In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
Italian pastor Giovanni Traettino believes “the Word of God is moving and acting in the Catholic Church.” The Pentecostal leader encourages other churches to have an “open” approach to the Vatican. “Pope Francis is my brother in Christ”, he says in an interview with Evangelical Focus.
Why does Italian Pentecostal pastor Giovanni Traettino promote and “open” approach towards Roman Catholicism? Why do most evangelical churches in Italy disagree with his views of Pope Francis?
The leader of the well-known Pentecostal church in Caserta defended his positions in a discussion with theologian Leonardo de Chirico, during the last annual assembly of the Italian Evangelical Alliance.
Pastor Traettino answered to questions of Evangelical Focus’ editor Joel Forster in the following interview recorded in Rome (7 April 2016). You can listen to the audio at the bottom of this page.
Question. We want to ask you several questions about the relationship between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in Italy, and also worldwide. Thank you very much for being with us.
A. Thank you.
Q. I would like to start asking you about your meeting with the Pope, at your church, in 2014. In our Spanish website, the news article had more than 130 comments and 21,000 Facebook shares. There were loads of reactions to your activities.
A. You should send me this article.
Q. I will. My question is, why do you think there has been so much response, and most of it controversy and criticism towards your meeting with the Pope?
A. I think it is because of the traditional non-relationship between evangelicals and Catholics, especially in Southern Europe. Spain and Italy, especially. Probably because these two countries have a majority of Catholics, and because of the persecution evangelicals have experienced from the Catholic Church in the past decades.
In Italy, you might remember, we have had more than 30 years of persecution or, at least, discrimination. From 1935 to 1965, there were special laws. We have now the anniversary of a document which was issued during the Fascist regime. So, one understands the historical and psychological reasons for which there has been this kind of position and opposition between evangelicals and Catholics.
Q. If we look at the pictures taken by the Osservatore Romano (the Vatican newspaper) of the visit of Pope Francis to your church, one can see everyone really excited to have him there: people are clapping, smiling… Are there other people in your environment, in your group of churches, in the Pentecostal world or in the broader evangelical world who would not agree with you as much as the people in your church, in how you see the relationship with Catholicism?
A. Well, yes. The majority of evangelicals in Italy still have a traditional position in their relationship with the Catholic Church. Our movement, our family of churches, has a different approach. We have developed over the years a different spirituality. A spirituality of openness, even if our spirituality is fully evangelical.
We have found that we can relate [with Catholicism] out of security in our identity, being open to listen, understand, examine and discern the positive and negatives. Meanwhile, I feel the psychological prevails over the theological when it comes to the attitude of evangelicals in the South of Europe.
Q. From what you know of Pope Francis, what two or three ideas are central of his view of Christ? What does Pope Francis think of Jesus?
A. He has even stated it publicly: he understands that Jesus is the only way author of our salvation, and the only mediator between man and God.
And he has said that one needs to receive Jesus personally as our Lord and saviour and confess him. He [Jesus] has a unique position between men and God, and Pope Francis believes we are united as Christians upon this foundation. Therefore, he [Jesus] is the only foundation for Christianity, for Catholics, evangelicals, etc.
Q. Do you think these views of Jesus are going to bring a transformation in the whole Catholic Church? Or has Francis not been able to do this in the time he has been Pope?
A. I believe that the ‘kerigma’, the message of salvation, the Catholic view of the gospel, is basically sound.
When it comes to the theology and the doctrine, the real issue in the Catholic Church, as in other sections of the body of Christ, is that generally it is not an experiential position. In the case of Francis, my witness is that he has an experiential relationship with Jesus Christ, that he has actually had an encounter with Jesus Christ as his personal saviour and Lord. And that makes him the kind of man that he is.
Q. So, you would consider Pope Francis to be a brother in Christ?
A. I actually believe he is my brother in Christ.
Q. How has your friendship with Jorge Mario Bergoglio shaped the way you see Catholicism now?
A. My understanding of Catholicism began to change many years ago. I think it all goes back to my baptism with the Holy Spirit, with a new amplified understanding of the body of Christ, the Church at large. It is a theology that is radically Protestant, the doctrine of the “invisible Church”, that has been weakened by the old discussion about the visibility of the Church. I believe this is the issue in John 17. The Catholic Church traditionally has tended to believe or even declare it is the only Church of ‘level A’, and the other ones, eventually, ‘level b, c, d, etc.’
In the late 70s, with this experience, I began to question myself. And then, it was in 1992 when I had a very dramatic experience in my relationship with Jesus Christ, where he actually encouraged me and pushed me to relate with Catholics. And to realise that the gospel, even amidst many other things, was in the deposit. And that there were men and women, especially in my relationship with the [Catholic] charismatics, who had an experience with Jesus Christ.
