Meeting Pope Francis 2017

The following is a report from The John 17 Movement’s visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican in June 2017. The gathering included roughly fifty participants, predominantly from evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the United States, and was initiated by the gracious invitation of Pope Francis and the Vatican, geared towards building bridges between Catholics and Protestants for the glory of Jesus, relational unity of his people, and good of the world.
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To open the gathering, we prayed the “Our Father” prayer together as Catholics and Protestants, then sang “Amazing Grace” (led by the amazing Suzy Kraintz and Matt Maher). Pope Francis then introduced the time, welcoming those present as “brothers and sisters,” for when we confess Jesus is Lord and are united, he observed, the Lord is present in our midst. “And I believe the Lord is here today.”

He joked at having no speech prepared, for with speeches there’s the risk of saying “half the truth and half not really the truth,” so he wanted rather to simply talk like friends: “like in soccer, the ball is in the middle: somebody take the ball.”

These are some highlights from the conversation that followed.

 

Living in Tension

Question: Back home, our culture is divided and our political climate is tense, with many churches feeling pressure to become more partisan one direction or the other, or to withdraw from the public square altogether—neither of which seems like faithfulness to Christ. What advice might you have for how we can be a faithful, prophetic witness amidst the tensions of our divided culture?

Thanks to the Lord that there are tensions, because the Lord Jesus himself faced many tensions in his ministry.

Pope Francis pointed to Jesus’ ministry, and the four strong parties of the day: the Saduccees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes—and of course, the all-powerful Romans. We see the spirit of the zealots when James and John want to call down fire and destroy a city, while the Essenes were like spiritual monks, withdrawing from a corrupt society. “Jesus lived in the tensions of that time,” and it’s wonderful to see the way he responds, like to the teacher of the Law who came to test him, or the mother of John and James who wanted her children to climb in the reign of God, or to Judas.

“Where did Jesus live most of his life? On the street, and the tensions were there.” The Lord Jesus would listen to everyone, but especially he was with the crowd, the poor, the weak. And we hear the tension in Gethsemane when he prayed to his Father, “Please, take this cup away from me.” It’s too much to say he was “fighting” with his Father, and of course he said, “May your will be done,” but he was there in the tension.

If a pastor is not feeling the tensions, it’s because he’s not living with his people. Instead, he is in a ‘spiritual lab.’

As pastors, we should feel the tension. “This is a principle for me as a pastor,” Francis said. “If we feel the tension, it’s because we’re living in reality,” like Jesus.

 

“I Can’t Live Without People”

Question: You’ve chosen not to live in the Apostolic Palace (a beautiful, ornate, historic residence where the pope usually lives), but rather in the Duomo Santa Marta (a more humble, common living space with many others at the Vatican). Can you share with us why you made this choice? [Okay, heads-up: this is a great setup for the humble brag, but instead, he answered like this]

Pope Francis joked that a group of schoolchildren asked this same question when he first became bishop of Rome, why he doesn’t live in the palace, to which he responded:

For psychiatric reasons. 🙂

Because he’s a social person, he wanted to live somewhere with others, and guests who come and go, to eat together and talk with them. “Living without the people would make me ill, weak.” The apostolic palace is historic and beautiful, he observed, and it would be a shame and unchristian if someone destroyed it for a false sense of pride. So his decision “has nothing to do with proud reasons or going against anything for ideological reasons, simply because I’m not a ‘cloister monk’.”

I can’t live without people, it’s a personal thing; my mother made me like that.

Being closer to people also helps you govern better, he observed. A characteristic of a pastor should be closeness to the sheep [“pastor” literally means shepherd]. The pastor doesn’t leave the sheep alone when he goes to sleep, he is always with the sheep, always amongst the people. “I believe this term should be common to all the pastors: ‘closeness’ with their people.”

