Italian evangelicals “confused and disappointed” by WEA leader’s participation in Vatican ecumenical prayers before Roman Catholic synod

The Italian Evangelical Alliance says the “Together 2023” event with Pope Francis and other heads of Christian confessions was “crossing a line”. They demand “a public discussion of the whole of World Evangelical Alliance’s constituency” on ecumenism.

Joel Forster , Evangelical Focus

ROME · 06 OCTOBER 2023 · 12:00 CET

Leaders of twenty Christian faith confessions pray with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square (Vatican) during the Ecumenical Prayer Vigil of 30 September 2023. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href=""> Facebook Gathering Together</a>.,
Leaders of twenty Christian faith confessions pray with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square (Vatican) during the Ecumenical Prayer Vigil of 30 September 2023. / Photo: Facebook Gathering Together.

Italian evangelical Christians have protested against the “active and public” participation of the leader of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) in a large ecumenical prayer vigil organised in the Vatican ahead of the first session of the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops.

On 30 September, an almost 3-hour long event in St. Peter’s Square in Rome featured prayers of the heads of twenty Christian confessions, including those of the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the Orthodox Churches, and the Methodist World Council. (see video below)

Part of the “Together 2023: Gathering of the people of God” days, the aim of this prayer vigil was to “entrust to the Holy Spirit the works of the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (4-29 October 2023)”, according to the programme given to attendees.

The large gathering was streamed live by Vatican News and other Catholic media and stated the willingness of participants to “renew our desire and commitment to journey together towards unity”.

Thomas Schirrmacher, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance was one of the faith leaders who read a prayer from the stage. Other evangelical representatives speaking at the prayer vigil were the heads of the Pentecostal World Fellowship and of the Baptist World Alliance.


Italian evangelicals: “Evangelical identity is absorbed into the ecumenical unity”

The Italian Evangelical Alliance (AEI), the body representing Italian evangelical Christians in the World Evangelical Alliance as a member organisation, reacted to this “active and public” participation of Thomas Shirrmacher as the head of the global body representing 600 million evangelical Christians with surprise.

“We are confused and disappointed”, the AEI federal executive board said in a statement sent to Evangelical Focus. “Once you pray publicly with the Pope, in St. Peter’s square, in front of a Marian portrait, embracing the message of spiritual unity with liberals and orthodox leaders, your alleged distinction becomes secondary”.

Italian evangelicals “confused and disappointed” by WEA leader’s participation in Vatican ecumenical prayers before Roman Catholic synod

Excerpt from the statement of the Italian Evangelical Alliance on the ecumenical prayer evening on 30 September at the Vatican. / EF

“Evangelical identity is absorbed into the ecumenical unity with the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches”, continued the AEI, which is led by President Giacomo Ciccone and Secretary General Salvo Bonaccorsi.

The AEI said the participation in this large ecumenical event to pray for the Roman Catholic synod was “the lowest point that WEA experienced in its history with a significant loss of evangelical credibility” and would confirm that the concerns expressed by the Italian Alliance in the past about the “ecumenical agenda” of the WEA leadership were “entirely legitimate”.

The AEI called the WEA’s leadership “not to breach the evangelical historic position on unity and to replace it with an ecumenical one without involving the whole of WEA’s constituency in a public discussion leading to a decision”.

“These are not matters to be handled behind the scenes among a few people, and the rest of the constituency taking notice of their decisions. We are committed to the cause of evangelical unity grounded in the gospel. Let the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the ecumenical agenda, be our guide”, the statement concluded.

Read the full statement of the Italian Evangelical Alliance of October 2023: “From Evangelical Unity to Ecumenical Unity. The Latest Tumble of WEA”. At the time of publishing this story, the World Evangelical Alliance had not yet reacted to the AEI statement nor responded to questions of Evangelical Focus.


The position of Italian evangelicals in the past

In the last decades, the Italian Evangelical Alliance has expressed its opposition to ecumenism with the Vatican, with theologians such as Leonardo De Chirico, the AEI’s Theology Chair, writing regularly about his position.

The national Alliance wrote an open letter in 2017 alongside the Evangelical Alliances of Spain and Malta in which they denounced the “ecumenical agenda” they thought the WEA was pursuing.  

Efraim Tendero, the Secretary General of the WEA then, offered the “assurance that the concerns raised in their letter are being taken very seriously”, adding, “we appreciate the zeal for theological integrity of these evangelical alliances and hope that they will contact us directly to learn more about our plans and activities”.

Another statement of the WEA leadership said: “We do not believe that we have changed, betrayed, or compromised the WEA’s theological principles”, expressing that there was a “legitimate disagreement among evangelicals on how to approach the Roman Catholic Church today”.


Background of the Prayer Vigil of 30 September

The Together 2023 ecumenical prayer vigil wanted to be a symbol of Christian confessions “walking together as the people of God”, the organisation has said. “Through baptism and the Scriptures, are we not sisters and brothers in Christ, united in a communion that is still imperfect but nevertheless real?”, the ‘about’ section of the official website states.

The event in St. Peter’s Square was co-organised the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. In a visit to the organising team in March 2023, Pope Francis said the event would help “sew unity” among Christian confessions. According to the event’s website, Francis shared “personal memories of his ecumenical journey”.

In January, the President of the Conference of European Churches (the largest ecumenical body in Europe) and French Protestant leader, Christian Krieger, said in a press conference: “I believe that [Together] is perhaps a first in the history of ecumenism, that the other Churches pray for a particular Church, at such a particular moment in its history”, adding that it was “a new step in conversion to the unity of the body of Christ”.


Ecumenism “not the reason why WEA was created”

Responding to question of Evangelical Focus, Giacomo Ciccone, President of the Evangelical Alliance Italy said they had had a chance to speak to a representative of the World Evangelical Alliance attending the event in Rome to express their “disappointment” about the fact that “nobody at the AEI was aware of WEA’s participation before it was officially announced”.

The ecumenical prayer vigil was a “spiritual expression of unity with no nuance”, he added, which displayed the image that evangelical Christians are “part of one big Christian family” which is “with the Pope, and under the spiritual leadership of the Pope”.

This path towards ecumenism, Ciccone added, is “a policy by the WEA leadership of cumulative decisions” taken without “a vote by the constituency” and is therefore “not the nature of the Alliance - that is a grassroot movement”. Ecumenism with Rome and with theologically liberal Churches, he added, was “not the reason why the WEA was created”.

The Italian Evangelical Alliance board told Evangelical Focus that they would decide how this “crossed line” affects their relationship with the WEA in the future.

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