Pope addresses thousands gathered at National Mall in video message

On July 16, Pope Francis, in a pre-recorded video message, spoke to thousands of Christians from across denominations who were gathered on the National Mall in Washington, in an attempt to push the reset button on ecumenical relations.

Together 2016, organized by a coalition of evangelical leaders led by Nick Hall of PULSE Ministries, was designed, according to its website, “to bring people from all backgrounds together for a unified day of worship and prayer, asking Jesus to reset the nation.”

On hand for the event were a number of marquee names recognizable to Christian audiences: best-selling authors like Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias, and recording artists such as Michael W. Smith, Lecrae and David Crowder. Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow made a surprise appearance. Another surprise came in the form of a written statement thanking the attendees for their prayers and enthusiasm from the desk of President Barack Obama, which was read from the stage. Catholic worship leader Matt Maher also performed during the morning session.

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Nick Hall of PULSE Ministries addresses the crowd at Together 2016 on July 16 in Washington, D.C. Courtesy photo.

In his video message, Pope Francis, speaking Spanish, encouraged youth participants to seek Jesus as the answer to their deepest yearnings.

“Young men and women, I know there is something in your heart that moves you. And that makes you restless, because a young person who is not restless is an old person,” Pope Francis said. “And you have youthfulness, and youthfulness breeds restlessness. What is your restlessness? Do you know what it is or do you not know? Do you want to know what your restlessness is? I invite you to … to find the one who can give you an answer to your restlessness.

“And I assure you, you will not be frustrated. God does not leave anyone disillusioned. Jesus is waiting for you. He is the one who planted the seeds of restlessness in your heart. Give it a try! You don’t have anything to lose! Try it. Then you can tell me. Thank you!”

The event comes as political questions have deeply divided Christians ahead of the November presidential elections — not only regarding controversial endorsements and nonendorsements of candidates but also in regard to questions of violence, poverty, the sanctity of all life and the powder keg of race relations in the United States. Several presenters used their brief stage time to call for prayers in the wake of recent events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas; evangelist Louie Giglio even invited the gathering to kneel together and pray for reconciliation and healing between the races.

There was scattered criticism of the event in its lead-up; some wrote to event organizers scoffing at the notion of being able to “plan” a revival; others expressed mistrust at the invitation of Catholics to the discussion, fearing that their inclusion would make the event no longer a Christian gathering. Grammy winner David Crowder, however, was thrilled about that aspect of it: “To me, I’m excited that Catholics and Protestants can share the stage together at an event like this.”

There was no denominational agenda in the presentations, but the speakers and performers certainly reflected an evangelical, and even charismatic bent. As the event concluded, a montage on the projection screen featured a vintage reel of Billy Graham at one of his signature crusades — an indication of the kind of movement that Hall and PULSE were aiming to emulate.

The event was scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but cases of heat exhaustion among the attendees caused the parks service to shut things down at around 4 p.m. No official count on the attendance was given, but unofficial estimates put the crowd near 300,000.

Matt Swaim is communications coordinator for The Coming Home Network International (chnetwork.org).