A number of gestures and actions by the newly-elected Pope, former Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis (but without the ordinal I, as expressly pointed out by the Sala Stampa Vaticana’s Father Lombardi) in the initial days of his pontificate have been hailed with words like humility, simplicity, care for the poor and marginalized, sobriety and the like, which were amply seen as a reflection of the name he had chosen, Francis, after “il Poverello,” St. Francis of Assisi.
These reflections fully match what was said by the dean of the College of Cardinals, His Eminence Angelo Sodano, in his homily in the Vatican Basilica during the pre-conclave Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice on March 12th, 2013, which many commentators saw as a sort of job description for the next Pope, who is called to fight injustice and unite a divided Church by tirelessly pursuing charity, unity, and continuity in love for the word of God.
“It is indeed this love that urges the Pastors of the Church to undertake their mission of service of the people of every age, from immediate charitable work even to the highest form of service, that of offering to every person the light of the Gospel and the strength of grace,” Cardinal Sodano claimed. “This is what Benedict XVI wrote in his Lenten Message for this year (n. 3): ‘Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term charity to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the ministry of the word.’ There is no action more beneficial—and therefore more charitable—towards one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person…
“It is a love which is especially felt in contact with suffering, injustice, poverty and all human frailty, both physical and moral.”
These concepts were also taken up in what were generally regarded as the guidelines of Pope Francis’ pontificate in the homily he delivered on March 14, 2013, in the first Mass he presided over with all the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, and which were simply summarized in these three words: camminare, to walk; edificare, to build; and confessare, to profess the glory of Christ and his cross (in the unofficial translation by Vatican Radio, March 14th, 2013).
“Walking: our life is a journey, and when we stop, there is something wrong,” Francis further elaborated. “Walking always, in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, seeking to live with that blamelessness, which God asks of Abraham, in his promise.”
Then he dwelled on the concept of building. “Building: to build the Church. There is talk of stones: stones have consistency, but [the stones spoken of are] living stones, stones anointed by the Holy Spirit. Build up the Church, the Bride of Christ, the cornerstone of which is the same Lord. With [every] movement in our lives, let us build!”
And last, he explained the concept of professing. “Third, professing: we can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not build on solid rock, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sand castles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ—I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy: “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.”
The reference to the concept of building bears a striking similarity to the message from the crucifix in the small Church of San Damiano in Assisi, where Jesus told the Poverello: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church which is in ruins.”
As aptly remarked by Benedict XVI in his general audience of Wednesday, January 27, 2010, in the Paul VI Audience Hall, “This simple occurrence of the word of God heard in the Church of San Damiano contains a profound symbolism. At that moment St. Francis was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the
dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself.” In other words, he went on, “At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements. Yet, there at the center of the Church in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: he called for renewal, he called Francis to the manual labor of repairing the small Church of San Damiano, the symbol of a much deeper call to renew Christ’s own Church, with her radicality of faith and her loving enthusiasm for Christ.”
Who can deny that Jesus’ words to St. Francis are to a large extent as relevant today as they were at his time? As a matter of fact, among the major challenges the new Pope will have to address are the renewal of the liturgy and the new evangelization with an effective ecumenism, and also outreach not only to non-Christian religions, but also to non-believers. And here again St. Francis and his religious order have interesting precedents to offer.
Thus PIME’s (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) Father Piero Gheddo rightly notes that “Pope Francis evokes St. Francis of Assisi and evangelical poverty, the world of the poor” (cf. Zenit, March 16, 2013), but it ought also to be borne in mind that St. Francis and his Franciscans are not only that, but much more than that. Suffice it to recall that the Franciscans, for example, since their inception have played an important role in the renewed propagation and consolidation of the Roman liturgy and its devotional practices in Italy and throughout Europe in perfect compliance with the Roman Pontiff’s instructions. “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,” Benedict also stressed in the above speech. “The two realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the Bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles, and the new charisma that the Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church’s renewal. Authentic renewal grew from these together.”
No less outstanding was also the Franciscan Order’s evangelization drive, to the point that the very foundations of the Custody of the Holy Land were laid down as far back as 1217 when the first general chapter of the Friars Minor was celebrated at St. Mary of the Angels, near Assisi, and as an act of inspiration, Francis decided to send his friars to all nations.
