Nicholas Jesson is the ecumenical officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. He is also editor for this website. He lives in Saskatoon with his wife, the Rev. Amanda Currie, who is the minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon.
Nicholas' research interests are focused on the ecumenical dialogue between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. See his personal page for further information about his research and experience. Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a story that is classic Pope Francis: in late December he picked up the phone and called a Pentecostal bishop, Tony Palmer, to invite him to visit. By all accounts, they had been friends for a number of years already and this was just a social visit, so it wasn’t planned and facilitated by Vatican staff. When the Vatican’s daily news briefing on January 14 listed Bishop Palmer’s visit, the only detail given was that he is the ecumenical officer for the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, a Pentecostal group that identifies as Anglican, but is not affiliated with the Anglican Communion.
That generated considerable curiosity, particularly in ecumenical circles. Until now, the Vatican has not had any formal contacts with non-Communion Anglicans. No further details were available until this week when a video was posted on YouTube. During their visit in January, Pope Francis and Bishop Palmer recorded a video message on the bishop’s iPhone. The message was for a conference of leaders from Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a Pentecostal mega-church ministry. Palmer was scheduled to address the conference a few days later, so Francis offered to send greetings. They recorded the video on the spot, and there is no indication that the Vatican staff were aware of its existence until it appeared on YouTube two days ago.
The video was edited and subtitled before it was presented at the Kenneth Copeland leadership conference to an audience of about a thousand pastors from mega-churches around the world. In the video, Francis addresses the conference “from the heart”, and offers a spontaneous Biblical reflection on the brothers of Joseph coming to Egypt and being reconciled with their brother. Acknowledging that the divisions between Christians are sinful, Francis admits that there is sin on all sides and that we all must seek forgiveness from the Lord. Speaking of Christian unity as a miracle, Francis recalls the words of a character in a novel by Alessandro Manzoni: “I’ve never seen God begin a miracle without him finishing it well.” He offers his prayers and asks for their prayers in return.
Although this story of Francis’ video greeting is noteworthy, it will likely be lost in the larger chronicle of Francis stories circulating, some of them apocryphal and others true. It will be a shame if it is forgotten, however, because in the quiet sincerity of Francis’ words there is a simple example of Catholic ecumenical commitment. Despite the years of division, the many doctrinal details that divide, and ecclesiastical rules that preserve our hermetic isolation, a humble recognition of common fault allows brothers and sisters to embrace and to share in God’s miracle of unity.
The seven minute papal greeting is found about 31 minutes into a longer video posted online in which Bishop Palmer speaks eloquently of the cause of Christian unity and what he calls the spirit of Elijah. Recalling the prophetic tradition, Palmer explains that “the spirit of Elijah was on John the Baptist to turn the hearts of the sons to the fathers and of the fathers to the sons to prepare the way for the Lord.” The spirit of Elijah is, he explains, the spirit of reconciliation. “I have come to understand that diversity is divine, it’s division that is diabolical.”
Palmer also offers an interesting foundation for a Pentecostal ecumenism. John 17 is normally cited as a key text on Christian unity, particularly verse 21, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Palmer however focuses on the next verse of Jesus’ prayer: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one”. It is the glory of God that constitutes the heart of the Charismatic renewal, he says. It is the glory of God “that glues us together, not the doctrines.”
Despite underplaying the role of doctrine in Christian unity, Palmer proceeds to give a lesson in recent ecumenical convergence to the Pentecostal leaders in the clergy conference. He explains that the central issue for Luther, justification by faith, has been resolved in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which recognized that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Therefore, Palmer said, “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over. Is yours? We are not protesting the doctrine of salvation by the Catholic Church anymore,” he said. “We now preach the same Gospel.”
Perhaps the greatest significance of the papal video is the attention that will be given by Pentecostals to the possibilities of Christian unity. Francis is the curiosity that will attract Pentecostals and Evangelicals to the video, but if they have the patience to view the complete video they will get a straightforward lesson in basic ecumenism from Palmer in language that speaks to their own concerns. Palmer tells us that he and Francis spoke of the contributions that they might make together to the cause of unity and that they made a covenant to work together. Palmer could become a privileged interlocutor with Pentecostals just as Rabbi Skorka has become with Jews.
Transcript of the papal greeting:
Dear brothers and sisters. Excuse me, because I speak in Italian. But, I am not speaking English. But, I will speak no Italian, no English, but “heartfully”. It’s a language more simple and more authentic, and this language of the heart has a spiritual language and grammar.
Two rules: Love God above all, and love the other (neighbour), because he is your brother and sister. With these two rules we can go ahead. I am here with my brother, my bishop brother, Tony Palmer. We’ve been friends for years.
He told me about your conference, about your meeting. And it’s my pleasure to greet you. A greeting both joyful and nostalgic (yearning). Joyful because it gives me joy that you have come together to worship Jesus Christ the only Lord. And to pray to the Father and to receive the Holy Spirit. This brings me joy because we can see that God is working all over the world. Nostalgic (yearning) because but … it happens, as within our suburbs. In the suburbs there are families that love each other and families that don’t love each other. Families that come together and families who separate themselves. We are kind of … permit me to say, separated.
Separated because, it’s sin that has separated us, all our sins. The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned. There is only one blameless, the Lord. I am nostalgic (yearning), that this separation comes to an end and gives us communion. I am nostalgic (yearning), of that embrace that the Holy Scripture speaks of when Joseph’s brothers began to starve from hunger, they went to Egypt, to buy, so that they could eat.
They went to buy. They had money. But they couldn’t eat the money. But there they found something more than food, they found their brother. All of us have currency. The currency of our culture. The currency of our history. We have lot of cultural riches, and religious riches. And we have diverse traditions. But we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love.
I am speaking to you as a brother. I speak to you in a simple way. With joy and nostalgia (yearning). Let us allow our nostalgia (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.
I thank you profoundly for listening to me. I thank you profoundly for allowing me to speak the language of the heart. And I also ask you a favor. Please pray for me, because I need your prayers. And I will pray for you, I will do it, but I need your prayers. And let us pray to the Lord that He unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun. And this is a miracle; the miracle of unity has begun.
A famous Italian author named Manzoni, once wrote in his novel, of a simple man amongst the people, who once said this, “I’ve never seen God begin a miracle without Him finishing it well.” He will complete this miracle of unity. I ask you to bless me, and I bless you. From brother to brother, I embrace you. Thank you.