St. Francis is one of the most loved and celebrated saints in our Catholic tradition. When we think of him, we think of the annual blessing of animals, his joyful choice to live a life of poverty, his being the patron saint of ecology and on and on. Someone once wrote in one of the mainstream magazines about twenty years ago that all the world needed to get back on track was about seven St. Francis’ . I tend to agree…
But of all the aspects of his life that speaks most powerfully to me is his meeting with the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil at the time of the bloody and disastrous 5th Crusade. It still amazes historians to this day that this poor unknown beggar dressed in rags was able to obtain an audience with the sultan of the Muslim world. Rather than receiving the usual beheading for proselytizing to the sultan, Francis got an audience with him. In almost all the paintings you see, the sultan is always portrayed as an old stern man, but in reality, he was in his 40’s and was a moderate and wise thinker who was very taken with Francis, his courage, religious devotion and desire for peace. Unfortunately, the 5th Crusade did take place and at the time, it might have seemed as if Francis and the sultan failed in their mission to avert the carnage and bloodshed.
However, we did gain something very significant from that great meeting of the minds. Francis was offered gifts as he was departing but because of his vow of poverty, he refused them all……. except one. A small ivory carved horn of little monetary value but of religious significance to the Muslim faith was accepted. It seems that Francis was equally impressed by the religious devotion of the sultan and therefore eagerly accepted this horn that was used as a call to pray five times a day (Muezzin). So impressed with this ritual he is said to have started the three times daily recitation of the Angelus. Many of us Catholics remember up until recently, the tolling of church bells during the day which signaled us to stop what we were doing and take a moment to pray.
But perhaps the greatest thing we gained and must remember 800 years later is the realization that Catholics and Muslims can sit down and talk about their common devotion and love for God. We seem to always look at what is different when it comes to matters of faith and religion. Francis reminds us to start the talking with what we have in common, and we have much in common. One good and gracious God of all is a good place to start. Of all the things we remember about St. Francis, his belief in peace amongst different faiths is perhaps the most valuable and important of all. We may not have seven St. Francis’, but we have millions of people of all faiths and walks of life who want peace.
Happy Feast of Saint Francis to all you Catholics, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and people of all faiths who desire peace in our world today.