Thursday, February 07, 2019

St. Francis and the Sultan ... How it wasn't the exact same situation with Pope Francis, and that's fine.

How some are dubious when the comfortably affluent 'Franciscans' and cultural Catholic clerics profess to know so much about our holy father, St. Francis of Assisi.

Not that I know any more than anyone else, but little kids know, unlettered 'peasants' know, and many, many ordinary people know.  They don't have to be told that Francesco Bernardone was not a-sissy.  They don't have to be disparaged by the message that  he wasn't a 'bunny-hugging bird kisser'.  Manly men who carry guns and are on constant awareness of their surroundings, ready to shoot anyone who seems threatening do not impress me as the type of guy who can explain the manliness of St. Francis to me.

That said, ordinary people, even little Cord-bearers of St. Francis, recognized something deeply moving and edifying - not to mention hope-filled - about the visit of Pope Francis to the UAE this past week.  Along with the Pope, we also see, or recognize a reminder of  the “visit of St Francis Assisi to Sultan al-Malik al’Kamil”.  There is a significant spiritual connection to that episode in the life of St. Francis.

The legenda or details of the life of St. Francis was carefully recorded by his contemporaries; Thomas of Celano was one of the first biographers not long after the canonization, which took place only two years after the Saint's death.  (Commissioned by Pope Gregory IX in 1228)  Celano records the meeting with the Sultan, which differs slightly from other accounts: "Francis would have liked to suffer martyrdom at the hand of the Moslems. He attempted a voyage to Morocco, but became ill in Spain and had to turn back. In 1219 he went to Syria where a crusade was in progress, and enjoyed the following experience, according to Celano."

In the thirteenth year of his conversion, Francis proceeded to Syria, for great and deadly battles between Christians and pagans were going on there every day. Francis, who was traveling with a companion, was not afraid to present himself before the sultan of the Saracens. But who can say with what constancy of mind he stood before him, with what strength of spirit he spoke, with what eloquence and assurance he answered those who insulted the Christian law? Before he was brought before the sultan he was captured by soldiers, insulted, and beaten with a lash; yet he was not afraid, was not terrified by the threats of torture, and did not grow pale when threatened with death. And though he was reproached by many who were opposed in mind and hostile in spirit, he was very honorably received by the sultan. Trying to bend Francis' spirit toward the wealth of this world, he honored him as much as he could and gave him many presents; yet when he saw that Francis despised such things as if they were dung, he was filled with the greatest admiration and regarded Francis as different from all others. He was moved by Francis' words and listened to him willingly. In all these things the Lord did not fulfill Francis' desire for martyrdom, since he was reserving for him the prerogative of a singular grace.  - source

"[T]he unarmed Francis and his companion left the Crusader camp, crossed the Nile, and approached the Muslim fortifications." - Thompson, Augustine. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography

So you see class, accounts of the mission of St. Francis differ - to some extent, even in his lifetime, and as time went on.  A century or so later when other biographers gathered the oral and written legends together, stories were embellished.  Much later 'cultural Catholics' adapted these stories to edify modern ears.  Today, hagiographers adapt their stories to dismiss an earlier piety. A piety which edified and encouraged believers, sparking the spiritual imagination of the young, who accounted for numerous vocations over the centuries, and so on.  Alas, the Friars Minor have been depleted, and aside from a few fervent new groups, they seem almost unrecognizable as Friars Minor, having more clothes than just one tunic, more shoes than sandals, and luxurious friaries instead of poor houses.  But I digress.

Some Catholic critics spend their time online criticizing and condemning the Pope's pilgrimage to the UAE, dismissing any symbolic connection with the visit of St. Francis.  Perhaps they hoped the Pope would be martyred, yet God willed that neither one of the poor men, St. Francis or Pope Francis would face martyrdom.  One may hope the effects of their pilgrimage would be similar, that peace takes a step forward, and the reconciliation of peoples may be possible in the long term.

In the Fioretti, we have a charmingly pious account of the visit of our holy father St. Francis to the Sultan.  Do remember that these things are also visually recorded in early Tuscan-Umbrian iconography and numerous illuminations.  The visual record, frequently based upon oral tradition, can be as informative as the written accounts.

