Palmers with their young children began attending Sunday Mass. In the 1990s they began spending long periods in Italy, where they were invited to speak at Catholic churches.

In 2003 they moved to Italy full-time to work with Matteo Calisi, head of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Italy. Palmer increasingly felt at home in the Catholic Church but was unable to affiliate an ecumenical group he founded called the “Ark Community” with Rome because not all his members were Catholics.

Palmer instead found a home in the CEEC, which claims about a million adherents and 6,000 clergy. After further study the CEEC ordained him a priest, giving him a particular mission to Christian unity, and later consecrated him as a bishop. Palmer and Calisi began doing joint missions around the world — which is what took him to Buenos Aires in 2006. Its archbishop, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had overcome his reservations about the charismatic renewal and enthusiastically backed a 6,000-strong joint Catholic-evangelical gathering that year in Buenos Aires’ Luna Park stadium.

Palmer and Calisi and four others went to meet the cardinal prior to beginning their mission in his diocese. When Palmer told Bergoglio that he was an Anglican evangelical with a Catholic wife and children, the cardinal was curious: how did they live that difference? Palmer told him that it worked very well, but that, since he led his family back to the Catholic Church, he was no longer allowed to take Communion with them.

When Palmer told him that his children asked him why he would join a church that separated a family, he said that Bergoglio’s eyes filled with tears.

“His heart broke,” Palmer recalled.

The cardinal asked if they could remain in touch and meet regularly. Over the years, the Buenos Aires cardinal and the evangelical bishop formed a deep bond, staying in touch by telephone and email between face-to-face meetings.

Palmer and Bergoglio had intense discussions about Christian separation, using the analogy of apartheid in South Africa. They found common ground in believing that institutional separation breeds fear and misunderstanding. Bergoglio, whom Palmer called “Father Mario,” acted as a spiritual father to the Protestant cleric, calming him (“he wanted to make me a reformer, not a rebel,” Palmer told me) and encouraging him in his mission to Christian unity.

At one point, when Palmer was tired of living on the frontier and wanted to become Catholic, Bergoglio advised him against conversion for the sake of the mission.

“We need to have bridge-builders”, the cardinal told him.

In 2012 Palmer’s family moved to England, to allow their son to prepare to enter university there. Palmer had little idea of Bergoglio’s rising star, but received an email three days before the conclave of March 2013 asking for his prayers. When he saw Pope Francis emerge on the balcony, Palmer was thrilled but assumed that their friendship would be over.

Shortly after the New Year, however, he received a call. Francis wanted to know when he was next in Rome, could he come by? On January 14, Palmer spent the morning with Francis in the Vatican residence where he now lives, the Domus Santa Marta.

“We didn’t have an agenda,” Palmer recalled. “He told me that we are brothers and nothing will change our friendship.”

Palmer told him that the following week he would be addressing 3,000 evangelicals at Kenneth Copeland’s international leaders’ conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and would he like to send a word of greeting?

“Let’s make a video,” Francis replied.

“You want me to pull out my iPhone and record you?” asked Palmer, astonished.

“Yes, exactly,” the pope answered.

When he presented the recording to the Pentecostals in Texas, Palmer said that few Protestants knew that the Catholic and Lutheran Churches had signed a historic declaration in 1999 settling the doctrinal issue of the Reformation.

“We preach the same Gospel now,” Palmer told them. “The protest is over.”

Then he played the video, in which Francis addressed them as brothers and sisters and said that with just “two rules” — love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself — “we can move ahead.” He spoke of the sin of separation, and his yearning for reconciliation. “Let us allow our yearning to grow, because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another, and together to worship Jesus Christ as the only Lord of History,” he told them.

The delegates reacted rapturously. After the video went viral Palmer began to be inundated by requests from evangelical leaders to be part of what was happening. “People said: this is a new day, this is what we have been waiting for.” Palmer had to cancel his teaching commitments and his own studies simply to cope with the correspondence. He reported it all to Pope Francis in a meeting in April, who was amazed.

Cosa facciamo? “What do we do?” he asked Palmer.

On June 24, Palmer took a group of evangelical leaders who jointly reach more than 700 million people to meet and lunch with Francis, which he reported to me a few days later, as he left for two weeks in South Africa. The delegates included Copeland, the televangelist James Robison, as well as Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the Worldwide Evangelical Alliance. They told Francis they wanted to accept his invitation to seek visible unity with the Bishop of Rome.

Palmer handed the pope a proposed Declaration of Faith in Unity for Mission the evangelicals had drawn up, which they proposed would be signed by both the Vatican and leaders of the major Protestant churches in Rome in 2017, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

Palmer told me the draft Declaration has three elements: the Nicean-Constantinople Creed, which Catholics and evangelicals share; the core of the Catholic-Lutheran declaration of 1999 making clear there is no disagreement over justification by faith; as well as a final section asserting that Catholics and evangelicals are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel.”

The closing section speaks of the importance of freedom of conscience and the need for Catholics and evangelicals to respect each other’s mission fields and treat the other with respect, not as rivals. Francis had taken the draft and said he would think about it. Palmer and I agreed to speak again when Francis got back to him, but that was not to be.

Last Wednesday, in Bath, Palmer’s funeral was a Catholic Requiem Mass at which most of the congregation were evangelicals. He was buried in a Catholic cemetery, united at last with the Church he felt at home in.

Pope Francis sent a message, which was tearfully read out by Emiliana Palmer. In it he said he and Palmer were close friends, and like father and son, “Many times we prayed in the same Spirit.” He praised Palmer as a brave, passionate and pure-hearted man in love with Jesus, who left a precious legacy in his passion for Christian unity.

Francis created the strong impression that the work he and Palmer had begun would continue.

“We must be encouraged by his zeal,” the pope said.

Austen Ivereigh is author of a new biography of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical pope” (Henry Holt, November 2014)
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