ROME (AP) — Pope Francis joined thousands of Charismatic Catholics, Pentecostals and evangelicals at a rousing rally Saturday aimed at showing Christians united in prayer.
Francis actually joined in the singing — a rarity for a pope who professes to be tone deaf — and raised his arms up at the end of the vigil on the Circus Maximus in Rome.
More than his predecessors, Francis has embraced the charismatic wing of the Catholic Church, even though as a young Jesuit he dismissed charismatics as a "samba school."
Saturday's event signaled that he sees charismatics as key actors in bridging the Christian divide with communities that often are the main competitors for souls in Africa, Asia and South America.
Francis told the crowd: "We have differences, but we want to have reconciled diversity."
He repeated his frequent refrain that Christians today are united in the "ecumenism of blood" given that Islamic extremists are targeting Christians regardless of denomination.
"The witness of our martyrs unites us today," the pope said. "In various places, where blood is being shed, today the unity of Christians is more urgent than ever."
Francis also made a slight rhetorical overreach by telling the crowd he had wanted to hold the rally at the Circus Maximus because it was where "Christians were persecuted for the fun of those who were there to watch."
However, there is little historic evidence that Christians were martyred on the huge field, said Candida Moss, professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and author of "The Myth of Persecution: How early Christians Invented a Dangerous Legacy."
"This idea became enormously popular as part of a cluster of 19th century tourist urban legends," Moss said in an email. "Much like the myths of Christians hiding in the catacombs and being thrown to the lions in the Colisseum, there's not much truth to the story."