Pope: Francis's `dialogue' with Muslims should inspire us

[caption id="attachment_6511" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Francis and the Sultan, by Arnoldo Zocchi, 1909. "]Francis and the Sultan, by Arnoldo Zocchi, 1909. [/caption]Back in September, Commonweal carried an article [registration required] I wrote about the encounter in 1219 between Francis of Assisi and Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. (It was adapted from my book The Saint and the Sultan.) Pope Benedict XVI addressed the same historical event during his audience on Wednesday in a nuanced talk about St. Francis, and had some interesting things to say. Zenit provided a translation from the Italian original:

In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go to speak with the Muslim Sultan Melek-el-Kamel in Egypt, and also to preach the Gospel of Jesus there. I want to underline this episode of the life of St. Francis, which is very timely. At a time in which there was under way a clash between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed deliberately only with his faith and his personal meekness, pursued with efficacy the way of dialogue. The chronicles tell us of a benevolent and cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It is a model that also today should inspire relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote a dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and in mutual understanding (cf. "Nostra Aetate," 3).

What struck me is that the pope's view of this encounter is similar to that taken by the Franciscan order, which sees the meeting between Francis and the sultan as source and inspiration to its emphasis on inter-religious dialogue. Benedict even uses that sometimes controversial word "dialogue." That isn't what I would have expected from someone who was put off by John Paul II's Franciscan-influenced "spirit of Assisi" approach. To say that Francis was pursing a "way of dialogue" means Benedict would necessarily have to reject the historical accuracy of what had long been the defining account of Francis's encounter with Sultan al-Kamil: St. Bonaventure's life of Francis, completed in 1263 and source of much medieval art. It claims Francis challenged the sultan's religious advisors to an ordeal by fire, hardly an attempt at dialogue. There are some conservative Catholics who have been trying to use Bonaventure's account to justify a harder-edged, anti-dialogue approach to relations with Muslims today. Perhaps Benedict's remarks will lead them to reconsider. Benedict brings expertise to this subject from his days as a doctoral candidate, when he wrote a thesis on Bonaventure's theology of history. He recognized back then that Bonaventure may well have been presenting a Francis of theology, not history.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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