At length St Francis, seeing he could do no more good in those parts, was warned by God to return with his brethren to the land of the faithful. Having assembled his companions, they went together to the Sultan to take leave of him. The Sultan said to him: "Brother Francis, most willingly would I be converted to the faith of Christ; but I fear to do so now, for if the people knew it, they would kill both me and thee and all thy companions. As thou mayest still do much good, and I have certain affairs of great importance to conclude, I will not at present be the cause of thy death and of mine. But teach me how I can be saved, and I am ready to do as thou shalt order." On this St Francis made answer: "My lord, I will take leave of thee for the present; but after I have returned to my own country, when I shall be dead and gone to heaven, by the grace of God, I will send thee two of my friars, who will administer to thee the holy baptism of Christ, and thou shalt be saved, as the Lord Jesus has revealed to me; and thou in the meantime shalt free thyself from every hindrance, so that, when the grace of God arrives, thou mayest be found well disposed to faith and devotion." The Sultan promised so to do; and did as he had promised. Then St Francis returned with his company of venerable and saintly brethren, and after a few years ending his mortal life, he gave up his soul to God. The Sultan, having fallen ill, awaited the fulfillment of the promise of St Francis, and placed guards in all the passes, ordering them if they met two brothers in the habit of St Francis to conduct them immediately to him. At the same time St Francis appeared to two of his friars, and ordered them without delay to go to the Sultan and save his soul, according to the promise he had made him. The two set out, and having crossed the sea, were conducted to the Sultan by the guards he had sent out to meet them. The Sultan, when he saw them arrive, rejoiced greatly, and exclaimed: "Now I know of a truth that God has sent his servants to save my soul, according to the promise which St Francis made me through divine revelation." Having received the faith of Christ and holy baptism from the said friars, he was regenerated in the Lord Jesus Christ; and having died of his disease, his soul was saved, through the merits and prayers of St . - Fioretti, Part 1, Chp. 24

So you see Phyllissyfussi...

You see how the accounts vary.  Amazingly many, many vocations to the Friars Minor followed Francis upon his return to Italy after his visit to the Sultan.  In those days, life in the OFM was very difficult, very, very poor, something many of those who like to set the record straight on the manliness of the skinny little Francesco di Bernardone refuse to admit - or at least attempt to explain away in some symbolic interpretation for today's taste.

To be sure, Francis was not a sissy or a romantic - though entirely in love with Jesus Crucified, he and his first followers went about as the fathers of old, and the words of St. Paul certainly apply to them: "The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains, in caves and in crevices in the earth."  The authentic reformers in the history of the Friars Minor certainly recognized that primitive fervor, and tried to emulate it.  They would see the similarities in the visit of Pope Francis to the expedition of St. Francis.

St. Francis had great love and respect for priests, and especially the Pope.  As Benedict XVI noted:
Pope Innocent III's dream. In it, he saw the Basilica of St John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders to prevent it from falling. On the one hand, it is interesting to note that it is not the Pope who was helping to prevent the church from collapsing but rather a small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope recognized in Francis when he later came to visit. Innocent III was a powerful Pope who had a great theological formation and great political influence; nevertheless he was not the one to renew the Church but the small, insignificant religious. It was St Francis, called by God. On the other hand, however, it is important to note that St Francis does not renew the Church without or in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him. The two realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the Bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles and the new charism that the Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church's renewal. Authentic renewal grew from these together. - P. Benedict
Pope Benedict also left a beautiful commentary on the mission of St. Francis to the Sultan and its effect upon the Church and the Holy Land.  He ties it to Nostra Aetate, something P. Francis clearly had in mind as well:
Innocent III's Successor, Pope Honorius III, with his Bull Cum Dilecti in 1218 supported the unique development of the first Friars Minor, who started missions in different European countries, and even in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to visit and speak to the Muslim sultan Malik al-Klmil, to preach the Gospel of Jesus there too. I would like to highlight this episode in St Francis' life, which is very timely. In an age when there was a conflict underway between Christianity and Islam, Francis, intentionally armed only with his faith and personal humility, travelled the path of dialogue effectively. The chronicles tell us that he was given a benevolent welcome and a cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It provides a model which should inspire today's relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote a sincere dialogue, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding (cf. Nostra Aetate, 3). It appears that later, in 1220, Francis visited the Holy Land, thus sowing a seed that would bear much fruit: his spiritual sons would in fact make of the Sites where Jesus lived a privileged space for their mission. It is with gratitude that I think today of the great merits of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. - Benedict, General Audience 27 January 2010
Works for me.

For a good bibliography on the Life of St. Francis, go here, The Internet Guide to St. Francis.  Then read modern biographers if you like.


  1. "On the other hand, however, it is important to note that St Francis does not renew the Church without or in opposition to the Pope, but only in communion with him"


    It is all I need to remember and trust regardless of all the clamor (online or elsewhere) that shrieks otherwise.

    Thank you for this wonderful post on St. Francis, Terry. I trust he prayed and interceded for Papa Francis.

  2. "...Francesco Bernardone was not a-sissy." I see what you did there lol!


Please comment with charity and avoid ad hominem attacks. I exercise the right to delete comments I find inappropriate. If you use your real name there is a better chance your comment will stay put.