Thus the friars from Assisi went out to the four corners of the world, and the Province of the Holy Land, because of the vastness of the territory and the presence of the holy places, appeared among the eleven mother provinces of the Order and was always given special consideration, being regarded from the very beginning as the most important of the Order.
In 1219, St. Francis himself wanted to visit at least a part of the Province of the Holy Land. Well-known documents speak of the “Poor Man of Assisi” among the Crusaders, below the walls of Damietta. His encounter with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin the Great, is also well documented.
“In 1219 Francis obtained permission to visit and speak to the Muslim Sultan Malik al-Kamil, to preach the Gospel of Jesus there too,” Benedict further emphasized in his speech. “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, traveled 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.”
Interestingly, in a letter sent to the newly-elected Pope, the secretary general of the Cultural Center of the Grand Mosque of Rome, Abdellah Redouane, said Muslims and Christians should walk together along a path built on peace, simplicity and humility (ANSA, March 18th, 2013). Such a path, he said, “had been taken ever since the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, strengthened and confirmed even at the most critical times.” It is with this spirit, “unchanged and trusting, that Italy’s Cultural Islamic Center welcomes the election of Pope Francis and will continue to work in interreligious and intercultural dialogue,” the letter also said. Even the choice of the pontiff’s name, Redouane went on, “is a choice that bodes well as we hold in our hearts the figure of Friar Francis, which is particularly dear to us.” Traveling in the lands of Islam at a time of great conflict, Redouane said, “Francis chose a path of peace, the only path possible, through dialogue with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.”
With his bold decision, Francis showed the radicality hinted at by Benedict in his speech. “Ardent radicality in preaching and practicing good and in condemning and combating evil” was the apt description of Francis’ attitude in the foreword written by Fabio Bernabei to San Francesco Antimoderno (Fede & Cultura, Verona, 2009), a book forming part of the Lepanto series edited and supervised by him. This book also features a somewhat detailed account of what happened in this meeting between Francis and the Sultan (pages 43-48).
Francis went to Egypt where a Crusader army had been encamped for over a year besieging the walled city of Damietta just a couple of miles away from the mouth of one of the main channels of the Nile. The Sultan al-Kamil was also encamped near Damietta, and after a failed Christian attack, the two sides agreed to a four weeks’ ceasefire. It was most probably during this truce that Francis and his companion crossed the Saracen lines and were brought before the Sultan, who was stunned and fascinated by the boldness and audacity of the two friars. He received them graciously and allowed them to remain in his camp for a few days. Asked by al-Kamil to teach him how he could be saved, Francis preached the One and Triune God and the Savior of mankind, Jesus Christ, urging him to relinquish the law of Mohammed and embrace that of Christ. Francis is also said to have challenged the Koranic doctors of law with trial by fire in order to prove the veracity of the Christian Gospel, but they refused. There are some biographies which even claim that a fire was kindled which Francis unhesitatingly entered without suffering burns. Such an incident is depicted in the late 13th c. fresco cycle, attributed to Giotto, in the upper basilica at Assisi.
Be that as it may, at the end the Sultan limited himself to asking Francis to pray for him and ask God to show him the safest path to salvation. “I will send you two of my friars, from whom you will receive the baptism of Christ, and thus you will be saved” (pg. 46), Francis responded. And so he did. In particular, in sending his confreres to Muslim-ruled territories, Francis recommended them not to engage in arguments and controversies with Muslims, but to avoid merely human disputes which might have hindered their conversion. “Jesus Christ mandated me to send you into the country of the Saracens, like sheep among wolves, to preach and confess His faith and combat Mohammed’s law. Therefore, brace yourself for the accomplishment of God’s will” (pg. 45). Eventually, after being taught in the faith and baptized by the two friars sent by the Poverello and thus regenerated in Christ, the Sultan died and his soul was saved by the works and merits of St. Francis (pg. 46). Other sources, based on a 1267 sermon by Bonaventure, tell a slightly different story, but with the same happy end: the Sultan secretly converted or accepted a deathbed baptism as a result of the encounter with Francis.