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Building bridges towards unity

Bureau chief of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity Monsignor Juan Usma Gomez knows Pentecostal Christians better than most other Catholics do. He spoke with journalist PAUL DOBBYN about some of his insights

THE fact Pentecostals now form the second largest Christian community after Catholics is cause for considerable soul searching among Church leaders.

Exact numbers of followers are not clear but estimates range from 345 million to more than 600 million.

What is clear is that these numbers are growing rapidly, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, often at the expense of mainstream Christian Churches.

Monsignor Juan Usma Gomez, as a representative of the Vatican’s Curia has been involved in dialogue with various “classical” Pentecostal groups and leaders for the past 13 years.

The monsignor in a recent conversation with The Catholic Leader said the situation offered both risk and opportunity for all parties involved.

“What we have here is two missionary models in collision – the Catholic model and the Pentecostal model,” he said.

“Both offer very different ways of carrying out mission and of being Christian.

“At the same time, given many similarities, there is also tremendous opportunity for unity between the two.”

Now bureau chief of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the monsignor made this and other comments the day before presenting a public lecture at St Leo’s College, University of Queensland, on October 30 on the topic of Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical dialogue.

Msgr Usma Gomez had been invited to Brisbane as keynote speaker at the national conference of Diocesan Commissions for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Relations sponsored by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

The monsignor while in Brisbane also attended ecumenical celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on October 31, 1999.

His previous role as a priest in Columbia had made him very aware of the inroads of Pentecostalism into Catholicism which has been such a feature of religious life in Latin America in the past two decades.

Statistics on religious allegiance tell the story. For example, in 1980, 89 per cent of the Brazilian population called itself Catholic; in the 2000 census, the figure fell to 74 per cent, and by 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the country, it stood at 64 per cent.

Pentecostals now constitute about 20 million of Brazil’s 175 million population. In a 2007 Pew Forum Survey on Religion and Public Life, 62 per cent of Pentecostals interviewed said they were converts and about three-in-four said they had once been Catholics.

So how significant is the influence of Pentecostalism elsewhere around the world and why are the faithful attracted to this particular style of worship?

“These days most analysts are speaking of ‘the Pentecostalisation of Christianity’ so it’s certainly a significant trend we’re seeing,” Msgr Usma Gomez said.

“To answer why is a bit more difficult.

“To do this the Church needs some self criticism.

“Part of this self criticism needs to look at pastoral care as well as the way evangelisation is being done and how well it meets cares and concerns of modern men and women.

“It’s become quite clear that people are not changing affiliations for dogmatic reasons – in other words it’s not about beliefs or Church teachings but more about what people are wanting to experience.

“A common conclusion is of the importance of relationships in the religious setting.”

It’s also clear that dialogue between Catholics and Pentecostals is essential if progress is to be made and misunderstandings resolved.

And some of these misunderstandings are significant.

“It is not uncommon to hear Pentecostals say Catholics are not truly Christians,” Msgr Usma Gomez said.

“For Pentecostals certain elements need to happen to recognise Catholics as Christians.

“A major element is a personal experience of Jesus Christ that is conscious.

“In their view, being baptised as an infant, does not entitle people to call themselves Christian.

“What is required is a clear expression of faith and commitment as an adult along the lines of a statement that ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour’.

“If this is not said publicly then one is not considered to be truly Christian.”

The Pentecostal movement is historically quite young, the monsignor said.

In Australia the first grouping started in 1909.

He described Pentecostalism as “the latest product of the Reformation”.

“It came into being in 1906. It is a revival movement that was the fruit of a precise spiritual experience – the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

The monsignor explained that there are three recognised waves or streams.

“Classical” Pentecostals comprises the first and includes the Assemblies of God, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the Church of God in Christ.

The “non-denominational” groups or “neocharismatics” have come into being since the 1980s and are experiencing significant growth nowadays.

The “denominational” groupings refer to Pentecostal movements within the mainstream Churches, known as charismatic movements which started in the 1950s and 1960s.

Msgr Usma Gomez has run a series of seminars for bishops and pastoral workers to explain opportunities and stumbling blocks to understanding between the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement.

In recent times conferences have been held in Africa at Daccar and Nairobi, in Asia in the Philippines and Korea and in South America in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

One of his messages is that dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement is vital but not always easy, Msgr Usma Gomez said.

“One difficulty is that there is no central authority or international umbrella organisation to the movement, no central instructional authority such as in the Catholic Church or other mainline Christian Churches to resolve doctrinal issues,” he said.

“Also they see their movement as the true and only realisation of what Christ planned for the Church in the New Testament as written in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter Two.

“Many Pentecostals accept that certain identities such as Francis and Augustine were charismatic and even spirit-filled but do not see this applying to the Catholic Church as a whole after the third century.

“They don’t seem to comprehend and so don’t recognise the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in the Catholic Church – a presence that has been constant for over 20 centuries.

“Obviously if this attitude does not change there is a major problem.”

From the side of Catholics and other mainstream denominations there is much suspicion and misunderstanding.

“Often many Church leaders identify the Pentecostals’ activities as proselytising,” Msgr Usma Gomez said.

“But in dialogue Pentecostals explain they are not proselytising but evangelising.”

The monsignor defines proselytising as any unethical action that has as its main purpose to produce change of affiliation of belief, often offering special deals of food etc.

“It also focuses only on bad aspects of a particular Christian group,” he said, “in comparison only with the positive aspects of the proper Christian faith.

“So such an approach is not respectful of the individual’s freedom.

“Yet, the Pentecostals will argue that they are evangelising – that is proclaiming Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

“However, just why these groups often target mainstream Christian Church members rather than focusing more on non-Christians is still not clear.”

The Catholic Church started dialogue with classical Pentecostals in the 1970s, with both sides explaining who they were to each other.

Subsequent rounds explored problematic issues around theology such as Mariology and ministry.

Next to be examined was the nature of Church as communion (1985-89).

Then came dialogue on the difference between proselytising and evangelising (1990-97).

The latest discussions are focused on becoming a Christian, faith, conversion, Christian experience and discipleship (1998-2008).

Clearly Msgr Usma Gomez’s enthusiasm for this dialogue is undimmed.

“I have been given the privilege to come to understand that Pentecostalism is a young and vital Christianity full of love for the Gospel and very interested in reaching out to people who are unchurched,” he said.

“At same time I have a chance to show the true face of Catholic tradition – in fact it’s a service we can all offer as Catholics as a way to help get rid of some of the misunderstandings that are out there.”

After his talk at Brisbane’s ecumenical celebrations, he was to visit New Zealand to address several groups before returning to speak in several Queensland dioceses.

Next year the Pentecostal/Catholic international dialogue will start five years on the charisma in the life of the Church which will include topics such as spiritual experience, healings, prophecies and the charisma.

In Rome next February and March Msgr Usma Gomez will hold conversations with a number of people from charismatic movements within various churches and will also have some preliminary conversation with non-denominational charismatic groupings.

All the while he will be continuing to work and dialogue “to restore the unity intended by Christ for his disciples”, as he terms it.

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