Pope Francis became the first pope to make an official visit to a Pentecostal church, after he flew on Monday to speak at the Evangelical Church of Reconciliation in the southern city of Caserta, Italy. The pontiff apologized for persecution of Pentecostals the Roman Catholic Church was involved with in the past, and reached out with friendship to evangelicals.
"Among those who persecuted and denounced Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy people trying to ruin the race, there were also Catholics," Francis said, according to The Associated Press, referring to Italy's fascist regime when the Pentecostal practice was forbidden.
"I am the pastor of Catholics, and I ask your forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who didn't know and were tempted by the devil."
Francis spoke before 350 worshipers at the church and met privately with the Pentecostal preacher Giovanni Traettino.
"Someone will be surprised: 'The pope went to visit the evangelicals?' But he went to see his brothers," the pope added.
The Vatican leader has met unofficially with a number of evangelicals in recent months including Texas televangelists James Robinson and Kenneth Copeland and other Pentecostal preachers.
Traettino returned the sentiment, Catholic News Service added, and called Francis "my beloved brother" when welcoming him to the church, which is under construction. He added that there is "great affections" for Francis even among evangelicals, and said that many pray for the pope every day.
"Many of us, in fact, believe your election as bishop of Rome was the work of the Holy Spirit," the Pentecostal pastor added.
Francis and Traettino first met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the late 1990s, where the pastor was establishing ties between charismatic Catholics and Pentecostal Protestants.
Msgr. Juan Usma Gomez, who handles the Catholic Church's official relations with evangelicals and Pentecostals, previously explained that Francis teaches that "to work for Christian unity you need brotherhood."
Francis has reached out to other Christian denominations as well with a message of Christian unity, and in June told Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a meeting that their division is a "scandal" and a "obstacle" to preaching the Gospel.
"We cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the world," Francis told the Anglican head, and added: "The goal of full unity may seem distant indeed, [. . .] it remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way."