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Pope Francis on Monday became the first pope to visit a Pentecostal church, and issued an apology for Fascist-era denunciations of Pentecostals by Catholics, which in turn prompted an Evangelical leader to apologise for historic Protestant discrimination against Catholics.
The the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, Revd Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe, said Pope Francis had set a "great example" with the remarks he made at the under-construction Evangelical Church of Reconciliation in the southern city of Caserta, 20 miles north of Naples.
Pope Francis told the Pentecostals that the same Holy Spirit who created unity in the Church was also the source of a “very rich and beautiful” diversity in it.
Speaking to between 200 and 300 Pentecostals from Italy, the US and Argentina in the church, Francis referred to the time in Italy’s history when the practice of Pentecostal Christianity was forbidden.
"Among those who persecuted and denounced Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy people trying to ruin the race, there were also Catholics," he said. Fulfilling a request of the Italian Evangelical community, he went on: "I am the pastor of Catholics, and I ask your forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who didn't know and were tempted by the devil."
He acknowledged the remarkable nature of his visit, saying: "Someone will be surprised: 'The Pope went to visit the Evangelicals?' But he went to see his brothers."
Revd Tunnicliffe told Vatican Radio that ecumenical relations were deepened by trust and friendship, adding: "I recognise that in history there have been situations where Protestants, including Evangelicals, have discriminated against Catholic Christians and I am really sorry for these kinds of actions, because while we can disagree theologically, this should never lead to discrimination or persecution of the other. We all need to acknowledge all our failings and ask each other for forgiveness, and I think Pope Francis set a great example.”
During Francis' visit on Monday the church’s pastor, Revd Traettino, a close friend of the Pope, told him his visit was "unthinkable until recently," but added, "even among Evangelicals there is great affection for you. Many of us pray for you, every day. Many of us, in fact, believe your election as bishop of Rome was the work of the Holy Spirit."
Francis in June met US televangelists James Robinson and Kenneth Copeland and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Traettino was present on 1 June when Francis addressed a charismatic gathering in Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Earlier this year Francis recorded an iPhone video message with Evangelical Episcopal Bishop Tony Palmer for church leaders attending a conference hosted by Copeland. Bishop Palmer, who would have attended yesterday’s events, was killed in a motorcycle accident last week.
There was opposition to the visit from Catholics and Evangelicals. In a statement earlier this month several Italian Evangelical groups met in Caserta and stressed the "incompatibility" of their beliefs with that of the Catholic Church and the Pope.
Francis had to reschedule his visit from Saturday to Monday after it was pointed out that it would have clashed with the city’s big St Anne’s Day celebrations. Francis asked a Vatican official to help organise a Mass "to remove this noose from around my neck".
Before celebrating Mass in the city’s main square the Pope met local clergy. "Never be afraid to dialogue with anyone," Pope Francis told thm. Dialogue is not being defensive about one's faith, although it can mean explaining what one believes. And it is not pressuring another to join one's faith, he said.