Beyond Labels

Pope Francis has done it again.

This week he published an exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), to his followers in the Catholic Church. In it he said: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.”

There’s something refreshingly unsettling about this Pontiff. He certainly isn’t clinging to the security of life behind the powerful and secretive walls of Vatican City. His humility has been clear right from the papal announcement where he chose to wear simple robes and immediately asked millions across the world to pray for him. He chose to stay in a hostel instead of the official mansion residence and travels largely in a Ford Focus, rejecting the papal limousine where possible.

He has not been afraid to challenge hypocrisy and injustice within the religious, political and economic structures of the day. But beyond these macro-engagements on the world stage, or through Twitter, it is his encounters with individuals that has characterised his papacy so far. He has joked with journalists, washed the feet of prisoners, kissed and blessed those with disabilities and lived among the poor.

Pope Francis speaks of Jesus often and encourages a personal relationship with him. Again in this week’s exhortation he said: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark on a new chapter of evangelisation marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

Growing up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland I am fascinated by this man and especially hearing him talk of evangelisation and being born anew. Many Protestants here were told from a church pulpit that the Pope was the anti-Christ. Yet this man challenges me deeply both in how I look at him and how I look at others.

You see, I label people. Not as the literal anti-Christ so much, but try as I might not to, I do label others who claim to follow Christ: sound, liberal, fundamentalist, happy-clappy. And it’s not just me or confined to the Church. A brief reading of the headlines this week shows some of the labels society places on others: prostitute, druggie, slave, alcoholic. We take someone’s action or aspect of their personhood and use that to define that entire person. We constantly use labels to separate ourselves and to define ‘us’ against ‘them’. In doing so we dehumanise the image of God in others, reducing them down to a word.

I can’t escape the fact that when I look at the way Pope Francis rejects labels and encounters individuals I am reminded of Christ. Jesus looked at people through God’s eyes, literally. He refused to put labels on people, seeing the holy humanity of each person made in the image of God. When we encounter Jesus and become his followers he takes our labels away. This is part of the ‘joy of the gospel’, a new identity in Christ. We are given new life, new relationships with God and others and a new identity beyond our labels.

I am not a Catholic, I don’t believe all the Pope believes or all his Church teaches. But seeing beyond the labels, I see a humble man made in the image of his maker with a practical love of Jesus. I can only hope others see that in me.
So here’s the challenge this weekend. What labels have you put on yourself or on others? Is there someone you need to take out of a pigeonhole? What’s stopping you seeing people through Jesus’s eyes?

David Smyth is public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland .

10 thoughts on “Beyond Labels

  1. No More Pentecostal Popemobiles

    I’m not Catholic, and I’ve never completely understood Catholics’ preoccupation with Vatican politics. But I’ve been watching the Vatican closely since last week when Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the 266th pope and instantly got 2 million followers—and counting—on Twitter.

    Why is this man so popular? That’s easy to understand. He’s humble. He cooks for himself. He chose to live in a small apartment in Buenos Aires instead of the archbishop’s palace. When he was the leader of Argentina’s Catholics, he took el micro—the city bus—to get around. He took the bus again after his election last week in Rome.

    He even slipped out of the Vatican after his election to go and worship with the regular people—without security guards or the popemobile!

    And Bergoglio, who will go by the name Pope Francis, is a staunch advocate of social justice. He reportedly asked his Argentinean colleagues to skip his inauguration in Rome and give the money they would have spent on airfare to the poor.

    Have you noticed a contrast between Pope Francis’ simple lifestyle and the sickening excess that is on display among some of our Pentecostal/charismatic leaders?

    I’ve pulled a lot of my hair out watching our embarrassing charismatic sideshows over the last few years. I think it is time we draw a line in the sand and say: “NO MORE.”

    NO MORE BODYGUARDS. We have evangelists who send a small squadron of muscular thugs to “scout” the lobby of a hotel before they arrive. This is extremely odd when you realize that most of the people in said lobby have never even heard of the guy! Sorry, but I really don’t trust a man of God who claims he needs a bodyguard in church. Get down on the people’s level if you want to minister to them.

