Greg Downes, Director of Ministerial Training, and Dean of The Wesley Centre for Missional Engagement at the evangelical training college, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, says:
‘I was on the cupola [dome] of Saint Peter’s basilica in the Vatican, high above the tomb of the apostle Peter (tradition tells us) recovering from the exertion of the 551 steps and slightly regretting not taking the lift. A 49-year-old tourist called Holger struck up conversation with me to ask me if I knew the residence of (fellow German) Pope Emeritus Benedict as we surveyed the scene of the Vatican gardens below. Slightly embarrassingly I did, and after pointing out the Mater ecclesiae monastery 135 metres [450 foot] below, I told them that I was an ordained minister.
Turned to the gospel
‘Conversation seemed to naturally go from the ecclesiastical to the theological and I was able to share the gospel with my new friend and his Bolivian wife, Natalia. Both had come from a Catholic background and had been disillusioned by aspects of that. Holger was now agnostic, while Natalia had dabbled in various New Age philosophies. I asked her candidly: “Have you found what you are looking for?” to which she replied: “No – something is missing”.
It was 40 years ago that I became a Christian myself as an 11-year-old boy in an English public school after looking at a beehive and the words popped into my head (seemingly from nowhere) “Sin stings, but Jesus can take away the sting”. I shared my story with them and the difference personal faith in Christ had made in my own life before I threw out the question: was this something they wanted for themselves? They replied that they did and we prayed there and then, both surrendering their lives to Christ.
‘As is my practice, I then prayed for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit. At this point Holger was holding back the tears and Natalia was more verbally expressive, saying: ‘I feel so emotional – as you prayed I was slowly filled with a deep sense of peace.
‘We are still in touch on Facebook (I received a message from Holger today) and I’m connecting them with an evangelical church in their city.
‘Shortly after our encounter, Natalia sent me this message: ‘I want you to know that I’m still thinking about our meeting – this didn’t happen for nothing. I have told my closest friends about it’. I like to use my Facebook page for testimony and so with their permission I included a photo of the meeting with the post “Had a divine appointment today on the upper balcony of the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican when I met Holger and Natalia from Germany. What a spot for them to pray and receive Christ and be tangibly touched by the Holy Spirit”.
‘As well as the comments from Christians, the couple themselves decided to post. Holger wrote: “Thank you very much indeed for this divine encounter”. Natalia commented: “Thank you very much, Greg. As I told you I have been for a long time sceptical and doubtful, but at the same time looking for answers and some kind of guidance. I went to the Vatican mainly because my husband asked me: ‘What if the Pope gives us his blessing?’, to which I answered: ‘Well, I would receive them, but I don’t think they would mean much to me because he does the same to everyone at the same time’. I tried to explain that I was waiting for something more meaningful than that. A while after this we met you. As we started praying I must confess that I was tense and not receptive (it might be because I don’t pray), but later I got this feeling of comfort and warmth. I realised that this was the blessing that I wanted to receive. I’m truly grateful thanks again”. My reply was simply “I do believe you have now found what you have been searching for all your life”.
‘What an encouragement to see two dear people experience the truth of what Paul had written to the church he founded in that very city two millennia before: “If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom.10:9)’.