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What the new Pope means for Protestants

James Haire. Photo: Insights

The world watched in fascination as Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013. Leader in Catholic/Protestant dialogue and past Uniting Church President James Haire explores why Protestants should care about Pope Francis.

Since 2002 I have been a Member of the International Commission for Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Vatican. In fact, our annual meeting was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last year where Cardinal Bergoglio had been Archbishop, Auxiliary Bishop and Superior of the Jesuits. His ministry had been entirely in Argentina. His election has been greeted with universal joy.

A number of factors from his election augur well for Protestant churches committed to Christian unity.

First, he has the reputation of having had very cordial relations with Protestants.

The Argentine Protestant evangelist, Luis Palau, indicated that as Archbishop he had the warmest of relationships with Protestants.

The Archbishop's financial manager was an Evangelical Christian, whom he also regarded as a friend.

When I was in Argentina for the Dialogue, the Methodist Bishop regarded the Archbishop's relationship with Methodists as excellent.

He sought common ground with the Protestants on the central issues of the faith, in a country where relations between the two traditions have been difficult with the growth of Evangelical churches.

He has also had respectful interfaith relations.

Second, he has been a person of great humility and holy simplicity throughout his life.

He has lived in a modest apartment and not the Archbishop's palace.

Since becoming Pope he has chosen to live not in the papal apartments but rather in the Vatican guest house, in another part of which I stayed during dialogue between the Vatican and Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed in 2010.

He sees himself primarily as chief pastor of the Catholic Church rather than as head of the Vatican State.

Third, he is a Jesuit, an Order committed to mission and justice.

All this bodes well for deepening dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. However, we should remember that the Catholic Church, like the Uniting Church, is guided by the decisions of its councils and not by the whims of individuals.

Vatican II decided to engage seriously with Protestants, and has consistently carried this out for over forty years. On the basis of this, the goodwill of Pope Francis, and more deeply our trust in the hope given to us by God in Christ, we go forward, despite our theological differences, in our search for authentic Christian unity.

Rev Professor James Haire AC Executive Director, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture Director, Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre Professor of Theology, Charles Sturt University Past President, the Uniting Church in Australia.

Photo : James Haire. Photo: Insights

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