    NO MORE $10,000 PER NIGHT HOTEL ROOMS. We have traveling preachers who book 10,000-square-ft. hotel rooms with private pools so they can rest on their way home from international trips. Excuse me? We could build an orphanage with the money this man wasted. (P.S. I know a good Hampton Inn where you can get a nice bed for $89 a night—and it includes a hot breakfast.)

    NO MORE PRIVATE JETS. We have egomaniac ministers who insist on flying in private jets to speaking engagements, claiming that preachers who fly commercial aircraft have no faith. These same ministers will hand you a fuel bill for $25,000. That is sick, especially when you consider that Jesus rode a donkey when He was presented as the Messiah to Jerusalem. (Note to Rev. Bighead: You are not the president, and you do not need Air Force One.)

    NO MORE CHARLATANS. We have slimy TV preachers who beg for dollars on Christian television stations, pocket a large amount of the take and then use some of the funds to install marble floors in their four-car garages. That’s worse than when medieval priests sold papal indulgences to get relatives out of purgatory.

    NO MORE LIMOUSINES. I don’t believe ministers have to drive clunker cars. Higher-priced cars usually mean lower repair bills. But we have a problem when a visiting preacher refuses to be picked up at the airport in a church van, or when the pastor of a 100-member church insists he must ride in a neon yellow Ferrari. Get over yourself. Maybe you should learn from Pope Francis—and take the bus until your ego shrinks to a normal size.

    Last week in this column I shared a dream in which I saw a tsunami crashing into the Vatican and turning the Catholic system upside down. When the new pope was elected, an Argentinean newspaper called him “Tsunami Bergoglio” because they expect him to reform the stuffy, prideful, bureaucratic Vatican and challenge Catholics to return to a humble focus on Christ.

    We need the same drastic reforms on our side of the evangelical/Catholic divide. We need Pentecostal and charismatic leaders who shun the palace, reject lavish excess and get back to the basics of true gospel ministry.

    J. Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma and the director of The Mordecai Project ( You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. Click here to read his column from last week, in which he describes a dream he had about a coming reformation in the Catholic Church.

  2. Hope this Pope hangs around for a long time. He’s ruffling feathers in his own church.

    Pope Francis, Pentecostals and Interreligious Action

    “I was responsible for Charismatic Renewal in Argentina and that’s why I love them very much.”
    – Message of Pope Francis to Rimini Charismatic Assembly, April 27, 2013

    Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, states in his newly-released book On Heaven and Earth that he happily allowed Protestant Pastors to pray over him at a huge Charismatic Conference. He further says he is baffled as to why anyone would find this objectionable.

    On Heaven and Earth is a joint production of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka. It is a book of conversations between the two men first released in Spanish in 2010, and now published in English.

    In this book we encounter Cardinal Bergoglio in his own words. He appears to have a warm heart, a number of good Catholic instincts, but also shows himself immersed in the new ecumenical orientation of Vatican II. The Council’s pan-religious program is central to his thinking. His commitment to Pentecostalism is one such instance.

    The Joint “Blessing”

    On June 19, 2009, the Third Annual Fraternal Encounter of Evangelicals and Catholics was held in Luna Park stadium, Buenos Aires. Cardinal Bergoglio attended.

    At one point, as is characteristic in these Pentecostal gatherings, the Cardinal dropped to his knees on stage to receive the “blessing” from the well-known Charismatic Father Raniero Cantalamessa O.F.M. and a number of Protestant pastors.

    Some well-meaning Catholics tried to argue that Bergoglio must have only intended to receive a blessing from the Catholic priest, and the Protestants jumped in as a surprise to the Cardinal. As I noted in the April CFN, I do not see how this could be the case. Long time readers know I have attended many riotous Charismatic gatherings as an observer. These pan-Christian joint-blessings are standard procedure at Charismatic assemblies. Also, Pentecostalism has been rampant in South America since the late-1960s, so it was unlikely the Cardinal of Buenos Aries was unaware of these ‘joint blessings” before participating in the 2009 event.

