This year we celebrate the 800th year of St Francis historic meeting with Sultan El Malik Al Kamil in 1219. Much reflection has gone on this episode; hence a short reflection on the theme. I approach this theme from four aspects: 1. Personality of Francis, 2. Francis meeting the Sultan, 3. Francis’ desire for martyrdom and 4. Some practical hints for our mission today.
1. Personality of St Francis . Everyone has a style, a way of functioning, and a manner of communicating. This is one’s own. Francis too had a style; he had a way of communication; and in all these he was unique. Once convinced of a truth he would abide by it by all means. He was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus; and he loved Jesus passionately; and he could not but share this with everyone; this had become his constant preoccupation; he wanted to speak about his Jesus-experience, to communicate about Jesus; this was the reason and source of his preaching; He was not like the preachers of today. He advised to preach always, wherever one is and if need be use words; hence he preached the gospel / Jesus to all who came on the way; in different contexts, ways, styles, methods, spoken, unspoken, silent….but always clear, powerful and eloquent… Jesus had become his definite message and nothing less, nothing more. In this process Francis had so to say become the message and the medium, symbol and the image; he had become a new person, being overpowered by Jesus; he had turned out into a powerful communicator, a genuine person, simple, thorough, and integral; and what he was communicated; Jesus had become his total life; he was Jesus-centred; Jesus relived in him; what a lovely self-image! Francis also had great imagination, creativity, poetic sense, love for music, flair for dramatics, genius for parables and symbols, and to express all in an unparalleled way. It was he who made the first crib to celebrate Christmas and sing the merry carols. What a brilliant personality! What originality! For him Tau (T) was his signature. He marked everything with Tau. What Joy to be thus in oneself with a unique aadhar! He was a writer, and wrote beautiful letters to different people, even to high dignitaries. Each of his letters is short but with a clear theme and purpose. His letter of twenty words to Br Leo is genuinely human and inspiring.
Francis was close to the people, dear to brothers and sisters, but preferred to be with the poorest. Even though he went to distant places and hills like Subasio, Alverna, Carchery, Fonte Colomo, he was always available to his brothers. When he felt to be like the poorest, he would exchange his clothes with the beggar on the street; the same was his dealing with the leprosy patients; no wonder he embraced and kissed those patients. So too when he was asked to repair churches which were falling into ruin; he was quick to respond. (Regarding inspiration to repair of the churches, he did not know where the fish rot first! – Kazantzakis) . In all simplicity Francis repaired six churches. Everything proceeded from his willing and generous heart, fully open to Jesus and also the people around. He would dialogue with the priests in charge of the churches. In all his dealings, he was most spontaneous, original and courageous. We see him stripping off the clothes before the bishop and his greedy father, and totally surrendering before the Father in heaven. In everything he manifested a unique way of human touch and going ahead to something better and challenging.
Francis loved Clare and was courageous enough to lead her the best way possible. Clare became the most committed follower of Jesus in the spirit of Francis. In a way they challenged each other, and grew to be the founders of two Orders.
Right from the beginning Francis grew up as a man of dialogue and communication, with Jesus, with church officials, with brothers, with Clare, and people at large. Gradually people of Assisi understood his noble plight and welcomed him wholeheartedly. They loved him and admired him.
2. Francis meeting the Sultan Al Malik el Kamil . The episode was in August in 1219. We know from the life of Francis that before his conversion he had gone for the crusade more than once and came back after bitter experience. Once converted, Francis was involved in his own personal discovery to follow his call to serve the true master Jesus. Among the people of Christian Europe the notion about the Muslim was very negative, that they were considered as unbelieving profaners of the Christian holy places, enemies, dogs, the wicked lot of warriors, a corrupt lot of people, Islam was an anti-Christian and diabolic force, enemies of the Cross of Christ etc. Nothing could be done for that group of people. The popes, bishops, clergy, religious and faithful were to fight against them. As we read history we find that Francis had developed great respect for Muslims. Francis seems to have found a bond that united him to Islam, and the founder of Islam Prophet Mohammed. Also it is to be noted that Francis was called to challenge and guide the medieval Church to the fidelity of the gospel. Hence Francis looked at Muslim from a different world-view. It is in this context that we need to look at Francis.
