(Vatican Radio) In a first private audience in the Vatican with a Salvation Army general on Friday, Pope Francis said theological differences do not impede the witness of a shared love of God and neighbour. He also spoke of his first encounter, as a 4-year old, with Salvation Army officers which, he said, stirred in him a sense of ecumenical outreach beyond the teachings of the Catholic Church in that era. Philippa Hitchen reports…
Greeting warmly a delegation led by General André Cox, the Pope said Catholics and Salvationists, together with other Christians, recognise that those in need have a special place in God’s heart – so much so, that the Lord himself became poor for our sake. As a result, the Pope said, Catholics and Salvationists often meet at the same peripheries of society.
I pray, he concluded, that all of Christ’s disciples can contribute with the same conviction and dynamism that the Salvation Army demonstrates in its devoted and highly appreciated service. Founded by former Methodist minister William Booth in 1865 as the East London Christian Mission, the Salvation Army today numbers one and a half million members in 126 countries worldwide.
Just after the papal audience, I talked to General André Cox to find out more about the meeting and about the message of closer cooperation he was bringing here to the Vatican….
The Salvation Army leader told me he had asked for an audience because in recent years there have been “some pretty intensive and helpful and useful discussions” between Catholics and Salvationists, culminating in the publication of a book on the joint discussions. These talks, he said, have revealed “so many points of faith that connect us together, but also our passion and commitment for social justice and work among the poor.”
The audience, he continued, was an opportunity to present the book to the Pope and to express thanks and prayer support for him “since many of the things he’s been expressing really resonate with the heart of Salvationists around the world.” Given the growing mutual understanding and respect, General Cox said he told the Pope his organisation was seeking “practical ways to support each other and also align our message as we speak to the world on these issues.”
Describing Pope Francis as “a peoples’ person”, the Salvation Army leader said the pontiff spoke off-the-cuff to describe his memory of walking, as a four-year old, with his grandmother in Argentina and seeing two Salvation Army ladies in their distinctive hats and uniforms. Despite the prevailing Catholic view that Protestants “were destined to Hell”, Bergoglio’s grandmother told him they were “Protestants, but good people”, awakening in the young boy an opening to ecumenical encounter.
General Cox also looked ahead to next July when the Salvation Army will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its foundation, gathering with representatives from across the globe at the O2 arena in London, just a couple of miles away from where the East London Christian Mission was first founded.
Please find below the official text of Pope Francis' greeting to the Salvation Army delegation:
I extend a warm welcome to you, the leadership of The Salvation Army, well-known to me for its evangelizing and charitable mission. Your visit is the happy outcome of more frequent and fruitful contacts in recent years between The Salvation Army and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, including a series of theological conversations aimed at fostering a better understanding of one another, mutual respect and regular collaboration. I earnestly hope that Catholics and Salvationists will continue to offer a common witness to Christ and to the Gospel in a world so much in need of experiencing God’s boundless mercy.
Catholics and Salvationists, together with other Christians, recognize that those in need have a special place in God’s heart, so much so that the Lord Jesus Christ himself became poor for our sake (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). As a result, Catholics and Salvationists often meet in the same peripheries of society. It is my hope that our shared faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour, the one mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim 2:5), will become evermore the firm foundation of friendship and cooperation between us.
“The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative; he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads, and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 24).
I pray that in today’s world all of Christ’s disciples will make their contribution with the same conviction and dynamism that The Salvation Army demonstrates in its devoted and highly appreciated service. The differences between Catholics and Salvationists regarding theological and ecclesiological questions need not impede the witness of our shared love of God and love of neighbour, a love which is capable of inspiring a concerted commitment to restoring the dignity of those who live on the margins of society.
Dear friends, I pray to God for the work of The Salvation Army. May many people in difficulty continue to rely on your efforts, which enable Christ’s light to shine in the darkest recesses of their lives. May you and your fellow Salvationists be filled with the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom, understanding, fortitude and peace, and so witness to the Lord’s Kingdom in our suffering world. And I ask that you also pray for me. Thank you.