    All speculation is put to rest on this point when we read page 220 of the newly released On Heaven and Earth. Cardinal Bergoglio states with pride that he knowingly permitted the joint blessing to take place.

    The Cardinal says, “The first time that the Evangelicals invited me to one of their meetings at Luna Park, the stadium was full. That day a Catholic priest [Father Cantalamessa] and an Evangelical Pastor spoke. They gave two talks each, interspersed with a break to eat some sandwiches at noon. At one point the Evangelical pastor asked that everyone pray for me and my ministry. He had asked me if I would accept that they would pray for me and I answered him that of course I would. When they prayed, the first thing that occurred to me was to kneel down, a very Catholic gesture, to receive their prayer and the blessing of the seven thousand people that were there. The next week, a magazine headline stated: ‘Buenos Aires, sede vacante. The Archbishop commits the sin of apostasy.’ For them, prayer together with others was apostasy. Even with an agnostic, with his doubt, we can look up together to find transcendence; each one praying according to his tradition. What’s the problem?”[1]

    Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this story is not that the Cardinal accepted the ‘blessing’ from Protestants – though this is troubling enough – but that he appears to be genuinely mystified as to why anyone would find his actions objectionable.

    This makes one wonder what sort of formation young Jorge Bergoglio received in those heady days after the Council just prior to his 1969 ordination.

    We will deal with the centuries-old Catholic objections to such actions, but will first document Cardinal Bergoglio’s up-to-the-moment support of Pentecostalism.

    Testimonials from Charismatics quickly emerge after Bergoglio was elected to the Papacy.

    “He supported the Charismatic Movement”

    Dr Vinson Synon, the well-known Protestant Pentecostal, recalls an encouraging visit he had with Cardinal Bergoglio in 2005 in Buenos Aires.

    It was a meeting of the International Charismatic Consultation with people of all denominations. The purpose was to promote “dialogue” between Pentecostals and Catholics in Latin America.

    Vinson Synan and his group met Cardinal Bergoglio in his palace. “He was very friendly indeed,” recounts Synon. “He supported the charismatic movement. What struck us most was when he beseeched us to pray for him. We gathered around and prayed fervently for him. Little did we know that he would someday be Pope.”[2]

    “Catholic” Charismatic Ralph Martin was jubilant at Cardinal Bergoglio’s election. He wrote on March 20, “Many have asked if he [Pope Francis] is friendly towards the charismatic renewal and evangelization. He is. Several people have sent me photos of Pope Francis, while he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, asking a group of evangelical pastors to pray over him. In fact, a Pentecostal minister posted this picture on the web (see above), noting that Cardinal Bergoglio was very involved over the years in the annual dialogue between Catholics and Pentecostals as well as the retreats for priests and pastors that were organized before each meeting.” [3]

    The March 14 Christianity Today wrote that Argentine Evangelicals were overjoyed at Bergoglio’s election: “Bergoglio has played a central role in Argentina’s CRECES (Renewal Communion of Catholics and Evangelicals in the Holy Spirit) movement over the past 10 years, and has strongly supported the Argentine [Protestant] Bible society.”

    Juan Pablo Bongarrá, president of the Argentine Bible Society said of Bergoglio, “He has very good and friendly relations with leaders of other religions,” and noted that Bergoglio respects and promotes interfaith dialogue.

    Bongarrá’s furthered celebrated Bergoglio as follows: “He [Bergoglio] mounted the platform and called for pastors to pray for him, He knelt in front of nearly 6,000 people and [Protestant leaders] laid hands and prayed. We evangelical leaders that know him are very happy with his election,”[4]

    On April 27, Pope Francis (formerly Cardinal Bergoglio), reiterated his commitment to Pentecostalism. According to Zenit news, Archbishop Rino Fischella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, celebrated Mass at the Rimini Fair of the 36th National Assembly of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Here, Archbishop Fisichella gave an unexpected surprise message to the 15,000 Charismatics who received it with enthusiasm.

