Argentine native and international evangelist Luis Palau considers Jorge Bergoglio, the newly elected Pope Francis, a personal friend. So, Palau says, he was especially excited yesterday to hear that Catholic cardinals had selected Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, to replace Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after his resignation.
CT spoke with Palau, who offered his perspective on Pope Francis both as an evangelist and as Bergoglio's personal friend. (CT has also gathered reactions from evangelical leaders in the United States and Argentina.)
What was your reaction when you heard that Bergoglio had been selected as pope?
It was exciting because of Argentina, because of his personality, and because of his openness toward evangelical Christians. I got kind of emotional, simply having known him.
He came in second to Pope Benedict XVI in the last election and pulled out of the vote voluntarily, because he thought, 'We shouldn't be doing this, vote after vote.' I said to him when I saw him afterward, 'What a pity! I thought I would be able to say I know the pope as my friend.' I said he'd probably get elected the next time, but he said, 'No, I'm too old.'
It was a total surprise [yesterday], because I also thought he was past the age. Since last time he didn't win, I figured he wouldn't win this time. But here we go: He got elected. He's not too old.
You count the pope as a personal friend. What can you tell me about his character—as a man, and a Christian, not just as a Cardinal?
You know he knew God the father personally. The way he prayed, the way he talked to the Lord, was of a man who knows Jesus Christ and was very spiritually intimate with the Lord. It's not an effort [for him] to pray. He didn't do reading prayers; he just prayed to the Lord spontaneously. It is a sign that good things will happen worldwide in the years of his papal work.
He's very warm and gentle and spiritual. He may not go around smiling all the time—he's not a Hollywood actor—but he's a very warm person; you don't feel cold and distant from him. He's always been warm. He likes to mingle with people.
He's gentle in his conversation. He's always asking people for prayer. It's surprising that he did it in public [at his first address], but anybody who knows him, [knows that] he always would say, 'Please pray for me.' He really meant it. He said it always.
What can you tell me about Bergoglio's leadership style?
He's a very Bible-centered man, a very Jesus Christ-centered man. He's more spiritual than he is administrative, although he's going to have to exercise his administrative skills now! But personally, he is more known for his personal love for Christ. He's really centered on Jesus and the Gospel, the pure Gospel.
We'll see what the effects will be for international relationships and openness, because he's not a manipulator. He's a straightforward, straight-shooting person. He says what he thinks and he does it sincerely.
Although he's gentle, he has strong moral convictions and he stands by them even if he has to confront the government. And he's done it before. With the evangelical community, it was a very big day when we realized that he really was open, that he has great respect for Bible-believing Christians, and that he basically sides with them. … They work together. That takes courage. That takes respect. It takes conviction. So the leaders of the evangelical church in Argentina have a high regard for him, simply because of his personal lifestyle, his respect, his reaching out and spending time with them privately.
There's been a lot of talk in the media already about Bergoglio's heart for the poor. Do you think that's what he'll focus on during his papacy?
The fact that he is inclined toward the poor doesn't mean he's a revolutionary church leader. He does not engage in class warfare.… He is for the poor, he works for them … but it isn't by exacerbating emotions or through the old liberation theology. It isn't that at all in his case.
In our conversations through the years, he was always especially concerned for the young people.... His bias toward the poor is rightly being pushed heavily. But in personal conversations, my memory is more for the young people in Argentina, who simply have become secular. Every time we talked about the state of Christianity in the world, he would bring up secularization and the distancing of the church from the young generation. … There's been talk about a new wave of evangelization in the Roman Catholic Church … and there is a desire for the pure gospel of Jesus to go out around the world. I think this will have an impact, because he definitely knows and is committed to the pure gospel.
One day we were on the way to a campaign … and he and I met for a word of prayer and I asked for a word of counsel. He said, 'Give those young people the gospel. … They need to hear the pure gospel.' And he knows what he is saying when he says the gospel.
If that's the case, what can evangelicals expect from the Francis papacy?
He's a man of strong convictions. He isn't swayed by the powers that be of any kind, even political. He's very strong on moral issues. I think we'll see a papacy that will make relations easier and lessen tensions. It doesn't mean [evangelicals and Catholics] will agree on every angle; that should be said. He is the Roman Catholic pope, and there are issues that need to be talked about, prayed about, looked at the Bible about. … Those differences in doctrine are there, but when there's a proper attitude toward one another and to the word of God, and you take it seriously, light comes from the Lord.
The largest number of Catholics live in Latin America. Even though millions have turned to Jesus Christ in an evangelical Christian way … no less than 70 percent of Latin America still would profess that they're Roman Catholics. That's undoubtedly one reason—to represent them worldwide—he would have been elected. Not many decades ago, there was a confrontational attitude and it was not pleasant. There are very few places where there is physical risk to believers, but nothing like it was 50 years ago. [Now] the tensions are more theological … mostly doctrinal on the basics, where there's a difference on beliefs.
So, tensions will be eased. There will be no confrontational style….He has proved it over and over in his term as the cardinal of Argentina. There was more building bridges and showing respect, knowing the differences, but majoring on what we can agree on: on the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, his resurrection, the second coming.
Do you have any personal stories or memories of him that really exemplify his relationship with evangelicals?
One day I said to him, 'You seem to love the Bible a lot,' and he said, 'You know, my financial manager [for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires] … is an evangelical Christian.' I said, 'Why would that be?' And he said, 'Well, I can trust him, and we spend hours reading the Bible and praying and drinking maté [an Argentine green tea].' People do that with their friends, share and pass the mate, and every day when he was in town, which was often, after lunch he and his financial manager would sit together, read the Bible, pray, and drink maté. To me, he was making a point [about his relationship with evangelicals] by telling me that: trust and friendship.