St. Francis and Pope Francis: Not in Agreement on Ecumenical Dialogue

Original Article

By Andrew Parrish
Pewsitter.com

April 25th, 2017

With the Pope’s visit to Egypt looming large in the headlines, the UK Catholic Tablet has today published an article by Christopher Lamb comparing this trip to another, previous Francis’ visit to the Middle East. As documented in the Life of St. Francis, St. Francis of Assisi – the Pope’s namesake – undertook a journey to the court of the Sultan of Jerusalem, the most powerful Muslim leader of the time. Unfortunately the author of this piece subscribes to a fairly common misconception – that this early meeting between Catholicism and Islam represents a primitive example of the “ecumenical dialogue” approach which is common today. The text of the Life, however, indicates that this was not the sort of dialogue of which modern proponents would approve, and the differences in approach between St. Francis and Pope Francis are worthy of note.

With regards to the Pope’s intentions, Mr. Lamb says, “The main focus of Francis’ short trip will be dialogue and diplomacy, a moment where a global Christian leader travels to the cradle of civilisation and a city known as “the mother of the world.” More than anything he says, the Pope’s presence and appeals for peace in such an important Islamic country will provide a powerful counter-narrative to the idea that religions are the cause of violence or that Islam and Christianity are involved in a clash of civilisations.”

The Pope has indeed frequently rejected attempts to identify religion as a cause of terrorism, saying that arms dealers, poverty, and inequality are more likely culprits. In his video message to the people of Egypt, which was released today, the Pope also rejects the idea that Islam and Christianity are in any way fundamentally in conflict, declaring members of the two faiths to share a common identity as “children of Abraham,” and his own aim to be “reconciliation with Muslims”. However, the Tablet‘s portrayal of St. Francis is not similarly accurate.

“During the sweltering heat of an Egyptian summer,” Lamb says, “a pair of humble friars wearing rough robes and walking on bare feet ignored the scoffing of knights on a fifth crusade to the Holy Land to cross to the Muslim forces and appeal for peace. One of the friars was St Francis of Assisi, the famous founder of the Franciscan order, and his meeting with Islamic leader Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt has gone down in history as a powerfully [sic] moment of Christian/Muslim relationships.” Unfortunately, this description of the official history omits the most crucial details, and it is only just that it be corrected.

St. Francis made two trips to the Middle East, according to his medieval biographers: the first to Morocco via Spain, and the second to Syria. The reason for his travel was not to “appeal for peace”; somewhat to the contrary, St. Francis so strongly hoped that the Muslims would murder him for proclaiming the Gospel to them that, as St. Bonaventure writes, “…the thought of dying for Christ meant more to him than any merit he might earn by the practice of virtue… he took the road towards Morocco with the intention of preaching the Gospel of Christ to the sultan… his desire bore him along so swiftly that even though he was physically weak he used to leave his companion behind and hurry ahead.” (Major Life of St. Francis, Chapter IX)

Prevented by an illness from realizing this plan, St. Francis’ desire for martyrdom remained so strong that he undertook a second trip to Syria several years later, while a Crusade was ongoing. He successfully navigated a battlefield with a Franciscan brother, as Mr. Lamb correctly states, and made his way into the presence of the Sultan, the Muslim forces’ commander. As St. Bonaventure recounts, “[Francis] proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ, the Savior of all, with such steadfastness, with such courage and spirit, that it was clear the promise of the Gospel had been fulfilled in him”; Bonaventure continues: “When the sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him. Francis, however, was inspired by God to reply, “If you are willing to become converts to Christ, you and your people, I shall be only too glad to stay with you for love of him. But if you are afraid to abandon the law of Mahomet for Christ’s sake, then light a big fire and I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy.” (Major Life, Chapter IX) The sultan refuses this repeated entreaty for a conclusive test, and Francis, stymied, eventually leaves in peace and returns home.

While there is always room for discussion about the most effective way for Catholics to interact with the faithful of other religions, this discussion cannot be carried on effectively if the facts are obscured. The purpose of interacting with those of other faiths is to convince them to convert to Catholicism, a point which Francis did not forget. Contemporary apologists would be well advised, perhaps, to remember the fiery and uncompromisingly dogmatic spirit of the saint of peace, a man willing to undergo diplomatic awkwardness, torture, and even death for the sake of a clear and unapologetic Faith.

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