    “Before beginning this celebration,” Archbishop Fischella told the crowd, “I bring you a greeting. Before I left this morning, I was with Pope Francis, and I told him: ‘Holy Father, I have to leave soon. I’m going to Rimini where there are thousands upon thousands of the Charismatic Renewal: men, women and young people.’ With a great smile, the Pope said; ‘Tell them that I love them very much!’ Upon leaving the Holy Father, Archbishop Fisichella recounted, the Holy Father added: “Look, tell them that I love them very much because I was responsible for Charismatic Renewal in Argentina, and that’s why I love them very much’.”[5]

    Another instance of Cardinal Bergoglio’s ecumenical thinking is recounted by Gren Venables, Anglican Bishop of Argentina (and former archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone). Venables recounts that while still in Argentina, Cardinbal Bergoglio “called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate [created by the Catholic Church to accommodate alienated Anglicans] was quite unnecessary and that the Church needs us to be Anglicans.”[6]

    Cardinal Bergoglio’s attitude echoes the ecumenical theology of Walter Cardinal Kasper who said in 2003, “Several aspects of being church are better realized in other churches. Therefore, ecumenism is no one-way street, but a reciprocal learning process, or, as stated in Ut Unum Sint, an exchange of gifts. The way to unity is therefore not the return of others into the fold of the Catholic Church.” [7]

    As noted in the April CFN, Pope Francis voiced unqualified admiration of Cardinal Walter Kasper in his first Angelus Address, four days after his papal elevation. The new pope appeared to give a hint to his own ecumenical thinking and to the likely direction of his pontificate.

  3. The more I read and hear about Pope Francis, the more I love and admire him, as THE leader of world Christianity. There is no other spiritual leader with his voice or message in combination.

  4. Yeah Joe.

    I’ll leave Steve to snarl and growl about the evil Catholics of his delusions.

    Meanwhile in the real world

    I’m an Evangelical, but I absolutely love Pope Francis

    The daring priest from Buenos Aires is stirring the hearts of Evangelicals all over the world

    The election of Pope Francis promises to be a defining social and historical moment. The leadership of the Church which is home to a sixth of the world’s population has passed to a non-European, and the social, spiritual and political repercussions will be felt widely. But the ripples are spreading further than the Catholic Church, and it is with surprise, as a non-Catholic, that I find myself enchanted by this humble priest from Buenos Aires.

    I grew up attending a Baptist church with my family in south-west London, where I was by and large very happy, and where I picked up what I now call a “Sunday school faith” – basic Christian principles and a few Bible stories – but no great personal interaction with God. By the time I came to study at University College London I had all but stopped attending church. This wasn’t due to any great apostasy, but rather a gentle drifting away towards things I found more interesting to do on a Sunday morning, such as sport. I then spent my first two years of my degree living what I suppose could be called a secular life – not necessarily rejecting my Christian upbringing, but without involving it in my day-to-day decision-making.

    But during the summer holidays before my third and final year, a series of events conspired to lead me back towards my childhood faith. Perhaps the most significant was finding myself a place to live in Netherhall House, the Opus Dei-promoted student residence in Hampstead.

    It was at Netherhall, which houses mainly Catholics but also people of other denominations and faiths, that I first learned that I was a “Protestant”. When I moved in I had described my religion on the application form as “Christian”. I was asked by the hall director what exactly sort of Christian I considered myself to be. This led me to brush up on my sketchy memories of GCSE history and remember that the story of the Catholic Church in Britain is one of great pain. I had to accept for the first time that, regardless of how well I knew the history, my faith was not a neutral, private matter. It had political and emotional meaning to others.