Sidenote: After the gathering, Giovanni Traettini (a Pentecostal pastor in Italy) shared a funny Italian saying with me, “If you can’t smell the stink of the sheep on their clothing, then they’re not really a pastor.” In an age of upward mobility and gated communities, when moving up in leadership often implies moving away from the messiness of those you lead, it’s striking how Pope Francis lives out this “call to closeness,” even if symbolically, at such a high level of leadership, seen regularly out with his people, hugging refugees and washing their feetkissing the face of a disfigured man, listening to the questions of children, and looking folks in the eye as he shakes their hand.

 

The World Economy

Question: Before, you were archbishop of Buenos Aires and saw the world through those eyes. Now, being pope with a broader scope of responsibility, how has your perspective on the world changed?

“The world has really changed a lot these last four years,” Francis remarked. It can feel like we’re in a “Third World War in pieces,” with elements of division and conflict growing more and more around the globe. Some of the most terrible things include the trafficking of weapons, and of people—including children—as slaves for labor or sexual abuse.

“At the center of the world economy, the very center, we no longer have man and woman as creatures of God, but rather money, the god money. This is the great challenge: to place man and woman again at the center of humanity. This is the challenge.”

Of course, work and business are not bad in themselves, he observed. Speaking technically, the market economy itself is not bad. But it should serve humanity, so that we share the richness the Creator has given to us all, and ensure the human being is not used.

The Tower of Babel is an illustrative example, he said, where the bricks were the “richness” of that time (because making a brick was difficult, with the mud, the straw, and the work to make it). It took a lot of work to make one brick, and stacking the bricks up high was a risky and difficult job. If the brick fell, it was a serious problem, and the one who dropped it was punished. But if one of the workers fell down, “Well, no problem.” Take that one away and replace them with another worker. Riches had replaced humans in value.

Similarly today, if you find a human being, say a homeless person, dead in the square here in Rome, it’s no news. They just take him away and it’s finished. But if the New York Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange, Tokyo Stock Exchange goes down, say, three points, it’s a great calamity, a real problem, all over the newspapers. It’s the same thing as the bricks.

Man and woman are the great creation of God, at the center of creation.

Their increasing displacement by riches is the biggest change he’s observed in the world these last four years; “or better yet,” he nuances, “it’s my knowledge of the world that has changed.”

 

The Power of Touch

Question: You’re famous for embracing people, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye. And you’ve said it’s good not to just give something to the poor, but to touch them. Can you explain why that’s important?

“It’s important because of Matthew 25,” Pope Francis said with an air of finality, as in: Done. Period. Problem solved. Next question. Everyone laughed. But he continued . . .

It’s important because God sent in the fullness of time his Son, born of a woman. Jesus is God and man—and he identifies with the marginalized, saying what we’ve done to them is what we’ve done to him. The Word has incarnated into flesh, entering into our condition, and if somebody denies this, 1 John tells us, he is the anti-christ. God descends to us in his Son: he suffered, was betrayed, and crucified for us. And now the marginalized who suffer, according to his words, are himself: “You have done it to me.”

That’s why I touch the flesh of the poor and don’t have to be shy. I don’t have to give the coin and take my hand back. I can look him in the eyes, because he’s a human being.

It’s one thing to give money to help people, he said, this is a basic human thing to do; it’s something more to give love and charity. So a Christian can be human and give money to help. But a Christian has to touch the poor with love, because this is something Jesus Christ does for us, and because touching the flesh of the poor is touching Christ.

 

Funny Interlude

About an hour in, the moderator mentioned, “We probably only have a few more minutes,” to which Pope Francis asked, “Why? Do you have to get the airport?” 🙂  He’d been given an out, to get on with what I’m sure is a busy schedule, but it was a sign of his hospitality, being generous with his time, brushing it off with a joke as if we were the ones needing to leave, and we went on to talk for another hour or so.

 

The Test of Candies

Question: I want the children of our church to grow in the faith and learn that we are brothers and sisters for the future of the Church. What message would you have for the children of my church and the world?

Pope Francis shared some advice: give them the “test of candies.” If you have two candies and a friend comes to you, what do you do? The majority would answer I give one to my friend and one to me. But you have to test whether it’s true. “Would it be better to keep them both in your pocket and eat them after your friend is gone?” Some would answer: Yes, I think of it sometimes.

