December 9, 2013

Memories of a pastor in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES -- It's hard to wrestle with the crucial moral and cultural issues in modern Argentina without getting Catholic and Protestant leaders into the same room.

During one tense gathering, some Catholic speakers kept referring to decades of rapid growth by "evangelical cults" in Latin America. The assumption seemed to be that evangelical Protestants were all the same, with no real differences between, for example, the freewheeling "prosperity Gospel" preachers and ordinary Protestant flocks.

This went on and on and evangelical leaders started feeling attacked, said the Rev. Nestor Miguez, president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of Argentina.

Then, during a break, a crucial player pulled him aside. Expressing sympathy, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio asked for a short paper describing how different evangelical groups "understand themselves and how they see themselves as part of church life in Argentina," said Nestor, speaking through a translator at a conference this week on "Journalism and Religion in Latin America."

"It is clear that he took this seriously because I can still recognize some of the language from that little three-page paper in his remarks about evangelicals and other churches, even now as Pope Francis," said Nestor, of the Evangelical Methodist Church. "This is crucial. This is a man who truly listens. He is not pretending to listen. He is listening. ... This is at the heart of who he is as a man."

According to several conference speakers who knew Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, it isn't surprising that his first major papal statement -- an "apostolic exhortation" called Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") -- focuses on pastoral issues facing priests, bishops and laypeople. While the document addresses hot topics such as abortion, economic justice and the role of women, the vast majority of its 217 pages focus on missions, evangelization, preaching and pastoral care.

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