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Franciscans and Muslims: Eight Centuries of Seeking God View Comments
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

FRANCISCANS AND MUSLIMS encountered one another during the lifetime of St. Francis
(1181-1226). Indeed, he sent friars to the Holy Land in 1217. Two years later, Crusaders fought Muslim soldiers at Damietta, Egypt, near the mouth of the Nile. At considerable risk, St. Francis engaged Sultan Malik al-Kamil, their leader, in peaceful dialogue.

What follows is a brief description of that encounter, based on accounts written soon afterward. The Christian and Muslim armies stood opposite eachother at close quarters. The sultan had decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be rewarded with a gold piece. Francis,
however, the knight of Christ, was unafraid and hoped to realize his ambition of dying as a martyr for Christ. Friar Illuminatus accompanied him.

The Muslim soldiers seized them fiercely and dragged them before the sultan. When he asked why they were sent and by whom, Francis replied courageously that they had been sent by God, not by man, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and to proclaim the truth of the gospel message. Francis proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ, the savior of all, with steadfastness, courage and spirit.

When the sultan saw the little friar’s enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him. Then he offered Francis a number of valuable gifts, but the saint was anxious only for the salvation of souls and refused the sultan’s gifts. The sultan, astonished at Francis’ utter disregard for worldly wealth, felt greater respect than ever for the saint. (In fact, Francis accepted an ivory horn that is displayed in Assisi’s Basilica of St. Francis.)

Bishop Jacques de Vitry, who was a contemporary of Francis, wrote that the sultan “had Francis led back to [the Christian] camp with many signs of honor and with security precautions, but not without saying to him: ‘Pray to God for me, that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to him.’” (These texts are from St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis and from Jacques de Vitry’s History of the Orient in St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008.)

Franciscans today return prayerfully and often to Francis’ encounter with the sultan, viewing it as a starting point and model for their own approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue (see sidebar on page 25).

A man of his era, Francis did not anticipate all the insights that scholars today enjoy regarding world religions. He reflected the Christian biases of his time, as is clear from his frequent written references to Muslims as “infidels” and what some would see as an excess of fervor in trying to convert the sultan.

Yet Francis was ahead of his time in the openness, respect and spirit of dialogue that he showed in this daring, nonviolent, peacemaking venture. The sultan gave Francis a safe-conduct letter that allowed him to visit the Holy Land itself.

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Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He has traveled in areas where Franciscans live among Muslims. Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is Franciscan editor of this publication and was director of communications in Rome for the Order of Friars Minor.

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Angela Merici: Angela has the double distinction of founding the first teaching congregation of women in the Church and what is now called a “secular institute” of religious women. 
<p>As a young woman she became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis (now known as the Secular Franciscan Order), and lived a life of great austerity, wishing, like St. Francis, to own nothing, not even a bed. Early in life she was appalled at the ignorance among poorer children, whose parents could not or would not teach them the elements of religion. Angela’s charming manner and good looks complemented her natural qualities of leadership. Others joined her in giving regular instruction to the little girls of their neighborhood. </p><p>She was invited to live with a family in Brescia (where, she had been told in a vision, she would one day found a religious community). Her work continued and became well known. She became the center of a group of people with similar ideals. </p><p>She eagerly took the opportunity for a trip to the Holy Land. When they had gotten as far as Crete, she was struck with blindness. Her friends wanted to return home, but she insisted on going through with the pilgrimage, and visited the sacred shrines with as much devotion and enthusiasm as if she had her sight. On the way back, while praying before a crucifix, her sight was restored at the same place where it had been lost. </p><p>At 57, she organized a group of 12 girls to help her in catechetical work. Four years later the group had increased to 28. She formed them into the Company of St. Ursula (patroness of medieval universities and venerated as a leader of women) for the purpose of re-Christianizing family life through solid Christian education of future wives and mothers. The members continued to live at home, had no special habit and took no formal vows, though the early Rule prescribed the practice of virginity, poverty and obedience. The idea of a teaching congregation of women was new and took time to develop. The community thus existed as a “secular institute” until some years after Angela’s death.</p> American Catholic Blog I hear far more people discuss the presence of evil in their lives than they do the supreme power of grace. God is bigger than evil!

 
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