Continual meditation on the life and passion of Christ made Francis understand that God brought about salvation of humans through annihilation and affliction, through the death of his Son, and not through violence and deployment of military and material powers. This was just opposed to the existing attitude in the medieval church. This was a crucial point and Francis stuck to it with heart and soul. Jesus treated women and men with love and saved them through suffering and death on the Cross. The church had to follow no other route than this, and not even to speak of warfare. It was impossible for Francis to look upon Muslims as enemies of the Cross of Christ, and profaners of Holy Sepulchre. He saw them only as brothers and sisters of Jesus redeemed by his precious blood and more precious than the mounds of stone of Calvary. For Francis the route was through humility, poverty, and gentleness to all. Francis tried and tested these means of contacts among the Muslim brothers. In this way he remained unique among his contemporaries. He was totally optimistic in his endeavour. He wanted that the Muslims should be considered as dearest friends. No register should be maintained to enter their offences. This was what the Lord taught his disciples, the new law. We read in history that Francis went to Egypt in August 1219 to meet the Sultan. Francis’ purpose was very clear, to witness to Christ before the Sultan Al Malik el Kamal, to preach to him about the love of Jesus or even to welcome martyrdom which he ardently longed for. It was during the fifth crusade; at the entrance to the campus Francis and his companion Br Illuminato were frisked and thoroughly beaten. They were however allowed to meet the Sultan, who was highly impressed by the august visitors. They were treated as very important guests of the Sultan, made them stay or a few days, (opinions vary) and offered them precious gits including gold vessels etc. Francis did not accept any of these luxurious gifts. During the dialogue, the Sultan accepted that Christianity was of divine origin, and that the faith of Francis was genuine. Francis too accepted that Islam was a great mystery. They accepted each other’s faith as genuine. There was rejoicing at the palace and the campus. This in theological terms is the ultimate end of dialogue. It does not demand or condition for other’s change of faith or religion. Every faith in God is a beautiful gift, and no faith is to be considered superior to other faiths.
There is no domination of faith. “As is evident no religion can substitute another religion, however great it’s position, nor can there be a conglomeration of religions” (Raymon Panikkar). In this context it is to be noted that there were nine crusades in which popes, bishops, priests, religious and faithful were involved. For Christians it was like a divine command, Deus vult, God Wills it. At least 2,00,000 people were killed from either sides apart from heavy casualties and damages to families, properties, institutions, human settlements etc.
3. Francis the martyr . After his conversion he was totally focussed on Jesus, and always searching his ways. The gospels guided him and gave him spirit and life. His only ideal was Jesus. He did not want any lenient interpretation of the Word of God; he wanted to live it literally. Francis found Jesus on the Cross, martyred for his values. Francis’s most ardent desire was to follow Jesus to the Calvary and the Cross. Constant contemplation on the crucified Jesus made him to follow the Lord in ways of suffering. The life of the apostles Peter, Paul and so on who were martyred became his ideals. Prolonged prayers, pilgrimages to devout places, fasting, and doing different forms of penance made of him to thirst for martyrdom. His prayer was to endure in his body the sufferings Jesus underwent in his body. During long hours of prayer, Francis experienced that his own hands, feet and side were pierced by something like nails. This happened in September 1224.This was the beginning of his martyrdom while living. Francis’s prayer was that he should not boast in anything except the Cross of Jesus. And this was granted to him. With Paul he could say that ‘I carry in my own body the death of Jesus. Gal:5,24; 6,2-7-10,14-18). After experiencing the so called martyrdom Francis was Just like Jesus nailed on the Cross. Many of his biographers say that Francis is to be reckoned among the martyrs.
4. Some Practical hints for today. It is very encouraging to note that many of the church institutions like schools and hospitals cater to the Muslim students and patients. But comparatively their percentage is poor. In one of the dioceses in Rajasthan, in many of the schools in a district the number of Muslim students is very low. There is practically no one in the teaching staff. Generally, interest to admit Muslim students and staff is very low. In one of the Catholic hospitals in the same place, Muslim patients attending the centre are about 30%.This is encouraging. It has been proposed to arrange programmes to promote and encourage Muslim children as we arrange classes for Christian children. It may vary from place to place and the heads of the schools and colleges. From a political point of view, it is excellent to keep good relations with the followers of Islam. Need of the time is the will of God.
St. Francis, by Kazantzakis; St Francis, Early Documents, Saint, Founder, Prophet, Edited by J. Armstrong OFM Cap. ,The Francis Book, Edited By: Roy M. Gasnick O.F.M. Mutual Fecundation, by Varghese Manimala; One day seminar notes, Ajmer.
(Published on 04th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 45)