St. Francis, the Sultan and Pope Benedict

The following excerpt is from yesterday’s Wednesday audience of the Holy Father in which he offered a reflection on the life of St. Francis.  This particular passage concerns St. Francis’ meeting with the sultan in Egypt in 1219, (my unofficial translation from the Italian):

Also the successor of Innocent III, Pope Honorius III, with the bull Cum dilecti of 1218 supported the singular development of the first Friars Minor, who went opening missions in various countries of Europe, and in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go and speak, in Egypt, with the Muslim sultan Melek-el-Kâmel, in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus there also.  I wish to underscore that this episode of the life of Saint Francis that has great relevance.  In an age marked by an ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed only with the faith and his personal gentleness, effectively followed the path of dialogue. The reports speak about a benevolent acceptance and cordial reception to us from the Muslim sultan.  It is a model that even today must inspire relations between Christian and Muslims: promote dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding.  (cfr Nostra Aetate, 3).

This passage is consistent with remarks made by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2002 to which Paul Moses made reference in his comment on my previous post about Mr. Moses’ article on the subject:

Only then did [St. Francis] really know that the Crusades were not the appropriate way to protect the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, but that one had to take literally the message of the imitation of the Crucifix.

And here is the passage of Nostra Aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christan Religions (Paul VI, 1965), to which the Holy Father refers in the first quote above:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

I should acknowledge where my presentation seems to be in accord with the Holy Father’s remarks and where may not seem so.  While what Pope Benedict has to say on the subject is not a matter of faith and morals but of historical fact, I would like to show it the appropriate and pius deference.

The primary historical sources, which I upheld, indicate that St. Francis was in fact abused and threatened by the sultan’s subjects but not by him. They also indicate that such abuse was related to the identification of Islam by the friars as a false religion.  The Holy Father’s remarks only make direct reference to the encounter of the saint and the sultan.  The Holy Father identifies a more resolute opposition of the saint to the crusades, whereas I stated that the sources only identify St. Francis’ relative opposition to specific abuses.

Worthy of note in this regard is the difference between the Holy Father’s statement of 2002 and that of yesterday.  In his remarks of 2002, before his elevation to the papacy,  he indicates that St. Francis judged the crusades to be an inappropriate manner of defending the rights of Christians in the Holy Land.  In the paragraph quoted from yesterday’s Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict makes no reference to St. Francis’ opposition to the crusades, but only commends St. Francis for choosing dialogue as the best means of evangelization.  Perhaps he is distancing himself his previous historical assessment of the crusades, or what he judged to be St. Francis’ historical assessment.  Father Peter Damien Fehlner pointed this out to me, when I sent him the present post for his review.  In connection with the Holy Father’s modified statement relative to the crusades, Father Fehlner writes:

What he is saying in the light of Nostra Aetate is that today, for the sake of evangelization, we should forego that option, which is not the same thing as condemning the medieval and modern (Lepanto, Vienna) crusades as evil or useless.  His position is inspired by St. Francis, but the possibility and appropriateness of this inference in our changed circumstances does not imply that this would have also been the conclusion of Francis in his times.

Clearly the Church wishes to promote peace, and prefers the way of dialogue to the that of war.  Though pacifism as a moral imperative is not the teaching of the Church, her pastoral philosophy, especially today, entreats us to avoid war as much as possible, aided not only by human ingenuity but by the grace of God.

It remains a fact, that the relationship between the Christian West and Islam is a highly contentious issue.  And while most Westerners, including myself, have a very limited understanding of the culture of Islam, because most of us have very limited or no first-hand experiences with individual Muslims, there can be little question that Islamic jihad is one of the most dangerous threats today to world peace and to national and international security.  My objection to Mr. Moses’ presentation was principally that I believe the comparison of Obama to St. Francis, and the policies of Obama himself, are wholly unrealistic.

If we need to consider the pastoral philosophy of St. Francis, we also need to have an accurate understanding of what the crusades actually were, and what threat Islamic fundamentalism posed against the West at that time and continues to pose today.

Thanks to Dawn Eden for alerting me to the Holy Father’s general audience on St. Francis.

11 thoughts on “St. Francis, the Sultan and Pope Benedict

  1. Thanks, Jeff.

    Charlton Heston’s El Cid was some of his best work.

    I tried to find the scene in which the Cid makes King Alfonso take the oath (my favorite part). Couldn’t find it. But this will serve.

  2. I am thinking that the Holy Father did not tell the whole story purposely to overlook the fact that Saint Francis was abused by the Muslims in order to avoid another incident like that of the Regensburg lecture. He was able to make a comparison in behaviors without actually making the comparison.

  3. Charlie,

    Yes, certainly the Holy Father wants to keep the door open for dialogue. He made his point concerning the disjunction of faith and reason in Islam at Regensburg, or rather the Muslim’s who protested against him made his point for him.

    The pope is interested in intellectual persuasion, not physical threat. The ball is in the court of those responsible the religious formation of Muslims to see which will prevail.

  4. Father – Reading Rodney Stark’s excellent book, God’s Battalions, I’m wondering: is there a good film from Hollywood about the Crusades?

    Kingdom of Heaven is slanderous; I’m afraid of what Ridley Scott is going to do to Robin Hood.

  5. Jeff,

    I will have to get that book.

    Yes, Kingdom of Heaven is horrible. Scott wasted his talent on that piece of celluloid garbage.

    I was wondering the same thing recently. When I was looking for the El Cid clips I tried to find something on the crusades. I really don’t know of anything. There are works that have some technical merit like Arn, but the story is typically compromised.

  6. Ah, let us not forget that St Francis challenged the muslim Sultan’s own priests to walk on a bed of fiery coals. The priests fled in fear. This bravery on St. Francis’ part garnered huge respect from the Sultan towards St. Francis and his God. St. Francis’ mission was to convert the muslims to Catholicism and preach the One true faith and the only One true God. Did Pope Benedict say anything about that? I don’t think so.

  7. M Blanton,

    I am glad you have learned something from St. Francis. Too bad you think there is nothing to be learned from the pope. Have a blessed Traditionalist Christmas.

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