Even keen Rome observers missed the speech that Pope Francis gave to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last week. That is forgivable: keeping up with the abuse crisis has become a full-time job. Besides, much else was competing for reporters’ attention: the historic China deal, a hectic papal visit to the Baltic states and preparations for this month’s youth synod.
In his address, the Pope reflected on how Catholics should respond to one of the most important developments in the Christian world in the past century: the rise of Pentecostalism. Pentecostals are a growing force in the Americas and Africa, and number some 300 million worldwide.
In some places, Pentecostalism has expanded at the expense of Catholicism. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2014, tens of millions of Latin Americans have left the Catholic Church in recent decades for Pentecostal Christianity. This dynamic faith spread from the United States in the early 20th century. With its emphasis on miraculous healing and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it took off. Crucially, US missionaries quickly trained local pastors. According to Latin America expert Andrew Chesnut, the Assemblies of God – Brazil’s largest Pentecostal denomination – was fully under Brazilian control by 1930. Today, the denomination has up to 12 million members in Brazil and three million in the US. “Pentecostal is now overwhelmingly anchored in Latin America, rather than the United States,” Chesnut says.
In his address, Pope Francis admitted to an early prejudice against the Pentecostal style of worship. He recalled that, as provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina in the 1970s, he had forbidden Jesuits from forming ties with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. He had compared the spontaneous atmosphere at charismatic prayer meetings to that of samba schools. But later, as a bishop in Buenos Aires, he helped them to hold Masses in the cathedral. He implied that every Catholic had something to learn from the charismatic movement.
But it is one thing to accept charismatic Catholics and another to embrace Pentecostals who are aggressively poaching Catholics. “The fact that more than a few Catholic faithful are attracted to these communities is a source of friction,” the Pope acknowledged. But he argued that it “can become, for our part, a matter of personal examination and pastoral renewal”.
How can “friction” lead to renewal? Francis suggested that Catholics should invite Pentecostals to take part in shared activities such as “prayer, listening to the Word of God, service to the needy, the proclamation of the Gospel [and] the defence of the dignity of the person and of human life”.
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