So, when I had these experiences with some Catholic charismatics, I began to realise that this was true, that there were men and women with a real experience of Jesus Christ. That they were saved, and that Word of God is moving and acting also in the Catholic Church.
Q. How do you think the view Pope Francis and the rest of the Roman Catholic Church have of Mary can be an obstacle for the dialogue with evangelicals?
A. I believe it is an obstacle, it is a limitation. I think we should focus on what unites us, and be tolerant with what separates us. I don’t think the question in the agenda is the visible structural unity between the Catholic Church and any evangelical church. But I believe there is room for relationship, for encounter, for doing some of the work together.
We should be able to say some clear “yes” and some clear “no”. Obviously, we, and me myself, do not agree with Pope Francis in his devotion or veneration to Mary or the saints.
Q. You now mentioned the possibility to do some things together. A part from co-belligerence in topics like family, ethics, persecution of the Church… A part from this topics in which, I think, most evangelicals would agree that we can work together, do you think that we can do mission with Catholics?
A. I have been reading from the Lausanne Movement Manila Manifesto (1989) lately, also to prepare for these days here. It says: “Our reference to ‘the whole church’ is not a presumptuous claim that the universal church and the evangelical community are synonymous. For we recognize that there are many churches which are not part of the evangelical movement. Evangelical attitudes to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches differ widely. Some evangelicals are praying, talking, studying Scripture, and working with these churches. Others are strongly opposed to any form of dialogue or cooperation with them. All evangelicals are aware that serious theological differences between us remain. Where appropriate, and so long as biblical truth is not compromised, cooperation may be possible in such areas as Bible translation, the study of contemporary theological and ethical issues, social work, and political action. We wish to make it clear, however, that common evangelism demands a common commitment to the biblical gospel.”
So, these are the limitations that I would personally see, this is the ground on which we can develop our relationship.
Q. Thinking of the strategy of the Roman Catholic Church, Pew Research data shows that in Latin America Catholicism has fallen generally, in all countries, from 90% to 60% in the last years. Evangelicalism is now the religious denomination of about 19% of Latin Americans. Do you think the election of an Argentinian as the new Pope is a way of stopping the growth of evangelicals in Latin America and a way to bring some evangelicals back to what they would call “Mother Church”?
A. I know this has been of the explanations that have been given for why an Argentinian bishop has been chosen as a Pope. I am not in the position to say if this has been one of the elements. I only can observe that the situation of Christianity has changed as a whole. And therefore also of Catholicism. Christianity is now more a Southern hemisphere religion.
The macro areas more influenced by Christianity are in the South. So, the periphery of the world has become the centre of the gospel.
That’s my analysis, and I believe that the Catholic Church has realised that the Second and Third World (from a socio-political point of view), has become the First World when it comes to Christianity.
Therefore, after centuries where the Pope had been an expression of Europe, they needed that the Pope might become the expression of those new realities. Not only from the point of view of the defence of the Catholic Church, but also from the point of view of expression, in terms of the understanding of the world we have entered.
I believe Pope Francis sees the Western world from a perspective of the periphery, to say so. I believe this reason was more important when it came to his election, more than the other you mentioned.
The approach of Pope Francis has not become one of defensiveness, which was much more the approach of the previous Popes, starting from Pius XII until Benedict XVI. I believe Pope Francis has made very dramatic changes in the approaches he has taken, even in the relationship with evangelicals.
For example, when he came to Caserta, a part from asking for forgiveness for the persecution of Pentecostals, which is already a big thing for Italy (and not only for Italy), he even said that it was completely unacceptable to continue to call the Pentecostals ‘sects’. So, there was an apology for having used, even the bishops in South America, this category to define Pentecostals. He said that, the majority of Pentecostals, certainly, are not sects. There are some expressions of Pentecostalism that may be considered as such, but that’s not the case of our kind of Pentecostalism.
Q. Do you think that when Pope Francis says Pentecostals are not a sect anymore he means Pentecostals are Christians in the same way Catholics are Christians? From his perspective, would Pentecostals be part of the Church of God in the same way Catholics are?
A. I would say they are part of the Church of God. He has never stated it in that direction. But in our personal conversations, I see that he has been treating me, and us, as peers, brothers. So this is the substance of the relationship with us.
Now, if he still believes that Christians are first stage, second stage, third stage, etc., I cannot interpret that. I know these are the traditional categories of the Catholic Church, but I think that there has been a gradual change. Starting from John XXIII, and then Paul VI. From “separated brothers” to “re-encountered brothers”, to simply “brothers”, there has been a gradual change in the attitude towards us.
The metaphor that Pope Francis has used, even in Caserta, of “polyhedric ecumenism” implies this. There are different surfaces in the same solid figure. Each one with a legitimate position, they all relate to Christ. So, the understanding of ecumenism is changing.
