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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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John Paul II: “Open wide the doors to Christ,” urged John Paul II during the homily at the Mass when he was installed as pope in 1978. <br /><br />Born in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Jozef Wojtyla had lost his mother, father and older brother before his 21st birthday. Karol’s promising academic career at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. While working in a quarry and a chemical factory, he enrolled in an “underground” seminary in Kraków. Ordained in 1946, he was immediately sent to Rome where he earned a doctorate in theology. <br /><br />Back in Poland, a short assignment as assistant pastor in a rural parish preceded his very fruitful chaplaincy for university students. Soon he earned a doctorate in philosophy and began teaching that subject at Poland’s University of Lublin. <br /><br />Communist officials allowed him to be appointed auxiliary bishop of Kraków in 1958, considering him a relatively harmless intellectual. They could not have been more wrong! <br /><br />He attended all four sessions of Vatican II and contributed especially to its <em>Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World</em>. Appointed as archbishop of Kraków in 1964, he was named a cardinal three years later. <br /><br />Elected pope in October 1978, he took the name of his short-lived, immediate predecessor. Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In time, he made pastoral visits to 124 countries, including several with small Christian populations. <br /><br />He promoted ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, especially the 1986 Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi. He visited Rome’s Main Synagogue and the Western Wall in Jerusalem; he also established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel. He improved Catholic-Muslim relations and in 2001 visited a mosque in Damascus, Syria. <br /><br />The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, a key event in John Paul’s ministry, was marked by special celebrations in Rome and elsewhere for Catholics and other Christians. Relations with the Orthodox Churches improved considerably during his ministry as pope. <br /><br />“Christ is the center of the universe and of human history” was the opening line of his 1979 encyclical, <em>Redeemer of the Human Race</em>. In 1995, he described himself to the United Nations General Assembly as “a witness to hope.” <br /><br />His 1979 visit to Poland encouraged the growth of the Solidarity movement there and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe 10 years later. He began World Youth Day and traveled to several countries for those celebrations. He very much wanted to visit China and the Soviet Union but the governments in those countries prevented that. <br /><br />One of the most well-remembered photos of his pontificate was his one-on-one conversation in 1983 with Mehmet Ali Agca, who had attempted to assassinate him two years earlier. <br /><br />In his 27 years of papal ministry, John Paul II wrote 14 encyclicals and five books, canonized 482 saints and beatified 1,338 people. <br /><br />In the last years of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was forced to cut back on some of his activities. <br /><br />Pope Benedict XVI beatified John Paul II in 2011, and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014. American Catholic Blog Lord, may I have balance and measure in everything—except in Love. —St. Josemaría Escrivá

 
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