After the papal conclave of 2005 in which Pope Benedict XVI was elected, international evangelist Luis Palau joked to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio that he wished the cardinal would have won so that Palau could honestly say, “The pope is my friend!” But as of Wednesday this week, when white smoke was finally sighted in the Vatican, such a statement turned suddenly accurate.
We talked to Luis Palau about his friendship with Pope Francis and the many surprises behind the former archbishop of Buenos Aires—including his simple lifestyle, his deep commitment to seeing Catholics and evangelicals work together and why he’s not a revolutionary—but is something even better.
RELEVANT: Everyone is buzzing with news of the Pope right now, but you have a unique perspective of Pope Francis knowing him personally when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. How did the two of you first get connected?
Luis Palau: Well, I was born in Argentina as he was too, we have major major youth campaigns in Buenos Aires and all over the world. The last one [in Buenos Aires] was just four years ago. We had almost a million young people.
So whenever I go to a country I try to greet not only the political leadership, but also leaders of various religions just to get acquainted. So we made an appointment … and we became friends. I realized what an open man he was. He loved young people. I remember one time we had a conversation in private, just chatting and then praying. His main burden was young people. He would get together with 30 young people if he could. He was very sincere, very transparent. He said to me once, “You know I envy you. You get hundred of thousands of young people in a beach or a park. I only get 30 or 60 of them and I’m having a hard time.”
When I first met him, I began to call him Dr. Bergoglio and he said “Don’t call me Dr. Bergolio. First, I don’t really have a doctorate and secondly, I’m not a great theologian, but I do love Jesus and I love the Bible.” Really, you feel at home with a man like that.
RELEVANT: Some words the media has used to describe Pope Francis are “simple,” “conservative,” and of course, “an unexpected choice.” Does that sound accurate to you?
Palau: Yes, I’ve heard that. The “unexpected choice” I wouldn’t say isn’t as surprising, only his age. But he has very strong convictions, especially firm moral convictions that have been molded by the Bible about personal ethics. He is a very gentle person. Of course, he cares for the poor tremendously. But he was not a revolutionary in the sense of causing class warfare or pitying the rich versus the poor. He simply encouraged people to serve and care for the poor just like Jesus did, which evangelical Christians do. That was his main push, but he’s not a revolutionary and I think that’s important to say. In its day, liberation theology encouraged violence, if necessary, to achieve certain goals for the poor. He was not one of those. He was not inciting confrontation in the wrong sense. He was more about serving the young and serving the poor.
RELEVANT: So to him that’s not revolutionary, that’s just obedience and faithfulness?
Palau: That’s right; it’s just like what real Christianity is for you and me. Because, really, the true Church of Jesus Christ has always been inclined toward the poor without making a big noise about it.
RELEVANT: Many people are talking about the legacy Pope Francis is bringing to the Vatican of his deep commitment and work on behalf of the poor. How do you think this will influence the global church?
Palau: Well, he himself really lives in simplicity. I saw it: a simple apartment. And as it’s been said in the press, he cooks for himself and everything. He lives a simple life. Traveled on buses around Buenos Aires, not dressed with a Cardinal’s clothing, but just as a regular priest.
I think his example will have an impact in the world because it will emphasize the vast majority of people who are needy and hungry. But he will do it [in the Vatican], if I am right on this, because that’s what he did [in Argentina]. He will encourage helping the poor, but not by berating or offending those who have succeeded.
RELEVANT: He’s also a man of prayer, isn’t he?
Palau: I’ve known him for many years, and his prayer was always the thing that got me. He turned everything into a prayer.
Every time I’ve met with him it usually started with prayer and ended with prayer, sometimes on our knees. You noticed when he accepted the other day from the balcony, he said, “Pray for me.” That was his first comment after “Good morning, buon giorno.” I wasn’t surprised at all, because that’s the way he felt all the time. He sent me a letter when we went to a festival about two years ago and he said, “I am at your disposal. I ask please that you pray for me. May the Lord Jesus bless you with His affection.” He was always wanting to pray about things.
RELEVANT: If all Jesuits take a vow to “not ambition,” or not aspire to power or authority but a life of humility, do you think this will be an internal conflict for Pope Francis as he steps into his new role?
