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opinion | Austen Ivereigh

Can Pope Francis heal the deep divisions in Christianity?

Pope Francis leaves at the end of a mass to mark the opening of the synod on the family in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 5.REUTERS

October’s gathering of senior Catholic church leaders from across the world revealed Pope Francis’s extraordinary capacity to live in tension.

Faced with a small but angrily vocal minority of bishops determined to check his aim of moving the church in a more missionary, and merciful, direction, and an apparently inconclusive finale — the 190 voting members failed to agree on two vital issues — he did not flinch. In an unprecedented act of transparency, he ordered the concluding document to be published together with the vote tallies and gave one of his finest addresses to date.

In it he urged the synod fathers (and, by extension, the whole Catholic Church) to spend the next year discussing and discerning, in advance of a second gathering in October 2015, the two issues on which there was no clear green light to move forward. One was how to bind the wounds of the divorced while promoting marriage indissolubility; the other was how to embrace gay people while celebrating marriage as a conjugal institution.

In the manner of the master Jesuit retreat-giver he once was, Francis warned against “temptations” to flee the tension, whether through conservative inflexibility or liberal conformism. And he told them not to worry, that those who saw only a “disputatious church” needed to realize that they were gathered sub et cum Petro — with and under the pope — who was the guarantee that the Holy Spirit was present in it all, guiding the process.


Francis has experience in this area. After a decade leading a disputatious and divided Jesuit province in Argentina through a quicksand of its own temptations — left-wing revolution, right-wing dictatorship — Father Bergoglio spent years in deep study on how the Holy Spirit acts within the Christian body. In a doctorate he began but never finished, the future pope set out to understand how differing views in the church, freely expressed and properly channeled, opened spaces for the Holy Spirit to bring about new resolutions, just as it had in the early-church councils. Equally, he wanted to understand what destroys that path to convergence — the temptations that turn disagreements into contradictions — and how views fall out of the unity of the whole, and develop in opposition to the body. At this point they turn into closed human constructs, or ideologies. What follows is rivalry, conflict, and schism. That is the post-Reformation story.


Francis isn’t just applying these insights in the synod — urging its participants, for example, to speak out boldly and listen humbly — but also to healing the wounds of Christian division. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio forged a remarkable set of relationships, unique in the world, between leaders of the different churches. Unlike the usual “dialogue” between churches — a theological negotiation leading to agreements on doctrines — this was something quite different: friendship born out of regular meetings, joint prayer, and common projects.

After he was prayed over by evangelical pastors at a Catholic-Pentecostal rally in 2006, Cardinal Bergoglio met with them every month in their churches, arriving alone by bus and subway. To anyone involved in Christian unity work he made the same point over and over: Christians divided by denominations should be in relationship, living in the tension of their separate identities and not trying to resolve disagreements. Nor was this an elite activity, for priests and theologians, but something every Christian parish could do.


Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets the faithful after celebrating mass in 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.Monica Paz/LatinContent/Getty Images

Now Francis is preparing the ground for a historic breakthrough between Catholics and evangelicals. This is his own initiative. The Vatican body in charge of dialogue, the Council for Christian Unity, only has relations with the historic Protestant churches — Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists. But most Protestant Christians no longer belong to these: Some 600 million of them, about three-quarters of Protestants worldwide, are in loose, autonomous networks of Pentecostal or “independent” churches, who worship in the charismatic style. Their rise has made the old controversies between the historic churches seem obsolete. On many moral questions they are closer to Catholics than to the mainline Protestant churches. Yet Rome has had no means of speaking to them.

Francis is changing that. In a series of private meetings brokered by old friends from his pre-papal days, he has this year spent hours in meetings with major evangelical leaders in the United States, including televangelists such as Joel Osteen, James Robison, and Kenneth Copeland, as well as the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, Geoff Tunnicliffe, and the pioneers of the “Toronto blessing,” John and Carol Arnott. In July he made the first ever private visit by a pope to a Pentecostal pastor, his old friend Giovanni Traettino, in Caserta, Italy, to apologize for the times when the Catholic Church had made life difficult for evangelicals in Italy. These are his own initiatives. The Vatican’s Council for Christian Unity is kept informed of these meetings but has no part in them.

They are convivial gatherings, in which there is joint prayer, shared meals, and plenty of laughter. Francis tells them that their shared baptism, and openness to the Holy Spirit, are enough; that a new era is opening up of relations between Catholics and evangelicals; and that they shouldn’t wait for theologians to agree before acting and witnessing together. “I’m not interested in converting evangelicals to Catholicism,” one of them later reported the Pope telling him. “I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”


There are plenty of paradoxes. The pope of the poor is bonding with some of the wealthiest televangelists in the United States, while a body of Christians who look to the simple authority of the Bible are building bridges to a church famous for its ornate liturgy and papal magisterium. But building this relationship helps make up for gaps and to restore imbalances. Francis is attacking the power of the princes, rooting the church in the ordinary people, and shedding the trappings of papal monarchy. For their part, the evangelicals realize that they cannot all be popes in their own backyard — and that they need a means of forging unity.

Francis sees his task as pope to open up these new spaces, responding to opportunities as they arise. In January, a South African evangelical bishop called Tony Palmer recorded an iPhone message from Francis to megachurch leaders in Texas, in which Francis humbly spoke of the miracle of unity that had begun. The video went viral, and Palmer was deluged with requests from evangelical leaders wanting to respond. In June, a month before he was tragically killed in a road accident, Palmer took a number of the leaders — together, they represented possibly 800 million Christians — to meet Francis, where they proposed signing, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, in 2017, a “joint declaration of faith in unity for mission.” The declaration will open a new era for Christians, encouraging them to act and pray together across the world, in spite of their differences.


The agreement will allow Christians across the world to do what Francis has been urging on the synod: to be in relationship, live in tension without letting it become contradiction, and let God do the rest.


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Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” out this month.