“You’re going to talk about tonight for a long time,” Kenneth Copeland told a large crowd of Pentecostal pastors at a conference he hosted in January. Copeland is a prominent televangelist and Pentecostal preacher based in Tarrant County, Texas. His ministry employs roughly 500 people.
Copeland introduced Tony Palmer to the crowd. Palmer was a longstanding co-worker of Copeland and a bishop with a network of charismatic churches in the Anglican tradition. He shared his story and how he had come to know Catholic Bishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, when he sought permission to work with charismatic Catholics in that city. Several years later Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis.
Two weeks before the conference, Palmer was invited to visit the pope in Rome. When Palmer told the pope about the upcoming gathering of charismatic pastors, the pope suggested he send a message. On his smartphone, Palmer recorded a simple and powerful seven-minute greeting. In masterfully introducing the video clip, Palmer shared how he had been blessed by various Christian traditions.
In his greeting, the pope said he was speaking from the heart, a language with a special grammar and only two rules: Love God above all, and love your neighbor. The pope sent a message of joy and yearning. “It gives me joy,” he said, “that you have come together to worship Jesus Christ, the only Lord.”
But the pope also expressed his yearning. He talked about families that love each other and families that are separated. “We are kind of, permit me to say, separated,” because of “a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned. There is only one blameless, the Lord.”
The pope continued, “I am yearning, that this separation comes to an end.” Recounting the painful separation of Joseph from his brothers and their reunion years later, he said: “I am yearning for that embrace. . . But we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love. . . . Let us allow that 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.”
The pope concluded by asking the Pentecostal pastors to pray for him and pledged his prayers for them.
“Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has already begun. And this is a miracle. The miracle of unity has begun,” he said.
At the conference, the video greeting was received with raised hands in an extended prayer of thanks and blessing for the pope. The gathered pastors also prayed for unity in the body. On stage, Copeland recorded a video greeting to the pope in return.
This initial exchange was followed this summer by several face-to-face meetings between Pentecostal and evangelical leaders and Pope Francis. In addition to Copeland, others who met with the pope included Joel Osteen, James Robinson, Gayle Beebe, Geoff Tunnicliffe and Carol Arnott.
“This meeting was a miracle,” Robinson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “This is something God has done. God wants his arms around the world. And he wants Christians to put his arms around the world by working together.”
Tony Palmer died tragically in late July from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.