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Catholic News Service/Paul Haring

Pope Francis appears for the first time on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 13.

United Methodists welcome new pope

A UMNS Report By Heather Hahn and Amanda Bachus*
6:30 P.M. ET March 13, 2013 | NASHVILLE, Tenn.

United Methodists and other Methodists offered prayers and warm wishes to Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who now will set the tone for the Roman Catholic Church's ecumenical relations with other Christian traditions.

Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church selected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentinaas the 266th pontiff on the fifth round of voting on the second day of the papal conclave. The 76-year-old Jesuit will lead a global denomination of about 1.2 billion members. The United Methodist Church, in comparison, has about 13 million baptized and professing members worldwide.

The pope needed at least 77 of the 115 votes to step into the shoes left empty by Pope Benedict XVI's historic resignation last month.

"The first words of Pope Francis saying that the people of God and the Bishop from Rome will walk together in love are hopefully a sign for the ecumenical journey as well," said Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of The United Methodist Council of Bishops.

"We, the people of The United Methodist Church, are ready to continue the journey with the Roman Catholic Church, praying for one another, staying in a respectful dialogue with one another, knowing of the differences but believing that Christ unites us."

She watched the announcement of the pope's election at the meeting of the National Council of Churches in Germany, in which the Roman Catholic Church also participates. She said the election was a pleasant surprise to those gathered, who saw the election of a non-European as a sign of hope.

"For the first time ever the Roman Catholic Church elected a pope who comes 'from the edge of the world,' as Pope Francis said himself," she noted. "What a sign for the change in the map of Christianity."

Thomas Kemper, who leads the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and was for many years a missionary in Brazil, also said he was "glad to see the shifting center of gravity for Christianity represented in the new pope being from Latin America."

"Just having been to Brazil last week," he added, "I see how much joy and pride this election will cause in that part of the world."

Reactions from Argentina

The Rev. Juan Gattinoni, an executive of United Methodist mission relations in Latin America for the Board of Global Ministries, works in Buenos Aires and knows the new pope personally.

Gattinoni noted that as a cardinal, Bergoglio was engaged in the distribution of Bibles and was the first to sign a proposal, approved by Argentina's National Congress, to designate Sept. 30 as the country's day to celebrate the Bible.

"He always, when any meeting finished, asks that the people pray for him," Gattinoni said. "And, of course, the last words when he departed from Buenos Aires to the Vatican were, 'pray for me.'"

Gattinoni also remarked on Bergoglio's humble lifestyle. He recalled once meeting the cardinal at the same nursing home where Gattinoni's father resided. Bergoglio had come with no media, no bodyguard and not even a car to visit one of his friends, an elderly priest.

"(He) is always close to the people," Gattinoni said. "We can say he is humble. He always used the subways and the buses; he used to give the Mass in open squares with humble people. Some of us hope that having somebody with a sensitive and simple (life) leading at the Vatican is something new and could be helpful."

Bishop Frank de Nully Brown, who leads the Evangelical Methodist Church in Argentina, said the news of the election of an Argentine pope was unexpected.

The Evangelical Methodist Church in Argentina is an affiliated autonomous denomination in the Methodist movement. That means it is a self-governing denomination that has historical ties with The United Methodist Church.

"(The news) takes us by surprise," he said through a translator. "I understand that there will not be profound changes in the church since it looks like he will continue the same line as the previous pope."

United Methodist teachings in Christian unity

From the 2012 Book of Discipline, which outlines the denomination's law and doctrines:

  • Ecumenical Commitment, which asserts "Christian unity is not an option; it is a gift to be received and expressed."
  • Resolution of Intent: With a View to Unity, which outlines John Wesley's call for mutual tolerance among Christians and criticizes strong statements against the Roman Catholic Church found in Wesley's 1784 abridgment of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

Hopes for Christian unity

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the United Methodist Council of Bishops ecumenical officer, said the election of a new pope matters to United Methodists and others in the Christian faith because Jesus called his disciples to work toward unity.

She noted that today, there are an estimated 43,000 denominations within the Christian faith, but that just adds to the urgency of the call for ministering together.

United Methodists around the world have long joined with Roman Catholics in shared ministry and worship. For more than 40 years, United Methodist and Roman Catholic leaders also have conducted dialogues on topics ranging from public education to Holy Communion.

Most recently, United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker, now retired, and Roman Catholic Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., completed the seventh round of the dialogues in 2012 with a paper on Eucharist and ecological stewardship.

Swenson said relations between members of the Methodist movement and Pope Benedict XVI were good. On one ecumenical trip to Rome, Swenson gave the previous pontiff a copy of "Three Simple Rules: The Wesleyan Way of Living" by United Methodist Bishop Rueben P. Job.

She said she hopes that the relationship will deepen under Pope Francis. She hopes the denominations can continue to work together on issues of global migration and a shared focus of both Catholics and United Methodists: ministry with the poor.

Significance of Jesuit roots

Noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas said it's even more remarkable that the Catholic cardinals elected a Jesuit than that they elected a non-European.

Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School and Duke Law School in Durham, N.C.

"That he's a Jesuit says so much about his commitment to the poor, and that he's taken the name of Francis - in recollection of St. Francis of Assisi - clearly gestures that the Roman Catholic Church not only serves the poor, the Roman Catholic Church is the church of the poor," Hauerwas said.

It's also remarkable, he said, because the Franciscan and Jesuit orders have not always gotten along.

Read more about the new Pope

While many assume that the name Francis comes from the beloved St. Francis of Assissi, his name may evoke another St. Francis. St. Francis Xavier was one of the 16th century founders of Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and evangelism. The new pope has not indicated to the public why he chose the name Francis.

Both Swenson and Wenner also hailed the new pope's choice of name.

"The name which Cardinal Bergoglio has chosen is a program," Wenner said. "The church has to live with the poor, as Francis from Assisi did."

United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the Boston Episcopal Area had asked members of the New England Annual (regional) Conference to pray for the papal conclave as it met this week. He told United Methodist News Service late March 13 that he rejoiced in Pope Francis election.

"Personally, having grown up in India, I was deeply impressed by the monumental contribution made by the Jesuits among the poor people there through their simple lives in a multifaith society," he said. "I personally pray that Pope Francis will challenge the church to become advocates of the poor at all levels in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing at an alarming rate."

Devadhar also was delighted that the spiritual leader began his papal journey by reciting the Lord's Prayer, "the prayer taught by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a prayer which can be recited by people of all faiths and the only prayer which truly embraces the elements of the Reign of God."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Bachus is Editor, el Intrprete magazine, and director of Spanish resources at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.