Then ask the question, “If you only have one candy, what do you do?” Some may say: I’ll share it; give half and keep the other half. Another might say: I’ll put it in my pocket and eat it later. One more might say: You can have it; I already ate mine.

An example like this can help them understand the message of sharing.

Another suggestion: have them sing and praise the Lord. Introduce them to this “prayer of worship.” This is very, very important, because:

Worship is prayer without interest.

We’re good at asking for things in prayer, which is good because the Lord tells us to do it. We know how to be thankful in prayer, because the Lord advises us to be (such as when he healed the ten lepers, in Luke 17:11-19). But praising God for who he is, like the song “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the Apocalypse (Revelation 4:8), if they learn this from when they’re children, they will mature and grow as real Christians, as strong Christians, strong children of God.

Not being selfish, that’s the candy test. Prayers of praise and worship, and then teach them that when you have a fight, you need to make peace immediately. They need to be artisans of peace. “There’s many other things, I’m not a specialist in catechism. But this is my advice.”

 

The Power of Prayer

Question: You spoke to the many conflicts in our world, that can feel like World War 3. How can we as the Church respond to these problems?

First of all, we need to answer with prayer, prayers for peace. The Lord is a Lord of peace. He first greets his disciples and the women, after the resurrection, with “Peace, peace.” This word peace is like a seed; it needs to grow.

The father of the lie, the devil, is the father of war amongst people. The first war was between two brothers, and he continues to seed war and division everywhere at all times. Jesus has said, Ask, and it will be given to you, and this is the prayer that has the strength to win against the devil.

I don’t know if we put enough trust in prayer.

In Acts 6, when the orphans and widows were not being taken care of, the apostles appointed the deacons, explaining their first responsibility was to prayer and announcing the gospel. For bishops and pastors, then, our first duty is to prayer, and second the gospel. Third, there’s organization, where we can ask the deacons and so on to help. But prayer is a priority.

We need to convince our Christian people to pray, pray, pray. Think of a mother who is in a hospital with a child that is dying, and she prays and prays and prays to the Lord so that the child doesn’t die. We have to pray with the same intensity. Sometimes we’re not aware of the war we’re in, or what it means to save one life. It’s not because we’re good and others are bad; we’re all sinners, we are all factors of war. But we need to:

Pray for peace, because peace is a gift of God.

 

Pray for Me

Question: You say all the time, “Pray for me.” Everyone knows, that’s famous for Pope Francis, “Pray for me.” We are taking that very seriously, so within our fellowship as pastors, we want to know if you can give us some specific things we can pray earnestly for?

Pope Francis explained why he asks for prayers:

“This is my weakness: I believe only the prayers of the people of God can support me. I need the prayers of the people of God. We need to ask our communities, our churches, to pray for each one of us, so that we can serve them better. The pastor needs to be supported by the prayers of his community. And I can tell you that I feel that the prayers of the people of God are in this group.”

When someone asked what specifically we could pray for, he responded: “That the Lord doesn’t take his hand away from me.”

As we prepared to close, Joe Tosini, the leader of The John 17 Movement, shared a story from when he was a child, of his grandfather regularly buying him gelato and asking, “Do you want love (like you want this gelato)? Your grandpa loves you. You’ve got to give love in order to receive love.” His grandfather then explained, “God first gives love, and we give it back.” Joe thanked Pope Francis for showing us love by spending time together with us: “You’ve given us love, and we want to return it any way we can,” and assured him: “We really love you Pope Francis, this group. We love you very much. And we pray for you.” To which Pope Francis responded, in English for perhaps the only time that day, “I need it.”

We all closed singing “Jesus,” a simple melody around just the name of Jesus over and over again, first in English, then in Spanish (Pope Francis’ native language). We all looked to Jesus as our center, in a posture of worship.

