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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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Philip Neri: Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise. 
<p>At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate. </p><p>As the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome. </p><p>At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way. </p><p>Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. </p><p>The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.) </p><p>Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.</p> American Catholic Blog We need do no more than we are doing at present; that is, to love divine Providence and abandon ourselves in his arms and heart.<br />—St. Padre Pio

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