Francis of Assisi died seven hundred and ninety-six years ago yesterday (his feast day is observed the day after his death) in his hometown of long-term malaria that he probably contracted in the Holy Land or Egypt. The visit to what was then the site of the Crusades occurred in 1219. Francis’s trip is well-known in Catholic tradition for the stories of Francis’s meeting with and peaceful religious disputation with the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil. Although Arab sources of the period do not mention this meeting, the Franciscan order’s reputation for relatively peaceful and generous dealings with the Islamic world led a later sultan to give them custody of Western Christian holy sites in the Near East. This is a perquisite that the Franciscans still enjoy to this day. Unfortunately, the modern political situation in the countries in and around the Holy Land provides the Franciscans there with all too much opportunity to continue the work of interfaith peacebuilding.
It’s possible to overstate the intellectual generosity of Francis’s position when he met with Al-Kamil. It was not a neutral exchange of ideas. He did very much want to convert the ruler to Christianity and left his camp disappointed that he had not succeeded. In this sense Francis’s reputation in some circles as an early icon of the idea that there are “many paths to God” is mistaken. What Francis did learn, however, was something else that most people of his time did not. His experiences among the Crusaders and among their Muslim adversaries proved dramatically to him that there was no connection between which religious commitments someone in the Middle East held and their level of personal virtue or propriety. In other words, not only were there “righteous pagans” who lived before their societies were evangelized, there were also non-Christians in his own day whose everyday personal moral qualities were superior to those of many Christians.
Unfortunately, despite its mostly productive relations with Muslims over the centuries, the Franciscan tradition has a much patchier history regarding Jews and Judaism. While Francis himself has no attested encounters with or remarks about Jewish people one way or the other, and at least one story of a posthumous miracle presents an Italian city’s Jewish community in a positive light, many other early Franciscan figures held vituperatively anti-Jewish views. These include St. Bernardino of Siena and Francis’s patron Ugolino di Conti, the future Pope Gregory IX. The longstanding Christian tendency to associate Jews with money in unflattering ways probably goes some way towards explaining this, as does the perception that Jewish people have “rejected the Gospel” in some way that other non-Christians have not. Even so, this is not a side of Franciscan history that, in my opinion, modern Franciscans have adequately reckoned with or addressed.
I write these brief paragraphs about Francis’s and Franciscans’ attitudes towards non-Christian religions not because I think it’s the only relevant thing about the saint or the tradition. It isn’t; I could easily have written instead about Franciscan works of charity or the Franciscan-Bonaventurean cosmology and vision of the created world. Indeed, I almost decided to write about the now-overlooked Franciscan aesthetic tradition of looming gothic necromantic memento mori—ghastly crucifixions, chapels lined with bones. (Francis is, as is well-known, the first saint to have received the stigmata.) I decided to write about the interfaith dimension of Francis’s legacy instead for two reasons: first, at the Transitus service that I went to last night, my priest stressed this dimension himself, and I was interested in following his lead. Secondly, Pope Francis comes in for constant attack on this point, and I wanted to draw attention to his namesake as a wellspring and inspiration for much of the work that the Vatican is currently doing. Fratelli Tutti, the 2020 social encyclical that takes its title from one of St. Francis’s addresses to his friars, provides this commentary on the approach Francis took with Al-Kamil:
Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God. He understood that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 Jn 4:16)….Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. (§4)
J.R.R. Tolkien, who had given orders to poorer men as an infantry officer in World War I, later wrote that “bossing other men” is the “most improper” work anybody can do. I do not think and St. Francis did not think that any attempt at evangelizing—observing the Gospel and exhorting others to do the same, the Franciscan charism at its most basic—constitutes “bossing.” Even so, anybody suspicious of interreligious dialogue would do well to think seriously about whether or not a desire for control—of people, of situations—might be a part of that suspicion.
Image: Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting of St. Francis and Sultan Al-Kamil.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.