Palau: Yes, I’ve read that and heard that, but somebody has to lead don’t they? So in his case, he was elected and I’m sure—I know—he was resisting it because in the last election, where Pope Benedict won, he was only two points behind. But he felt that Pope Benedict was more prepared to be pope than he was, so after several votes, he pulled out of the election. And that was the end of that.
As I remember, when he came back from Pope Benedict’s election, I said, “Oh, what a pity, I was hoping to be able to say, ‘The pope is my friend.’ But maybe another time.” And he said, “No, it’s too late. I’ll be too old the next time.” But it turned out to be not too late yet.
RELEVANT: What do you think he will be able to bring to the papacy that others can not?
Palau: I think he will bring not only an inclination toward the poor, but an inclination toward young people.
While we were at a youth convention on the beach in Argentina we stopped and prayed and talked, and I asked him before the convention, “Any word of counsel?” And he said, “ Listen, 80 percent of those young people don’t know Jesus personally. So give them the Gospel.”
I think that’s the emphasis he is going to bring to the papacy: That the Gospel is primary, that we must emphasize it and especially with youth. And that’s what I’m praying and that’s what I think every believer who loves Jesus Christ ought to pray also.
RELEVANT: What particular concerns has he voiced for young people today?
Palau: His main concern is that we’ve become so secularized and that the media has so imposed secular values and unbiblical moral ethics, that the young generation sees nothing wrong with certain behavior patterns that are against the basic teachings of the Word of God.
He meets with a group of youth and it went from 20, to 50, to 100 and he really spends time trying to disciple them. So, yes, he has hope, but he also despairs that unless we have a real turning of hundreds of thousands of young people that the West could become secularized altogether. He hasn’t given up, knowing that the power of Jesus Christ is strong but he has voiced his concern, that the young people feel the church is behind the times. I’m sure he’s going to give every effort to show that biblical Christianity is not behind the times, that it’s always contemporary and it’s for every generation. I think people will see that.
RELEVANT: Many people will be watching to see how Pope Francis navigates the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Palau: He’s out to make an incredible turn-around, to be a bridge-builder. He’s worked on it from the very beginning of his position as Cardinal of all Argentina. He worked on it when he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the capital, which has 13 million people. And he has publicly worked with evangelical Christians.
For instance, there were some laws in the Argentine Congress for Senate going for votes, and he led the way in some of those bills contrary to the politicians on education.
And he called up the evangelical leaders and said, “Look, I can lead the way on this one if you back me up.” Then when there was another social issue of major proportions, again in the Argentine Congress and Senate, the evangelicals said, “Well, you lead the way, Bishop, and we’ll back you.” And he said, “No, no. On this one, you lead the way and I’ll back you.” And he did.
To me, this says he’s not a public relations kind of man. When he says something, he says it with conviction, not to play the game of pleasing you right now. He’ll bring that into the papacy, even though the complications are so much greater as you can imagine with all the pressures of this position.
RELEVANT: So he’s been very intentional about building relationships with other evangelical leaders?
He’s met with many evangelical Christian leaders from the early days of his leadership. He’s made a point of it. Not boasting of it, but simply and quietly. I just got a note this morning from the Anglican Bishop of Argentina, who’s a strong leader, very evangelical. And he said the same thing I do: that they get together for breakfast, that they pray and talk about the state of the world, of the church and secularism.
His bridge-building is about fighting together for moral causes based in Scripture. We know there are differences between Christianity and the Roman Catholic theology, but those can be handled when there are gentle attitudes between us.
RELEVANT: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Pope Francis’ leadership?
There’s a verse in Proverbs 21 that says, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord. Like rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wills.” It’s a great verse on the sovereignty of God—showing us that God rules over the nations, He rules over events.
I think we can trust that the Lord rules above all humanity and His purposes will be achieved to honor Jesus Christ, and that this election of Pope Francis will somehow fit into God’s sovereign plan. It’s a deep thought, but an important one—that God is sovereign.
Stephanie S. Smith is a twentysomething writer and editor addicted to print and pixels. She works as content development editor at RELEVANT Media Group and blogs about the Incarnation and embodied faith at stephindialogue.com. Catch her tweeting at @stephindialogue.