The image projected onto the giant screen above the recent Kenneth Copeland Ministries conference was not your typical clever smartphone video.
Still, the crowd of Pentecostal Protestants was mesmerized because the shepherd vested in white who addressed them — in Italian, with subtitles — was one of the last men on earth they would have expected to warmly bestow his blessing on them.
Pope Francis stressed that they “must encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together. … These tears will unite us, the tears of love. … I speak to you in a simple way, with joy and yearning. Let us allow our 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.”
There was another historic twist at the end. The pope from Latin America asked the flock in Texas for a spiritual favor, which would have been unthinkable during decades of bitter tensions between established Catholic churches and the rising tide of Protestant — usually Pentecostal — believers in the Americas.
“I thank you profoundly for allowing me to speak the language of the heart,” said Pope Francis. “Please pray for me, because I need your prayers. … 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.”
Copeland then took the stage, shouting, “Glory! Glory! Glory! Come on, the man asked us to pray for him!”
Many in the crowd lifted their hands and began speaking in what Pentecostal Christians believe are heavenly, unknown tongues. Copeland — a global televangelist — proclaimed: “Father we answer his request. … We know not how to pray for him as we ought, other than to agree with him in his quest … for the unity of the Body of Christ. We come together in the unity of our faith. Hallelujah!”
This drama was the result of relationships forged behind the scenes. The video was recorded during a Jan. 14 visit to Rome by Bishop Anthony Palmer, a Pentecostal minister from England who is part of the independent Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. He traveled to Argentina five years ago to work with Catholic Charismatic Renewal leaders and also met the local Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis. Their ongoing friendship led to an invitation to visit the Vatican.
The pope’s video, and its enthusiastic reception by Copeland and his flock, caused a sensation on the Internet. The key was the contrast between the image of the Jesuit pope with a media-friendly flare for simple living and that of Copeland, an elder statesman of what critics call the “prosperity Gospel.”
Meanwhile, some Protestants worried about Palmer’s challenge to the crowd: “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over. Is yours?” And some Catholics pondered the pope’s statement: “It is sin that has separated us, all our sins. … It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame.”
Both of these reactions miss the point, noted Marcel LeJeune, the assistant director of campus ministry at the thriving St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M University. The goal of the pope’s message was to demonstrate Christian unity where it could be demonstrated — in prayer and encouragement — rather than doctrinal debates.
“This is what Christian unity looks like,” he argued in a commentary at the Aggie Catholics website. “It doesn’t ignore the differences that we have with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. It isn’t triumphalistic. It isn’t us vs. them.”
At the same time, speaking as a Catholic raised in Texas, LeJeune said it was stunning to see a flock of evangelical leaders openly praying for the pope, instead of, as was common in the past, “talking about Rome being the great whore of Babylon.”
Catholics and conservative Protestants have to “find some middle ground between sitting in a circle singing ‘Kumbaya’ and sitting off by ourselves going on and on about our many differences,” he said, in a telephone interview. “We have to see each other as brothers and sisters, rather than enemies, or we will just keep driving stakes into the hearts people who are open to becoming believers.”