By Rev. Fr. Michel Tchoumbou
We have been talking about ways of getting along, even with non-Christians, in ways that bear witness to the Gospel. Here is a story that involves Pope Francis worth sharing. I heard this story from a renowned evangelical pastor (“evangelicals” are Christians who believe that all we need to know about God must come from the Bible only. They refute all other spiritual authority, particularly that of the Pope and of the universal Church as an institution).
Like most member of his congregation, Pastor Jeremiah had never liked the Catholic Church. His faith tradition taught him that the Catholic Church worships idols, and all Catholics were away from the truth of the Bible. But he confesses that a few people and events in his life have made him look at the Church differently.
On one occasion, Pope Benedict invited him and other radical evangelicals to Rome. He saw it as an opportunity to “help” Catholics know the truth. He put on his theological hat and went to Rome, expecting a heated debate with top Vatican theologians. When he got to Rome, and finally met the Pope, he was surprised by the warm welcome and the simple request of the Holy Father – I quote – “You Protestants know very well how to present the gospel to the world today. What advice can you give us?” Instantly, the pastor’s theological wall collapsed. He was hoping for a theological fight; but before him the most educated, Pope Benedict, humbled himself and asked for his help. He wanted to learn from him. That was his first eye opener about the Catholic Church.
Secondly, when he returned to Argentina, where he worked at the time, he also got to know Cardinal Bergolio, another simple Catholic prelate. They became friends. Shortly after, Pope Benedict retired. All cardinals were convened to Rome.
One evening, the pastor’s mobile phone rang. On the other end was Cardinal Bergolio who said to him “I am going to Rome as you know. Some important decisions will be made, pray for me and for the Church.” To this evangelical pastor this was another humble request from a Catholic prelate that touched him deeply. Could his prayers be that important to a Catholic Cardinal?
Three days later, his friend Cardinal Bergolio was elected Pope. The Reverend Pastor was happy though he knew that he had lost a friend. Who was ‘Jeremiah’ for a Pope to think of as a friend?
Thirdly, one evening, his mobile phone rang again. This time – “Reverend, this is Francis, when are you coming to Rome?” He did not believe his ears. How could the Pope remember and call him?
Fourthly, when he accepted to go to Rome, the Pope asked him what day and what time he would like to come to his office. “My Goodness”, he said to himself, “how can the greatest leader in the world ask that I come to him according to my schedule?”
When he finally made it to Rome, Pope Francis took him to his little apartment. He expected theological discussions; “perhaps the Pope wants him to take back a message to the other evangelical leaders”, he thought. Not at all!
The Holy Father asked after his family, his work as a pastor, his life and …asked him to pray for him. That was all.
Before he left the Holy Father’s little apartment, he asked if the Pope had a message for all evangelical leaders like himself because he was soon going to meet them at a conference. The message was simple and can be summarised as follows: “God is our Father; Jesus Christ is our Lord. That makes us all brothers and Sisters.” The Pope agreed that he could record the message on his mobile phone.
Reverend Pastor Jeremiah went home and has never stopped broadcasting the encounter on protestant radios all across America.
In sharing the story, one of the points that the pastor makes it is that faith in God, shown in kindness, in humility and simplicity, on how we accept and treat each other, is stronger than all arguments about doctrine that we might hold against each other. People shall respect our faith not based on the kinds of Bible and Catechisms we read, but by what our faith inspires us to do with basic human compassion, and above all, with a Christ-like love.