By Father Casey
It being the first week of November, when the mind of the Church is turned toward the communion of saints, I’ve been thinking about my favorite saint, Francis. Even before I walked his pilgrim path in Italy last year, Francis has had a big influence on me, as I know he has for many Christians around the world.
Though most know little more about Francis than his love of nature, he is far more complicated than the ubiquitous garden statues of him would suggest. In addition to astounding humility and compassion, Francis also had a brilliant wit, sparkling imagination, and extraordinary courage. His courage was on full display when, in 1219, he traveled from Italy to Egypt during one of the Crusades.
At the time, there was almost no real knowledge of Islam, but mountains of stereotypes peddled by kings and popes in order to demonize the “enemy.” Most preaching about the crusades featured these false myths, as well as promises of holy rewards for participating in the brutal and bloody conquest. Opposition to the crusades was rare, especially among the Church, for it was a settled belief that the crusades were just and necessary.
But having survived battle and endured a year as a prisoner of war, Francis recognized that the crusades were far from a holy endeavor. So, he traveled to Egypt to minister to the Christian soldiers and tell them that, in contrast to what they had been taught, God had no desire for killing and bloodshed. The Kingdom of God, he said, was one of peace and mercy, not warfare and weapons. Yet even as he challenged their cause, Francis was able to distinguish between the institutional evil of the crusade and the individuals who had been seduced into fighting it – each of whom was a child of God deserving compassion.
After several months among the crusading army, Francis crossed the battle line and was granted an audience with Sultan Malik al-Kamil. He spent weeks in the sultan’s home, sharing in his own simple way a message of peace. There is no specific record of their conversations, but when he departed, the sultan sent him with a formal declaration of protection and a special gift – a horn used as a call for prayer, which still resides in Assisi. Francis’ visit to the sultan remains to this day of the most remarkable acts of courageous friendship and dialogue across difference in history.
Francis did not accept the label of “enemy” assigned to the Muslims by Christian Europe, but risked his life for the sake of love. When the majority of society clamored for violence, Francis spent the fullness of his energies waging peace. He embodied the virtues of the Beatitudes, which we will once again hear this All Saints Sunday – humility, mercy, meekness, and purity of heart – for they are the Christian’s only true tools for growing the Kingdom of God.
He has so much to teach us. Before we accept the label of “enemy” for a whole population, before we conflate institutional evil with individual victims, before we accept death and destruction as legitimate means for achieving peace, we must remember the words of Jesus, so powerfully enacted in the life of Francis. For that is the path to a future of friendship with those we have been told to hate, but who God loves just as much as us.
Father Casey +