    It was also at Netherhall that I was pleased to discover that I was not in fact a “Protestant”. During my two years living among, and growing to love, a group of deeply spiritual Catholic men, I discovered that many of the beliefs I had held about their Church were hurtful prejudices. I also came to realise that it is detrimental both to my own faith, and to those of others around me, to define myself “in protest against” the Catholic Church, even if, strictly speaking, that is a part of my theological heritage. Through many late-night discussions with those I now consider my brothers, we found that, although there are many important differences of theology that merit respectful discussion, there are far more things about which we passionately agree.

    I am aware this may seem unpalatable to some from both camps, but I have come to believe that the conservative wing of the Catholic Church and the charismatic Evangelical tradition that I come from had gone almost full circle and found common ground on many of the issues that each hold dear. For instance, both have a firm belief in the power of God to intervene in the world through healings and other miracles and both are vocal in society about their views on conventional Christian morality. These are two areas which the more liberal parts of worldwide Christianity have drifted away from. Above all, the one thing that I believe brings us to a point of unity – if not complete union – is an insistence on the divinity of Jesus, and the corresponding drive to bring his love and healing into the world.

    But it is not primarily theological convergence that draws me to Pope Francis. Rather, it is the extraordinary humility with which he has taken up his tenure. I have been extremely impressed with the various “stunts” he has played: going in person to pay the bill at the hotel where he stayed before the conclave; holding the Maundy Thursday service at a youth prison and washing the feet of a Muslim woman, taking up residence in the Vatican guest house rather than the large papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace; and personally calling his newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscriptions. I am, fundamentally, inspired by his ability to uphold and celebrate orthodox Christian principles in a way that creates open and deeply respectful dialogue with those outside the Church.

    His acts impress me not only for their imagination, but also because they seem to set the tone for how he intends to conduct his papacy. I believe the Church around the world is at a crossroads. The biggest challenge Christians must face is the shocking level of poverty and injustice in our world. These are two things that God throughout the Bible and history has asked Christians to alleviate. But we have not always taken this part of our faith very seriously. As a Jesuit, Francis has lived under a vow of poverty. Even as the cardinal of Argentina he chose to live in a simple apartment, commuting by bus to his office every day and spending much time with the poor and outcast.

    Although the Church bears many ugly scars there is a real opportunity to make a beautiful offering for God by serving the poor in unity. While there are many important lessons learned and wounds suffered throughout the Church’s history, is it naïve to hope that we can let them just be history, leaving them like folded bedclothes in an empty tomb?

    Many young people like me are growing up without the deep-rooted emotions that older generations may have in relation to divisions among Christians. If, as I found living in Netherhall, we can grow not just to respect, but also to love one another, then it is within this context of love that we can then discuss the things we may disagree about. We may never reach satisfactory compromises, but let us, above all, be united in love.

    If Pope Francis lasts, this could be the end of Protestantism.

  5. It’s amazing how this guy’s humility is such an inspiration to everyone.

    I thought we were all inspired by success like money and big houses like the megachurch boys and their televangelists side kicks..

  6. I thought we were all inspired by success like money and big houses like the megachurch boys and their televangelists side kicks..

    Come to think of it.

    That’s probably why Steve doesn’t like the Pope.

  7. No. I do not dislike the present pope. As I have said, he has said and done some commendable things. This doesn’t mean we have to now accept wrong doctrine. Nor do Protestants. Why would they?

    The post and thread on the Queen of Heaven is doctrinal. I think Bones forgets the intention of posts and defaults to his Irish Catholic roots which are still raw.

  8. Bones,
    I thought we were all inspired by success like money and big houses like the megachurch boys and their televangelists side kicks.

    Speak for yourself. The cure is for you to give it all away if you have problem with your wealth, or it makes you feel guilty.

    There are very few wealthy mega church leaders or televangelists. Most ministers, unless on a stipend, such as Catholic or Anglican priests, live by faith, survive on a below average salary, or hold down a tent ministry to support their families.

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