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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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Louis of France: At his coronation as king of France, Louis IX bound himself by oath to behave as God’s anointed, as the father of his people and feudal lord of the King of Peace. Other kings had done the same, of course. Louis was different in that he actually interpreted his kingly duties in the light of faith. After the violence of two previous reigns, he brought peace and justice. 
<p>He was crowned king at 12, at his father’s death. His mother, Blanche of Castile, ruled during his minority. When he was 19 and his bride 12, he was married to Marguerite of Provence. It was a loving marriage, though not without challenge. They had 11 children. </p><p>Louis “took the cross” for a Crusade when he was 30. His army seized Damietta ini Egypt but not long after, weakened by dysentery and without support, they were surrounded and captured. Louis obtained the release of the army by giving up the city of Damietta in addition to paying a ransom. He stayed in Syria four years. </p><p>He deserves credit for extending justice in civil administration. His regulations for royal officials became the first of a series of reform laws. He replaced trial by battle with a form of examination of witnesses and encouraged the use of written records in court. </p><p>Louis was always respectful of the papacy, but defended royal interests against the popes and refused to acknowledge Innocent IV’s sentence against Emperor Frederick II. </p><p>Louis was devoted to his people, founding hospitals, visiting the sick and, like his patron St. Francis (October 4), caring even for people with leprosy. (He is one of the patrons of the Secular Franciscan Order.) Louis united France—lords and townsfolk, peasants and priests and knights—by the force of his personality and holiness. For many years the nation was at peace. </p><p>Every day Louis had 13 special guests from among the poor to eat with him, and a large number of poor were served meals near his palace. During Advent and Lent, all who presented themselves were given a meal, and Louis often served them in person. He kept lists of needy people, whom he regularly relieved, in every province of his dominion. </p><p>Disturbed by new Muslim advances in Syria, he led another crusade in 1267, at the age of 41. His crusade was diverted to Tunis for his brother’s sake. The army was decimated by disease within a month, and Louis himself died on foreign soil at the age of 44. He was canonized 27 years later.</p> American Catholic Blog God passes through the thicket of the world, and wherever His glance falls He turns all things to beauty. <br />–St. John of the Cross

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