How two unlikely people ended up in Rome
When Tony Palmer came to faith 22 years ago, he had a radical conversion experience. Encountering Jesus changed everything for the young man from South Africa. Together with his wife Emilia he visited every home in his suburb, about 3,000 addresses, to share the gospel with every person.
He soon joined a seminary, then moved into full-time ministry, first working with a local church, and later with a charismatic ministry as their director for Africa. However, God had other plans and called the couple to prepare for a different mission field: Italy, and more specifically: the Roman Catholic Church in Italy.
“At that time the Evangelical churches in Italy were very legalistic, and the Catholic Church was very traditional,” Tony recalls. “We prayed: ‘Lord, if you want us to leave South Africa, the invitation has to come from the Catholic Church.’ Nobody knew about that prayer. But years later, in 2003, I got an e-mail from Rome saying: ‘Tony, we’ve seen your ministry and we’d like you to share it with the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal. Would you be willing to come to Italy?’
‘As Protestants we have been praying for the Catholic Church for years.’
There was one clause: I had to be self-funded. So I thought, quite naively: No problem! As Protestants we have been praying for the Catholic Church for years, so obviously people are gonna back me and send me. But when I sent out my letters for partners, only one couple said yes. So we put our house and car into the ministry and moved to Italy with nothing. We couldn’t even speak Italian. I’m not really a good networker, but God orchestrated many divine appointments.”
Tony and Emilia quickly discovered that it was acceptable in the Catholic Church to be Charismatic and Evangelical as well. “Jesus was all of those, you know,” says Tony. “Jesus is sacramental, he believed in signs and symbols. But he was also evangelical, he recited Scripture and stressed that you have to be born again. And he was a contemplative and a charismatic.” Then, cheeky: “How much of Jesus do you want? You only want one denomination of Jesus? Jump in, get it all!”
‘There were 450,000 of us outside, singing ‘Come, Holy Spirit’.’
Although God called him to support the charismatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Church, Tony became an Anglican priest and today serves as the abbot bishop of the Order of the Ark Community (video), an international ecumenical community around Christ, inspired by the spirituality of the Celtic Church and of St. Francis of Assisi. The Order has a retreat centre in the hills of Umbria, the area where St. Francis started his 13th century ministry, which led to a revival movement in the Catholic Church.
Tony believes that a new revival is coming to the Roman Catholic Church. “I was at a meeting at St. Peter’s a few years ago, celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. There were 450,000 of us outside, singing ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. All Catholics, except a couple of us whom they called ‘the ecumenical delegation’. Pope Benedict publicly said to all the charismatic Catholics present: ‘You charismatics, you are the hope of the church. And you need to evangelize within before you evangelize outside.’ When I saw that, I realized: I’m giving my life to a good cause. It was not some kind of political diplomatic maneuvering of the Catholic Church to let us all become one big thing. They really wanted their people to come to faith.”
‘Who would have thought, my friend and mentor became the new pope!’
About eight years ago Tony travelled to Argentina, to work with the Catholic Church in that nation. As it was protocol to visit the residing Catholic bishop to ask his permission to work among his people, he visited Father Mario Jorge Bergoglio, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. “He and I struck up an intimate friendship,” Tony says. “We started studying together, meeting more often, to a point where he became one of my mentors.” This was at the time that both men were involved in interdenominational reconciliation in Argentina. Bergoglio would wash the feet of the Protestant pastors, and the Charismatics would pray for the Catholic bishops to be baptized in the Spirit.
Last year, Tony received a suprising e-mail from Father Mario. “He said: ‘Tony would you please pray for me, because they called me to the conclave’. I was on the train, leaving Rome, when they announced the new pope was Mario Jorge Bergoglio. Who would have thought, my friend and mentor became the new pope! To be clear, this is not about my story, this is about history, His Story. God is doing something.”
The miracle of unity
Now my friend had become pope, I realized that our relationship was going to change. He got a new job description. I didn’t expect to have a friendship like I had before.