This was the second gathering of The John 17 Movement with Pope Francis. For a report from last year’s gathering, see here.
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P.S. A Few Reflections

One thing that struck many of us, was how Pope Francis regularly brought everything back to Jesus. His response to most questions seemed to begin by recalling a particular story about Jesus from the gospels, or attribute of Jesus from the New Testament. It was inspiring to have the conversation keep being brought back to Jesus at the center.

We were also all struck by Pope Francis’ humility. He sat in a regular chair like the rest of us, right around the circle with us, and would regularly say things like, “This is just me speaking. I don’t want to be the teacher, I’m a pastor like you,” which is pretty humbling coming from the pope. About halfway through he asked for water, and we all assumed it was for himself. Then we realized it was for the translator, who he assumed must be thirsty. I think it’s powerful that in the middle of this whole event, he was thinking of the translator.

I was also struck by his emphasis on prayer. This came up repeatedly; you can see it in what I’ve included above, but it was also strongly present in a lot of the conversation that didn’t “make the cut” here. And the way he talks about prayer, it didn’t have the air of an obligatory duty, but rather a joyous invitation into communion with the living God.

Finally, here’s a few other things he said that stood out:

“Peace is artisanal”: it is not one-size-fits all, or once-and-forever, but rather takes work every single day, crafting it amidst the small conflicts of community, not just the big meetings of leaders.

“The Lord has had mercy with me, and I need to have mercy with others. We need to bathe our doctrine in mercy, it needs to be wet with mercy.” One of the attitudes the father of division uses is transforming faith into ideology. In Luke 15, the prodigal son has lived unjustly, yet the father throws a party for him. But the older son says, What about me? I’ve stayed here, I’ve been faithful! “The older son was an ideologist, incapable of understanding the mercy of God. We have so many like this today.”

“The Holy Spirit is a flow of grace, a stream of grace and a gift”: a gift that’s been given to all of us as Christians, from the beginning of the Church. We need to move on with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Like in the carnival, there’s always someone who puts the suit on to masquerade. But the Spirit of God glorifies Jesus, and we need to use discernment and move according to the Spirit of God. And that’s why prayer, prayer, prayer is the need.

“You know who is the best pastor who has the ‘gift of the ear’? The Lord.” God has spoken climactically in Jesus Christ, the opening to the letter of Hebrews tells us, and Jesus hears us. And when we listen to others, we are real ministers of God, because we do the exact same thing that he does, we listen. And people need to talk, need to dialogue, and that’s what he does–he listens. If you don’t listen, you can’t love.

“We walk together”: this phrase came up regularly when talking about bridge-building and unity. We get to know each other, pray together, seek Jesus together, work for the good of our neighborhood together, find what we have in common, and walk together. There are important differences between us, and true dialogue doesn’t mean we give up our identity or pretend our differences aren’t there, but rather we move toward each other rather than keeping each other far away, we bring our identity to encounter each other in dialogue as we walk together.

A Personal Highlight

From the author of this report, Joshua Ryan Butler:

In last year’s gathering with Pope Francis, I had the opportunity to confess that in Portland we have worked as evangelical churches to build unity, but had not yet worked to build unity with our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. I told Pope Francis I wanted to confess that and own that and work for change going home, to which Francis said, “The Lord will bless your efforts.”

Well, he was right, the Lord has blessed this.

A personal highlight this year was being asked to share an update. It has been exciting to see growing dialogue with Catholic and evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ in our city. The John 17 Movement was there earlier this year to be part of a bridge-building and unity event, and this year a cohort of us made the trip together, as Protestants and Catholics eager to continue working towards bridge-building at home.  And our hope is that in many of the cities represented on this trip and beyond, it might be a catalyst toward similar unity work.

After the event, Pope Francis approached me with a smile beaming ear-to-ear on his face, and shook hands saying, “Grazie (Thank you), for your testimony!”

I was beaming ear-to-ear too . . . and when I think about it, still kind of am.

Author: "The Skeletons in God's Closet." Pastor: Imago Dei Community. Husband, Father, Foster Parent.

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