Pentecostal Thoughts on Pope Francis

Thursday, December 5, 2013, 7:10 AM

When Cardinal Jorge Borgoglio became Francis there was a ripple of excitement that ran through parts of the Pentecostal community. This excitement was related to then Cardinal Borgoglio’s actions in Argentina as represented in the picture of prayers being offered for him by Raniero Cantalamessa who has been so important to the Catholic Charismatic movement and by Norberto Saracco, a Pentecostal who directs the Facultad Internacional de Educación Teológica in Buenos Aires.

Recently, Pope Francis has had private audiences with leaders in the Catholic Charismatic renewal, including Matteo Calisi,  past president of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships; Michelle Moran, president of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services; and Salvatore Martinez, president of the Italian Catholic Charismatic organization Rinnovamento nello SpiritoHe has also stated in the interview during his return from Rio de Janeiro that the Charismatic renewal renews the church, and recently reminded the 15,000 persons present at the 36th National Assembly of Catholic Charismatics in Rimini that he was responsible for the Charismatic renewal in Argentina. These are all encouraging signs.

His first apostolic exhortation offers many reasons to remain excited about his papacy although I will mention three points that seem particularly important for Pentecostals.

1. It seems to me that Pope Francis seeks to recover the spirituality of the early Franciscans and wed it to the pneumatology of the Catholic Charismatic renewal

Whereas Benedict XVI’s theology flowed in part from his Bonaventurian sensibilities, Francis exemplifies the more simplified approach of his namesake, as others have indicated. This approach is no less theological, but it is a theology birthed in action and a contemplative vision that is more ecstatic and less ratiocinative.

At the Pentecost Vigil in May of this year, Francis centered his words around the themes of encounter and incarnation. By encounter, he meant first of all an encounter with Jesus, an experience of faith that he himself had when he was seventeen. At one point, he suggested that theological study is inadequate apart from an encounter with Jesus, words that resonate with any Pentecostal.

Francis then called for his listeners to encounter the other in the towns, villages, and streets of life. This connected with his assertion that the church cannot become closed in upon itself, but must go out of itself. Encounter is always an ecstatic movement, which suggests a charismatic and mystical dimension to Pope Francis’ theology. Not only does encounter ground his call for Spirit-filled evangelizers in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis opens the exhortation with the joy that comes from encounter and then weaves it into the entire narrative.

The incarnate dimension is simply the church’s becoming poor in the context of ecstatic encounter. But it is also the praxis of poverty one finds in the Poverello. In the same way that Francis of Assisi called for a populist movement that finds Christ by becoming Christ in the world, Pope Francis calls for an evangelism that persuades through embodied action. This embodied poverty seeks out the impoverished in the world to bring the good news, which is why there is a focus on the poor throughout the exhortation.

I find it helpful to read Evangelii Gaudium in light of the pneumatological lens of encounter and the Christological lens of embodied poverty. Francis’ theological reflections move between ecstatic encounter and incarnational mission in a way that resonates with the Pentecostal movement from Spirit baptism to witness.

2. Pope Francis calls for an authentic popular piety to confront the cultural crises in a way that extends Lumen Gentium’s focus on the people of God

By doing so, the Pope put populism and its relationship to the theological life of Christianity front and center as Rusty Reno has pointed out. Pentecostals continue to struggle against the link between populism and charges of anti-intellectualism. Francis has created the needed space for a new conversation on how populism contributes to the life of the mind through the kind of action-reflection that he engages in.

The focus on popular piety also reflects Francis’ involvement in the Catholic Charismatic movement, which is one of many lay movements that form the vanguard of the new evangelism. Pentecostals would heartily agree with Francis that the Spirit bestows charisms on the people of God who then extend the life of God to the world.

At the same time, as the Holy Father points out, the very act of the Spirit’s gracious bestowal calls forth internal renewal. It is the constant movement from purgation to perfection or from penance to confession to union on both the personal and ecclesial levels. For Pentecostals, the movement is from consecration to empowerment. To fully release the Spirit’s power requires throwing one’s all on the altar of prayer in absolute surrender. This is why Pentecostals view sanctifying grace and charismatic grace as not simply two modalities of grace, but two movements repeated over and over in the life of the person and in the life of the church.

This focus on populist forms of Christianity does not make Francis more Protestant, but more renewalist in the medieval sense of that term. The Gregorian reforms began as populist movements that then affected the nature of the papacy. It unleashed the people of God in unprecedented ways. Despite his grandiose claims to papal supremacy, Innocent III was determined to bring lay movements of spirituality into the orbit of the church’s institutional and ecclesial life. Innocent unleashed the power of the people of God while attacking the power of the princes. This is how renewal succeeds without fracturing the body. Pope Frances is a twenty-first century embodiment of that principle of renewal.

3. Pope Francis offers an implicit critique of a certain kind of democratic optimism that connects equality with human perfectibility

When I first read the second chapter of Evangelii Gaudium and the controversial bits about economic issues, I thought of Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the difference between equality and freedom.

Tocqueville saw an inherent problem to democratic optimism, noting that democratic nations tend to stretch the bounds of human perfectibility to excess because of their focus on equality of status over political freedom. An image of perfection, even if vague and inchoate, appears when class differences disappear, family structures are uprooted, practices and customs are overthrown, and new truths come to light. According to Tocqueville, the extreme pursuit of equality of status and social condition can fuel individualism by placing people “shoulder to shoulder, unconnected by any common tie.” Because such a pursuit of equality is commensurate with the overthrow of L’Ancien Régime, the thirst for equality of social condition can break every tie that binds persons together until the bond of humanity disappears in a vast sea of self-interest. This is a problem inherent to the democratic experience, especially its connection to the expression of economic self-interest within capitalism.

Francis’ connection of the crisis of communal commitment with inequality and the loss of political freedom, including religious freedom, echoes Tocqueville’s well-known claim that democratic nations “have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality; they want equality in freedom and, if they cannot have it, they want it in slavery. They will endure poverty, subjection, barbarism but they will not endure aristocracy.”

The pursuit of an equality of status at all costs produces a radical individualism, which is the very problem Francis wants to confront by calling societies back to the common good, the bonds of family, and the solidarity borne from a common humanity. It is a way of saying that apart from a moral center democracy and capitalism cannot succeed because of the inherent tensions between equality and freedom. Pentecostals and Protestant charismatics need to hear this call to recover a social holiness so central to the birth of the movement. By recovering social holiness, we can return to the idea that the prosperity of the gospel is to pour out oneself in joyous abandon. This is the pilgrim’s progress toward perfect happiness.

In the foreword to Raniero Cantalamessa’s Come, Creator Spirit, Benedict XVI brought together Johann Adam Möhler’s focus on the Spirit with the way in which Pentecostalism facilitated the Catholic Charismatic renewal. What was needed, Benedict noted, was an instrument to apply the pneumatological content of Catholic theologians like Johann Möhler, Heribert Mühlen, and Yves Congar to the concrete reality of Christian living. It is this application of theology to the praxis of Christian existence that I find in the current papacy and I am heartened by it.

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