July 19, 2014

​Pope Francis Meets US Televangelists

 ©2014 Religion News Service

What does it take to produce the first-ever
papal high-five?

The gesture came during a three-hour meeting of Pope Francis and Texas
televangelists Kenneth Copeland and James Robison, just weeks after the pontiff
met with televangelist Joel Osteen and other religious leaders. At the
June 24 meeting, Robison said he was so moved by Pope Francis’ message of the
gospel that he asked the translator to ask Francis for a high-five. The
pope obliged, raised his arm and the two men smacked hands.

The televangelists are among some wealthier U.S.
evangelicals who have recently met with Francis, who has called for a focus on
the poor and a simple lifestyle for clergy.

Copeland and Osteen have been criticized by some
as teaching “health and wealth” prosperity theology, the belief that faith can
increase one’s wealth. But from his humble shoes to his simple Fiat, Francis
has set a decidedly un-extravagant example. “The prosperity gospel seems to be
fundamentally opposed to the message that Francis has been spreading. But he
has shown that he’s willing to meet with just about anyone,” said Michael
Peppard, a professor of theology at Fordham University.

“Joel Osteen seems to have a charismatic
authority among a large amount of people. Maybe Francis is channeling
Jesus: If you disagree with someone, meet with them.”

Last year, Francis fired the German “Bishop of
Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, for spending $43 million on a
fancy residential complex. Copeland, meanwhile, was one of several
televangelists targeted by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in 2007 for their
lavish lifestyles.

Copeland declined to provide full information
about his finances, and the investigation wrapped up in 2011 with no
penalties for the pastors who did not cooperate and no definitive instances of
wrongdoing found.

Copeland was unavailable for comment about
his meeting, but in an address to his congregation, he played a recording
from earlier this year where Francis spoke on a smartphone
camera and called on Christians to set aside their differences.
Copeland led his congregation in prayer where many spoke in tongues, a common
Pentecostal practice.

Robison, a Texas televangelist with Baptist roots
who is not an advocate of prosperity theology, defended his friend Copeland. “All
the things I’ve seen him criticized for, I have not seen validity,” Robison
said. “I don’t appreciate Christians standing back and criticizing each other.”

Robison said he was born into the Episcopal
Church but didn’t have a “born-again” conversion until later in life, the
kind of story he sees among many Protestants and Catholics. “There are a lot of
evangelicals and Catholics who don’t know Christ,” he said.

In fact, Francis’ meeting may reflect a shift in
emphasis within the papacy. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, regularly bemoaned
the decline of Christianity in his native Germany and
across Europe. In contrast, the Argentine Francis comes from a region
where competition from Pentecostalism is one of the biggest challenges facing
the Catholic Church, Peppard said.

As unusual as it might seem for a pope to meet
with celebrity Protestant preachers, the potential awkwardness goes both ways.
While some praised Robison for going to Rome, others said Protestants and
Catholics have too many differences, on issues that include the role of the
Bible, saints, the status of the Virgin Mary and the nature of salvation. “Very
disappointed in you James and Betty. Never forget the Inquisition — Never
forget!” one commenter wrote on Robison’s website.

But Robison said he and Francis found common
ground in caring for the poor.