The ecclesiology of Pope Francis, I find, is not the traditional ecclesiology of the Catholic Church anymore. There is an implicit revolution in the use of this image that needs to be explored. It has not yet been explored has I believe it should.
Q. Do you think Roman Catholicism is taking a direction through which in the future evangelicals could be seen as first-level Christians that can be saved without going to the Roman Catholic Church?
A. They already believe that you don’t need to go to the Catholic Church. They have said this, they already have declared it. That we are Christians in our own right in relationship to Christ. We don’t need to go via the Catholic Church to be considered fully Christians.
Q. Two more questions. In 2017, we are celebrating the start of the Reformation. Catholics will also commemorate it: Pope Francis will meet with Lutherans in Sweden. Do you think he, as a Jesuit, has changed his views on Luther and Calvin? He used to call them “heretics”, has he now a better view of the Reformers?
A. From the elements that I have, I know that in the Catholic theological faculties Luther has been studied and appreciated for decades now, since Vatican II. In fact, some of the more acute observers of Vatican II have said that the theology of this Council could not have happened unless they had listened to the Protestant Reformers and the Protestant theology. So, they have been digesting the Protestant theology, starting with Luther until today.
And I believe that, even they do not agree 100% with the Lutheran theology, it is certainly a fact that the Lutheran Church has signed a document of agreement on the Justification by Faith with the Roman Catholic Church. They [the Lutherans] should be the more authorised to say if the Catholics have, at least somehow, come to change their position, which I believe they say, because they have signed the document.
The Catholic Church as a whole has changed its approach.
Q. But do you think these changes have happened also in the cities, the towns, in the local churches? Do you think that on a grassroots level Catholics think they can learn from the Reformation?
A. Having in mind the way the Catholic Church is structured, the movements might ferment at a second or third theological level. These movements have found it difficult to come to the top, for decades. But when they come to the top – Councils, Pope, etc. – then it rapidly goes down to the grassroots. Initially, this happens much more in terms of attitudes than in terms of theological statements. And certainly, the attitudes of many priests and bishops have changed towards the evangelicals.
At least this is our experience in Italy, in certain areas. There are priests that are closed. But that is true in every area of the body of Christians or believers. If I think of the Pentecostal and evangelical world, there are pastors open and there are others who are closed. This is true also in the Catholic Church. But certainly, the situation has changed.
Now one might think that there is manipulation, and I know this is an opinion that is quite popular in a certain part of the evangelical body. But I think we need to be proactive and positive. If we are secure in our identity, we can listen with an open heart, examine everything, discern the good, bless the Lord for the positive steps, and continue to challenge, to prophesy in the areas in which we feel that things should change.
Q. Finally, you mentioned in your intervention during the Italian Evangelical Alliance General assembly here that you have “hope” that the Roman Catholic Church will go back to the Bible. And you also said the Holy Spirit can change “any Christian”. So, what doctrinal changes do you think need to happen in the Roman Catholic Church so that you would say: ‘This is what I hoped that would happen’?
A. Well, I believe that there are two agents in the action of God that change men. The Word of God, which is Christ and the written Word; and the Holy Spirit. As it has been said, even by the Reformers, the Church is the ‘Creatura Verbi’ and the ‘Creatura Spiritus’.
In so far as the Word of God and the Spirit are active in any body of Christians, it doesn’t matter how difficult the situation may be, there is hope. I have hope for the Catholic Church, and my hope has been encouraged starting from the Vatican II Council and the position it has given to the Word of God. I am encouraged because I have seen the Holy Spirit working in the Catholic Church. For example, through the Charismatic movement. And there are also other movements that have developed themselves starting from the Vatican II council. Popular movements that are still active.
Now, we do not agree with everything in these movements, like the devotion to Mary, the saints, etc. But I think there has been a discovery of the truth of the Christian initiation that has to do with conversion, with the gospel, with an experience with Jesus Christ, with being renewed in our life, etc., which is there. It’s evident.
So, these are factual elements that encourage my hope in the idea that things can develop. It is an evolutive line, it is gradual. I see this as an intervention of the Holy Spirit. The wind breathes where he wants. I cannot but recognise that this is the action of God.
And we need the same, as evangelicals. We have some problems. I know that the Holy Spirit is moving, that He is active, and my hope is that he would continue to change even our doctrinal positions, for the best. Some of the lines I see developing in the Catholic Church are encouraging and positive, from my point of view.
Q. Thank you very much Mr Traettino for commenting on these issues, which are not easy, and are even controversial. There are people, of course, who have other positions as the one you have, but we wanted to know your position because of your friendship with the Pope and these meetings you have had with him. We will talk to you next time, thank you very much.
A. Thank you.
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW: