Methodists Worldwide Welcome Pope Francis I with Hope and Optimism

by Heather Hahn*, Amanda Bachus** and Vance Morton***
United Methodists around the world are offering prayers and warm wishes to Pope Francis I – the first pope from the Americas and the person who will now 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 Argentina as the 266th pontiff on the fifth round of voting on the second day of the papal conclave. The 76-year-old Jesuit – the first of that order to become Pope – 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 (or a just a tad more than one percent the size of the Roman Catholic denomination).
“We celebrate the election of Pope Francis I with our brothers and sisters in Christ who make up the Roman Catholic church,” said, Bishop Mike Lowry, episcopal leader of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church a short while after learning that the white smoke had risen above the Sistine Chapel. “We pray for God’s blessing on his leadership and on the church universal. Together we walk with Christ into God’s new future of love and service to all people in the name of our Lord.” 
“The first words of Pope Francis I 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.”
Bishop Wenner 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 for those 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 I said himself. 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 that 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.”
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.
Bishop 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 I and that 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.
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.
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, asked the people that 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,” Rev. 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.”
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 a 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. The new pope’s name also may have referred to St. Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and evangelism.
Both Bishop’s 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 I’s 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 multi-faith 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.”
*Heather is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
**Amanda is editor of el Intérprete magazine and director of Spanish resources at United Methodist Communications
***Vance is the director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference UMC..