This past spring and fall, I was privileged to offer two weekend retreats for the Secular Franciscan Order. The first, held at Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., for the Our Lady of the Angels Region, included OFS communities in Manhattan, Staten Island, Yonkers, and Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and in North Jersey. The second retreat, held at the Priestfield Retreat Center for the St. Margaret of Cortona Region in West Virginia, included communities in Delaware, South Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. Approximately 27 OFS fraternities were represented in these regional retreats, which are usually held annually.
It was my first time meeting many brothers and sisters who live and work in diverse fraternities on the East Coast. As their Provincial spiritual assistant, I encouraged them to be alert to the signs of the times by speaking on a historic and mysterious encounter between Francis of Assisi and the Islamic Sultan, Malek al-Kamil, an inspiring event that occurred some 800 years ago and still has relevance today. This encounter between these two fascinating men sparked an interreligious dialogue that has endured for centuries and began long before the Second Vatican Council’s groundbreaking document, “Nostra Aetate.”
Francis and the Sultan
With all of the tensions between the United States and the Middle East in more recent history, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and a recent near military strike in Syria, the prospect for peace between Christians and Muslims has grown dim. However, when one considers the sacred encounter between Francis of Assisi and the leader of the Islamic World in the Middle Ages during the Fifth Crusade, seeds of respect and dialogue were planted. It is now imperative that Christians and Muslims look to Francis and the Sultan for inspiration and hope for a greater understanding and respect toward each other’s traditions.
Francis’ encounter with the Sultan is worth intense reflection because it is a real live story that captures the human imagination. Two unique men from different lands, cultures and languages met in Damietta and spoke of their respective faiths, resulting in an unexpected respect and openness toward each other.
I underscored Francis’s Rule of 1223 where he councils his friars “not to judge others, nor to quarrel or contend in words, but to act peaceably, in a gentle, humble manner to all as is fitting.” As a peacemaker, Francis was opposed to ruthless violence. In a medieval Church that possessed tremendous ecclesiastical and political power, Francis held an uncommon view toward Islam and the Crusades in contrast to the position of Church authorities. Francis was truly prophetic as he envisioned a universal fraternity, not only among his minores, but also with those who adhere to different religious faiths and cultures. The contemplative dimension of Francis challenged him to open his heart wide enough to embrace leper and Sultan, both being countersigns in his day.
Finding Common Ground
Given the mistrust, prejudice and fear that exist between Christian and Muslim communities across the globe today, finding common ground in our efforts to discover each other in love becomes imperative. In a document entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” written by Muslim scholars and addressed to the world’s Christian communities and Pope Benedict XVI , they express that “polite ecumenical dialogue between select religious leaders is not enough.” Both communities must strive to contribute to a meaningful peace around the world because “if Muslims and Christians are not at peace, then the world itself cannot be at peace.”
Pope Benedict responded to this plea by urging both communities of faith to work together in the cause of defending human dignity. It is recognizing the centrality of the person and the dignity of each human being that will help us to build a more fraternal world in which “confrontations and differences are peacefully settled and the devastating power of ideologies is neutralized.”
It is interesting that both Secular Franciscan regional communities in New York and Virginia were interested in this study. Many wanted to know more about the power of dialogue that Francis inaugurated with the sultan. There is ample evidence in the Gospels, and in the rule and constitutions of both the friar minors and in the Secular Franciscan Order, along with the Koran, that encourage us all to work in unity to improve the quality of life for all people, regardless of race, religion, or culture.
The Damietta Project
We can form Christian/Muslim unity to combat social ills that besiege the human spirit. We can work together for the common good and witness to the world that every faith tradition enriches society and culture, when practiced with an all-embracive charity. Together, we can joyfully and confidently witness to the world that religion will not be the cause of hatred, violence and war among nations and peoples ever again.
As a result of a joint study between Christians and Muslims at St. Anthony Shrine, we have begun the “Damietta Project,” an effort to collaborate together to work on important issues for the common good. We have discovered that in sharing our faith traditions, the social teachings of the Catholic community are particularly esteemed by Muslims. Therefore, we are working to raise consciousness on issues such as food and water sustainability, human trafficking, the deleterious effects of climate change, particularly on vulnerable populations, unjust immigration policies and the breakup of human families through deportation, just to name a few.
Members of our Christian and Muslim communities joined together for a tasty Halal Thanksgiving meal prepared beautifully by Jackie Stewart, our Director of Evangelization. We gathered at her home to celebrate our gratitude for all God’s gifts, for our differences that challenge us as well as our cherished commonalities. We give thanks for each other most of all, each person made in the dignity and beauty of God’s creative love. We believe that Francis of Assisi and Malek Al Kamil would be proud of our gathering to address the ills of humanity and to proclaim the goodness and love that resides in God’s vast and expansive creation. Shalom, Salaam, peace to all!
— Fr. Gene is the Provincial spiritual assistant for the Secular Franciscan Order.