Luis Palau: New Pope Francis a Friend of Evangelicals

Evangelist Luis Palau, who knows and has prayed together with Pope Francis on several occasions, called the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics a friend of evangelicals who is respectful of all sides of Christianity.

"I exploded," Palau told, of his reaction after his son, Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association, shared the news that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope this week. "I just couldn't believe it. In the last election, he was in the running but he told me he felt led by God to remove himself from the race. I said, 'Maybe next time,' and he said, 'I'll be too old.'"

The fiery preacher who some have called the "Latin Billy Graham," said whenever they prayed together, Bergoglio asked him to "lay your hands on me and pray for me, that God will keep me as servant." The new pope is respectful of all sides of Christianity, Palau said, adding the press referred to him as the "evangelical pope" in 2008.

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Bergoglio, 76, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1936. His father was an Italian immigrant. He's the first pope from South America, and also the first Jesuit pope. Palau was also born in Argentina, and moved to Portland, Ore., in his mid-20s to enroll in a graduate program in Biblical studies.

"I've met him several times, gone to his place, we've talked, we've prayed together you know. He builds bridges to other Christian groups, like evangelical Christians, which is a high percentage in Latin America. He's a friend. He's a real friend," Palau, 78, told

In Buenos Aires, the Rev. Dr. Norberto Saracco, a prominent evangelical leader in Argentina, affirmed that Pope Francis is "known for having very good relationships with evangelicals and with leaders of other faiths, in addition to being a man of prayer and a supporter of the Bible Society," the Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the Wold Evangelical Alliance, said in statement to congratulate Francis.

The new pope took the name of the most severe critic of the papacy before Martin Luther, and bowed to receive the crowd's blessing.

"He doesn't act superior or above, you know, because of his position and so on," Palau said. "You'd never guess he was a cardinal if he walked in the room, because he makes a point of it. He's not impressed by himself."

Bergoglio is known for his simplicity. In Argentina, he chose not to live in the archbishop's palace and took a simple apartment instead. He also cooked his own meals and used public transport to go to work in lieu of a chauffeured limousine he was entitled to.

When Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage in 2010, Bergoglio opposed it, saying the legislation would "seriously injure the family" and that gay adoption would be "depriving (children) of the human growth that God wanted them given by a father and a mother."

On criticism that Bergoglio failed to act in the mid-1970s to protect the people from military dictators in Argentina, Palau said, "It's, you know, so easy to make statements, why don't they say this or say that. Why don't you go, become a citizen and live there, then try to do it?"

Palau said the new pope is likely to focus on the youth. "His passion for (the) young was in my book, far more visible and that shows you my conversations with him, than even his work with the poor. He really was desperate about the secularization of young people all over the west and all over the world," said Palau, author of numerous books.

Pope Francis is known for his pastoral skills and spirituality. He urged leaders of the Roman Catholic Church Friday never to give in to discouragement, bitterness or pessimism but to keep focused on their mission. "Let us never give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the devil places before us every day. Let us not give into pessimism and discouragement," Reuters quoted the pope as telling the cardinals who chose him.

Francis also told the cardinals Thursday the Church must not become just another charitable group without its divine mission, urging they must stick to the faith's Gospel roots and shun modern temptations.

On Friday afternoon, Francis slipped out of the Vatican to visit a fellow Argentine, 90-year-old Cardinal Jorg Mejia, who had suffered a heart attack. On Thursday morning, the day after his election, he left quietly to pray at a Rome basilica and to pay his bill at a residence where he had been staying before the conclave, according to Reuters.

Earlier in the Sistine Chapel, Francis stopped cardinals who tried to kneel before him.

Extending his "warmest congratulations" to the newly elected Pope, Tunnicliffe affirmed his prayers for the new leader, who will head the Catholic Church "at a time filled with great challenges but also a time of great possibilities..." He said WEA looks forward to "building on some of the good work we have done together in the past, such as the collaboration for the document Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct."

Francis' predecessor Pope Benedict XVI resigned, saying, "Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The inauguration of Pope Francis will be held Tuesday.

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