When in Rome

When in Rome . . .

I don’t often receive an invitation from the Vatican to accompany the Pope, so when it came I accepted. Encouraged by our General Secretary, Geoff Tunnicliffe, I joined him on the pilgrimage to Assisi.

First some history. Francis of Assisi (1181 to 1226) founded the Franciscans, an order devoted to helping the poor. Twenty-five years ago, Pope John Paul II hosted the first World Day of Peace, followed by another, soon after 9/11. Gregory XVI decided to honor that earlier moment by inviting Christian and other religious leaders to join him for a pilgrimage to Assisi, the place of the founding of the Franciscans.

It was a gracious invitation and one unteathered to any ideological commitment except the praying for peace. Hosted by the Vatican a bus transported us from our hotel. Following wailing police sirens, we wended our way quickly through the maze of Rome’s traffic to the waiting train in the Vatican. The speedy train travelled north through picturesque Italian countryside, slowing down when going through villages, as crowds gathered on station platforms to offer their best wishes, ending at the spectacular hill side of Assisi.

Three hundred of us gathered, first at the Basilica of the Angel of St Mary for the major speeches. A lunch was served by the Franciscans followed by a time of personal prayer. We then walked up the hillside to a service of singing and praise on the plaza of the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. Designed by the Vatican to focus on peace, the event reminded us of our role as peacemakers.

Was attending worth the effort? Should we as global evangelical leaders have attended? Let me answer in context: worldwide there are some 2.2 billion Christians. 1.1 billion claim allegiance to the Roman Catholic church, 500 million are in churches linked to the World Council of Churches (including the Orthodox) and 600 million are evangelical, represented by the World Evangelical Alliance. A few thoughts.

First, the globalization of our world means that what happens in one part of the world ripples its way to another. A Muslim and Christian mob scene in Nigeria touches the lives of Christians and Muslims in other countries. Recall the U.S. Rev. Jones who burned a Koran? Scores of Christians died because of his action. The old story plays out here: if we are not there, our voice is not heard, and if not heard we have no right to complain if our concerns, ideas or initiatives are ignored. Second, if we are absent, the Gospel (as we evangelicals affirm) may be shunted to the side as the ramblings of fanatics.

I suggest we should be there. We have a heritage of intellectual and spiritual understanding. Being absent, our contribution will be overlooked, forgotten or ignored. There is also a practical reason. WEA as the official worldwide representative has business to do on behalf of its members, with its national alliances in 129 countries.

Standing in the courtyard of the pope’s apartment, we waited for our Friday morning meeting and then lunch (something went wrong with the Vatican’s scheduling, leaving us standing around for an hour). Geoff and I ended up speaking with a senior religious representative of a country in which evangelicals have been excluded from being able to register, which creates all sorts of problems such as renting or buying property. While speaking with him of the problem he provided insights and strategies on how we might take opportunity of a current political window. We possibly would never have had such a conversation except in this setting. Here we were respected as mutual invitees, on equal ground.

We also believe we have something to offer the world body of Christians in bringing about peace. Christian and other religious leaders need to know who the other players are. When problems arise, it is important we know where we can go for help to find solutions. The overlapping in our society’s means it isn’t just missionaries in other parts of the world who have to deal with religious differences. We need to find solutions to conflicts that come with migration, and we will need to increase our activity in diffusing problems that too often end up in hostilities.

Let it be said, we also have much to learn from others. While the formal events were valuable, as usual, it was over meals, walking the corridors of churches and the streets of Rome and Assisi that I learned most, was inspired and reminded of the global work of the Spirit, always, conspiring to do the will of the Father.

What was learned?
One could not be but impressed with the influence Rome has to invite and get such a response. It is socially, culturally, and politically able to exert her agenda in the world. Surrounded by exquisite art, inspiring architecture, ever reminded of its history, she is confident that she is the church, the representative of Christ. They are careful in their quiet and gracious service, but there is no doubt they rest in such confidence.

She gave space for us all, honouring especially the Orthodox and the Church of England (with whom they had a dust up last year when the Vatican encouraged Anglican priests to apply as priests to the RC church). They honored evangelicals, and gave a special place to Baptists and Pentecostals. While other religious leaders were respected and given time at the podium, there was never a doubt under whose banner we gathered. There was no giving away of the Trinitarian vision of God, the deity of Jesus and the life and work of the Spirit.

I was asked if this working together might lead to syncretism – religions merging into a kind of one religion. From my experience in Rome, I must say, “Not a chance.” This event was a far from that as one could get. While other religions were respected, at the heart of all that went on was the authority centered in this church, and as you could imagine, the pope.

This leads to another remarkable factor, which is the magnetic draw of the pope. In contrast to John Paul II, this pope is scholarly, without dramatic presence. Even so, everything changed when he entered the room. All eyes were on him. What I found amazing was that other faiths (I should note that Muslims were not represented by their senior leaders) would put themselves under the canopy of Rome, an acknowledgement that in the world of religion, Rome is senior.

She has global power. She has enormous self-confidence. Her organizational and global power to make the call and have it responded to is unparalleled. She should not be underestimated.

At the final lunch hosted by Cardinal Bertone, a quick look around the room was convincing that it was a world run by men and determined by rank. Hierarchical, it runs from the top down. She controls wide-ranging communities of congregations, orders, and educational centres which is a study in itself. It left me wondering where all of this will be in a few decades as leadership in the church comes from a more horizontal plane, women have more of a role and young people create new forms and models.

There were two serendipitous moments: The first was meeting members of the Sant Egidio, a community of professionals who lives are centred on prayer, Bible study and caring for the poor. Leonardo Gialloreti, a neurologist, introduced me to their community. Their love for Christ accompanied by a manifest desire to learn to pray and a daily commitment each has to work in a community of the poor, struck me as such a practical and effective biblical model around which to live out the Gospel. One evening I went to a prayer meeting at a local parish church filled with people. The service contained singing prayers, beautifully led by a small choral group and a very fine sermon on Christ, the only hope of peace. I learned these prayer services are held every night and the church is always full.

The second is the younger leadership of the evangelical alliance in Italy.

While Italy has been an unyielding ground for church planting for some 3000 evangelical churches, the quality of pastors is remarkable. I travelled to the Adriatic with Leonardo De Chirico, Vice Chair of the Alliance, pastor, theologian and Vatican Correspondent for the WEA. As we drove, he told me of his work, the witness of evangelicals in Italy and our relationship with the Vatican. It didn’t take me long to know we are in good hands. His insight into how the Spirit is active lifted any concern one might have that our message and presence is in any danger of compromise.The second is the younger leadership of the evangelical alliance in Italy. While Italy has been an unyielding ground for church planting for some 3000 evangelical churches, the quality of pastors is remarkable. I travelled to the Adriatic with Leonardo De Chirico, Vice Chair of the Alliance, pastor, theologian and Vatican Correspondent for the WEA. As we drove, he told me of his work, the witness of evangelicals in Italy and our relationship with the Vatican. It didn’t take me long to know we are in good hands. His insight into how the Spirit is active lifted any concern one might have that our message and presence is in any danger of compromise.

In this time of enormous change, I’m anchored by the Apostle Paul who noted that as King David led, he “served his generation.” Today leads into tomorrow. As we carefully getting it right today it will be the foundation on which our next generation will make lead.

. . . When in Rome, listen and learn.

 

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