As Jewish-Christian-Islamic tensions continue to threaten peace in the Middle East, Stephen Lynch reminds us that St. Francis offers a unique model of how Christians can deal with peace.
History reminds us that six centuries separated Mohammad and St. Francis of Assisi. The Prophet Mohammad lived in the seventh century; St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th Century. Mohammad was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Francis was born in Assisi, Italy. Mohammad died in 632 A.D.; Francis died in 1226 A.D.
Mohammad was both a spiritual leader and a military leader who often used violence to accomplish his goal. Francis was a spiritual leader, a man of peace, but a failed knight and missionary to Islam. Mohammad conquered all of Arabia, and eventually the holy city of Mecca in 630 A.D. St. Francis captured the world with non-violent love.
St. Francis was the first Christian missionary to go to the Muslim world to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Francis visited a Crusader expedition in Damiata, where the fifth crusade was gathering to conquer the Holy Land. Francis requested permission from the papal legate to enter the Saracen camp at his own risk. Together with Friar Illuminato, he went into the Damiata Saracen camp to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Sultan, Melek-el-Kamel. The sultan listened willingly to Francis, and, while he did not become Christian, he gave Francis permission to visit the Holy Land and to return safely to Italy.
Secular historians saw Francis as the crusader whose goal was to return the holy places in Jerusalem back to Christian control. Franciscan historians maintained that Francis, opposed to military action against Islam, went to the Holy Land to become a martyr for Christ. St. Bonaventure says that laying down one’s life out of love became a consuming fire for Francis. Francis taught his friars that if there is to be peace in the world, religion must incite love, not violence.
Martyrs Out of Love for Christ
The saint warned the friars who wanted to go as missionaries to the Holy Land that they should go, not to refute Mohammad or insult the teachings of Islam, but to be instruments of peace, justice, and especially love. Francis advocated sharing with the Muslim people the good news of Jesus Christ, and to be willing to become martyrs out of love for Christ.
St. Francis lived in the 13th century when the world was divided into two camps: Christian and Muslim. Those two hostile campscentury Western world.
The Franciscan Chapter of 1219 sent Friar Berard and his companions as missionaries to the Saracens in Morocco. They were in Morocco only a short time when they were martyred for their Christian faith. Their bodies were returned to Italy, but along the way, they were laid in state in Coimbra, Portugal, at the Augustinian monastery where St. Anthony of Padua resided as a monk. The Franciscan martyrs’ love and courage so moved Anthony of Padua that he became a Franciscan in the hope of finding martyrdom himself.
Thanks to these first Franciscan martyrs, Anthony discovered his vocation as a Franciscan. The blood of martyrs is not only the seed of faith, but also the seed of vocations. Now a Franciscan, Anthony asked and received permission to go as a missionary to Morocco. The great goal of Anthony’s life was to die a martyr. But Anthony was soon to learn a hard lesson: the goal he set for himself, and the goal God had in mind for him, turned out to be quite different. Anthony had hardly arrived in Morocco when he became gravely ill and was forced to return home.
As a missionary, Anthony did not preach one sermon, convert one Moor, or lose one drop of his blood at Saracen hands. Anthony failed in the most cherished goal of his life. But his failure did not leave him bitter, cynical or filled with self-pity. He realized God had other plans for him.
Both Francis and Anthony were challenged to discover what God wanted, rather than what they wanted. Both learned that failure as missionaries was a kind of heaven-sent guidepost telling them that God was leading them in another direction.
St. Francis opposed the war-like posture of the Crusades and committed his life to promoting peace with the Saracens. Francis intuitively sensed the indwelling of God in all things, and God’s providential love for all creation. For Francis, each creature in its own way bore the image of God. All creatures were worthy of reverence, and became the object of Francis’ special courtesy and respect.
Francis’ message was always the same: The task of creation is to respond to God’s love with praise, joy and gratitude.
Francis of Assisi is often referred to as everybody’s St. Francis. Around the world, people seeking spiritual renewal, frequently turn to St. Francis as their model. A famous Buddhist monk, Professor Yokoi, rector of the Buddhist Zen Institute of Komazawa University in Tokyo, felt St. Francis of Assisi exemplified the three fundamental ideals of Buddhism. He was without covetousness, without anger and without delusion.
Professor Yokoi saw St. Francis as personifying the message: “We are all brothers and sisters, sharing enlightenment from the same supreme enlightened one.” Professor Yokoi never went to Rome without also visiting Assisi, as he put it, “to breathe the air that gave the world a Francis of Assisi.”
In both the 13th and 16th centuries, the Catholic Church needed reform. St. Francis stayed within the church, and renewed the church by starting with the reform of his own personal life. Martin Luther, on the other hand, sought to reform the church by leaving it. The church of the 21st century again needs reform and renewal, which must start by reforming our own personal lives.
Francis so touched human hearts that he inspired a revolution in art that began with Giotto, and a revolution in poetry that began with Dante. St. Francis realized that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
In his last years, St. Francis composed his famous Canticle of Brother Sun. From this poem, Francis gets his deserved reputation as one who reveled in God’s creation: “Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light …”
St. Francis took as his special ministry, “To heal wounds, to unite what is falling apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
Jean Valjean closes the musical Les Miserables with words that powerfully exemplified the life of Francis of Assisi: “When you have truly loved another, you have seen the face of God.”
Before he died, St. Francis blessed the world with this beautiful Old Testament prayer:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
The Lord turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
The Lord bless you.
— Fr. Stephen, a resident of Providence, R.I., writes frequently for secular and religious publications.