Francis visits partially built Pentecostal church in Caserta, southern Italy

Pope Francis has fulfilled a request of the Italian evangelical community by recognising the complicity of some Catholics in the fascist-era persecution of Italian Pentecostals and evangelicals.

“Among those who persecuted and denounced the Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazies who would ruin the race, there were some Catholics. As the pastor of the Catholics, I ask forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil,” Italian news agencies quoted the Pope as saying during his visit to in Caserta, southern Italy, earlier today.

Giovanni Traettino, a Pentecostal pastor and longtime friend of Pope Francis, welcomed the Pope, who he described as “my beloved brother,” to his partially built church in Caserta.

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Pope Francis said he knows some people were shocked that he would make a special trip outside of Rome to visit a group of Pentecostals, “but I went to visit my friends.”

The Vatican had described the visit as “strictly private” and, except for Vatican media, reporters were kept on the roof of a nearby apartment building. In the new worship space of the Pentecostal Church of Reconciliation, still under construction, Pope Francis met with about 200 people, including members of Traettino’s congregation, other Italian evangelicals and representatives of Pentecostal ministries in Argentina and the United States, the Vatican said.

Traettino told the Pope his visit was “unthinkable until recently,” even though, he said, “even among evangelicals there is great affection for you. Many of us pray for you, every day. Many of us, in fact, believe your election as bishop of Rome was the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Pope Francis told the Pentecostals that “the Holy Spirit is the source of diversity in the Church. This diversity is very rich and beautiful. But then the same Holy Spirit creates unity. And in this way the Church is one in diversity. To use a beautiful Gospel phrase that I love very much, reconciled diversity” is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Pope and Traettino first met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the late 1990s when Traettino was establishing ties between charismatic Catholics and Pentecostal Protestants. The then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Traettino also appeared together at a large ecumenical charismatic gathering in Buenos Aires in 2006. Traettino was present June 1 in Rome’s Olympic Stadium when Pope Francis spoke to an international gathering of Catholic charismatics.

Meeting with Caserta’s Catholic priests and bishops from the Campania region on July 26, the date originally scheduled for his visit with the Pentecostals, Pope Francis said he had not known that date was the city’s big celebration for the feast of St Anne.

If he had gone to the Pentecostals that day, without celebrating the feast with Catholics, “the newspaper headlines would have been ‘On the patron feast of Caserta, the Pope visits Protestants,'” he said. So, he asked an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State to help organise the Mass “to remove this noose from around my neck.”

Pope Francis also gave the priests a glimpse into his thoughts about Catholic relations with the Pentecostals, which some people have found surprising, especially given how many Catholics in the Pope’s Latin America have joined evangelical communities.

He told the story of a priest who went on mission in a remote area of Argentina and met a woman who told him the Catholic Church had abandoned her and her fellow Catholics. “I need the word of God, so I had to go to the Protestant service,” the woman said. The Pope said the priest apologised on behalf of the Catholic Church, but recognised and respected the depth and sincerity of her faith.

“Every man, every woman has something to give us,” the Pope said. “Every man, every woman has his or her own story and situation, and we must listen. Then, the prudence of the Holy Spirit will tell us what to say.”

“Never be afraid to dialogue with anyone,” Pope Francis told the Caserta priests. Dialogue is not being defensive about one’s faith, although it can mean explaining what one believes. And it is not pressuring another to join one’s faith.

Benedict XVI was right when he said that “the Church grows not through proselytism, but through attraction,” Pope Francis said. And attraction is “human empathy guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Msgr Juan Usma Gomez, who handles the Catholic Church’s official relations with evangelicals and Pentecostals, told Vatican Radio last week that Pope Francis teaches that “to work for Christian unity you need brotherhood,” which is why he continues to nurture the friendships he established in Argentina. The iPhone video message the Pope made in January with another Pentecostal friend, Bishop Tony Palmer, who died in a motorcycle accident on July 20, “opened a door because it reached a really significant number of people,” Msgr Usma said.

“It’s an adventure that Pope Francis is asking us to establish … He’s way ahead of us and we’re trying to follow this pattern.”

For the full text of Pope Francis’s address, go here.

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