Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians closer now than ever

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 10:20 p.m.

The Rev. David Poecking tried something new last year at his Catholic parish in Carnegie: He asked congregants of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's to share stories about their faith before Mass.

His inspiration? Evangelical Christians, who long have used personal testimony as a powerful tool to attract believers.

Catholics and evangelicals clash on some theological practices, but the nation's two largest religious blocs increasingly are demonstrating unity to mobilize Christians and build support for shared causes.

“Evangelical and Catholic mutual respect and cooperation is stronger than it has been in all of history,” said Tim Larsen, professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College in Illinois.

The collaboration is evident in Pittsburgh this weekend at Consol Energy Center, where the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's three-day Three Rivers Festival of Hope with Franklin Graham is drawing tens of thousands of people to hear the son of “America's pastor” speak and free musical performances.

“It's an opportunity for us to stand together,” said Poecking, “when, of course, there are persons and institutions in the world that would like to exaggerate our differences and portray us as a hopelessly divided community.”

More than 500 churches representing 48 denominations, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, helped to organize the event and recruit volunteers to work it.

“It's for everyone,” festival director Sherman Barnette said. “From the beginning, we explain that we're gathering around a common goal, and that is to present the good news of Christ.”

In the shadow of the arena, after evening performances, Epiphany Catholic Church is inviting “wayward Catholics” energized by the show to renew their commitment through the sacrament of confession.

The diocese provided Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staffers with office space at a discounted rate. Bishop David Zubik is set to deliver the opening prayer at the event on Sunday evening.

“We've had an occasional letter from people saying, ‘Why are you doing this? Don't you know they'll pull people out of the Catholic Church?' ” diocesan spokeswoman Ann Rodgers said. “But in fact, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has a long history of trying to work cooperatively with Catholics, and the way their festivals are designed, they don't push anybody into or out of any particular Christian denominational affiliation.”

When Franklin Graham, son of the 95-year-old Billy Graham, makes his passionate plea for attendees to “invite Christ into your heart,” event workers hand out cards that include a line asking for one's home church or affiliation with which they identify. Those cards are sent to churches and institutions, or diocesan headquarters if they simply say “Catholic.”

“We don't get into, ‘Go to this church,' ” Barnette said. “That's up to the individual, and it becomes the home church's responsibility to contact those individuals.”

The Pittsburgh festival follows examples of Catholics and evangelicals working together this year.

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit a Pentecostal church in Italy, asking for forgiveness for Catholics' discrimination against evangelicals. That prompted the Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, to apologize for evangelical persecution of Catholics.

“The primary areas of working together are over things like help for refugees, religious freedom, the pro-life agenda — they don't necessarily mean that everyone is on the same page and agreement in matters of theology,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In February, Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders jointly wrote to Congress pleading for “common-sense fixes” to immigration policies. In January, evangelicals and Catholics rallied against abortion at the National Mall.

In Latin America, some Catholic leaders have indicated Pentecostals are welcome to evangelize nonpracticing Catholics, to try to reignite their devotion, said Dale Coulter, theology professor at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

Coulter emphasized, though, that leadership talks don't always translate to churchgoing members. Many people hold onto suspicions and clash over issues such as whether to prioritize converting nonbelievers over charity work, and theological matters such as “transubstantiation,” through which Catholics believe the wafers and wine of Holy Communion become the body and blood of Christ.

“That generosity of spirit doesn't always filter down to the ground level,” Poecking said. “There are, obviously, people who have had their feelings hurt one way or another, and so sometimes when it comes to these collaborative services, there are people who react negatively.”

Poecking's personal testimony experiment lasted for only a few months, although the Carnegie priest intends to bring it back.

Some rose to the challenge, divulging stories of nearly giving up on the church before a compelling experience fueled their faith. Others made remarks that fell somewhat flat.

“It's hitting that sweet spot where they can say it in a way that also reverberates with other people's experiences,” Poecking said. “This is a challenge for us Catholics, and we have something to learn there from evangelicals.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or

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