Being awake in the middle of the night on October 1 I turned on the trusty BBC World Service at random, to find myself listening to “Heart and Soul”. The subject turned out to be “The saint who inspired the new Pope”, aka St Francis of Assisi, so at 4.30 AM. I heard producer, John Laurenson discussing sympathetically the special charism St Francis possessed and why Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was attracted to him in the first place.
Today is traditionally the feast day of St Francis. It is always worth a mention, as he seems to be the one saint who always gives the Church a good name – even if he is sometimes hijacked by ecologists and animal lovers. (I wonder what a zoologist’s take on the story of the taming of the wolf of Gubbio or preaching to the birds would be?) Aidan Nichols, in his vol. 1 of his Homiliary for the Roman Liturgy, has a thoughtful comment on the Saint’s relationship with the animal kingdom: he describes it as “ a renewal of the original peace of creation by way of a foretaste of the peace of the Age to Come” and suggests that God “(this was Francis’ intuition) has put us into a world that is a ‘cosmic friary’ where in different senses we are in a condition of brotherhood and sisterhood, not just with fellow Christians or fellow-humans but with a wider fellowship too”. In other words, Francis seems to have been given the rare gift of empathy with men and animals alike. He would have been quite at home among the talking beasts of Narnia.
Needless to say, the World Service programme concentrated more on the Saint’s love for the poor and his self-identification with them. Laurenson quoted St Francis’s famous greeting to his fellow citizens of Assisi: “Buon giorno, buona gente!” and compares it to the Holy Father’s greeting to the faithful on the balcony of St Peter’s on the evening of his election: “Buona sera!” I was a little struck by this low-key greeting at the time and did wonder what it portended. Now we are beginning to know.
In the programme Laurenson also referred to Francis’s visit to Damietta, in Egypt, in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade. Frank Rega’s book, “St Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims” goes into more detail about this extraordinary episode in the Saint’s life. Francis, naturally enough, wanted to convert the Muslims to Christ and managed to get himself and a fellow friar into the presence of the Muslim leader, Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. Rega writes that “The Sultan listened intently while Francis preached the Faith to him and his attendants. As he witnessed the Saint’s courage, enthusiasm and steadfastness, he became deeply moved.”
Indeed, an early chronicler of the historic meeting, Jaques de Vitry, wrote that al-Kamil, before taking leave of the Saint, privately asked him to pray that God would “reveal to me the law and the faith that is the more pleasing to Him”. There is also an early account, related in the Little Flowers of St Francis, that al-Kamil ultimately converted to the Christian Faith on his deathbed.
Currently Christians are caught up in the internal warfare between the various Muslim factions in the Middle East. As Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of Aid to the Church in Need, comments in an article in the Telegraph for Friday September 27 by Peter Stanford, “Traditionally, Christians in Egypt and Syria
have seen themselves as a bridge and a buffer between other communities that are often at odds. They are often the ones who work hardest for peace and reconciliation… Now it is civil war and they refuse to take sides, everyone else sees them as their enemies.”
If St Francis were alive today it is safe to say he would have had no truck with merely engaging in “respectful dialogue” with Islam. He would have wanted, as evangelicals do, to convert Muslims to Christ. He would have laid himself wide open to martyrdom as a result. He would also have had no time for Catholics who focus exclusively on politics in the Church, the Pope’s attire, Vatican intrigues and personalities, scandals and the rest. These were all around him in his own day. He knew, as the saints always do, that the only way to conquer the world for Christ was to live out the Christian ideal of love without compromise. It’s a tough call.