But just after Christmas, as I was watching television with my son, I got a phone call. To my surprise I heard: ‘Hello, this is Pope Francis.’ I said: ‘Father Mario?’ He said: ‘Yes’. I ran upstairs to my office where there was no noise and said: ‘What are you phoning me for?’ He asked: ‘When will you be in Rome next?’ I said: ‘In two weeks time. I have to visit one of my congregations.’ He said: ‘Can you come and see me? What date and time would suit you?’ I said: ‘Pope Frances, I can’t believe you just called me at home. I don’t know what to say to you.’ I honestly didn’t know. He said: ‘What do you mean?’ I said: ‘You’re the pope of the universal church, 1.2 billion people. And I’m just an Anglican clergyman doing his bit for the Kingdom.’ He said: ‘Tony, we’ve got a covenant, we’re brothers. Nothing will change that friendship.’ I was blessed. All these stories you’ve heard about Francis, picking up a hitchhiker in his popemobile, and visiting people, he hasn’t changed.
‘He said: ‘OK. Let’s make a video.’’
So I went to see him last Tuesday. We had the morning together in his apartment, and I asked him: ‘So what’s the agenda, why did you call me?’ He said: ‘I have no agenda, there’s nothing to discuss.’ That’s a father, that’s a mentor. Back in Argentina we had made a covenant to work for unity in the church, and I was planning to minister at a big Evangelical conference, so I asked him: ‘Can you give the leaders a word?’ He said: ‘OK. Let’s make a video.’ So I pulled out my iPhone and we recorded it right there and then.
This is a historic moment. Father Mario is the first pope who took the name of St. Francis of Assisi who was openly charismatic and called by Jesus to rebuild to church. This is also in Pope Francis’ heart, to rebuild the church. He recognizes us as brothers and sisters and speaks to us accordingly. God is turning the hearts of the sons to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to their sons, to prepare the way of the Lord. (Malachi 4,6)
‘Christian unity is the basis of our credibility.’
In the first thousand years since Christ there was one church: the Catholic Church. The word Catholic means universal. At the end of the first millennium there was a split between the Orthodox Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West. Then 500 years later we had Luther and his protest: the third stream in 1500 years. And today there are 33,000 denominations. I’ve come to understand that diversity is divine, it’s division that’s diabolic. Jesus said: ‘I give them the glory, so that they may be one.’ (John 17,22) It’s the presence of God that glues us together, not the doctrine. If you accept that Christ is living in me, and I accept that Christ is living in you, that’s all we need. Because God will sort out all our doctrines when we get upstairs. Therefore Christian unity is the basis of our credibility. The world will not believe until we are one.
In 1999 the Roman Catholic church and the worldwide Lutheran Church signed an agreement that brought an end to the protest. Luther believed that we were saved by grace through faith alone, and the Catholic Church believed that we were saved by works. They put the two definitions together. On the Vatican website it now reads: ‘Justification means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.’ This brought an end to the protest of Luther. Five years later the worldwide Methodists signed the same agreement.”
‘Come on, we are brothers. Let’s give each other a hug.’
In Pope Francis’ video message, that quickly went viral on YouTube, he said the following:
“I will not speak in English or Italian, but in a more simple and authentic language, the language of the heart. It has a simple grammar, only two rules: love God above all and love others as your brother and sisters. I’m here with my brother Tony Palmer, we’ve been friends for years. He told me about your meeting and it’s a pleasure to greet you. It gives me joy that you have come together to worship Jesus Christ the only Lord, and to pray to the Father and to receive the Spirit. We can see that God is working all over the world. At the same time I feel sad about the separation between our families, due to many sins and misunderstandings throughout history. We all share the blame for that. I yearn to see this separation come to an end, and communion being restored. I yearn to embrace each other.
Scripture tells us that when Joseph’s brothers began to starve from hunger, they went to Egypt to buy food. But they found something more than food, something money couldn’t buy, they found their brother. We all have currency: cultural riches, religious riches, diverse traditions. But we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together, like Joseph and his brothers, these tears of love will unite us, so we can worship Jesus together as the Lord of history.
I thank you profoundly for listening to me and allowing me to speak in the language of the heart. I also ask you a favor: please pray for me, because I need your prayers. I will pray for you too. Let’s pray that the Lord unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that He has begun. As the famous Italian author Mazoni once wrote, quoting a simple man: ‘I’ve never seen God begin a miracle without Him finishing it well.’ He will complete this miracle of unity. I bless you. From brother to brother I embrace you.”
A movement of 200 million born-again Catholics
In this video Tony Palmer explains the Pope’s intentions and gives background to the charismatic renewal movement in the Catholic Church. This movement now has grown to over 200 million born-again and Spirit-filled Catholic Christians throughout the world.
Source: Tony Palmer and Pope Francis
Joel News International 896-897, March 2014-03-17