THE BLOG
03/15/2013 11:23 am ET Updated May 15, 2013

Pope Francis and the Future of Catholic-Muslim Relations

When I first heard that Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name Pope Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi, it made me hopeful for the future of Catholic-Muslim relations. A lot is made of St. Francis' legacy of weaving spirituality with universal compassion for all animals, for the environment, and of course with his solidarity with the poor. But very few know of what bold steps St. Francis took to ending the fifth crusade, an act that took him into the palace of the Sultan of Egypt.

St. Francis' legacy, like that of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, is something that we negotiate in the present. With the changing tide of the Catholic Church, with its new face and title, what should we make of St. Francis in our present world? 

Much has already been said in the media since the pope's inauguration and much will be said about St. Francis. The Vatican stressed the pope"s own life of austerity and simplicity, as well as his love for the poor as values that are akin to St. Francis' own life and message. While it is true that St. Francis was a great advocate for the poor, the truth is that we find in St. Francis' life something of an everyman Saint, but if we read into St. Francis' life and work, we find a surprising series of connections that speak to us today more resolutely than ever. 

St. Francis is generally admired for three things. The first is his love for all animals. Known as the Patron Saint of animals, each year on Oct. 4, the "Feast of St. Francis" is celebrated the world over where people, even non-Catholics, bring their animals for blessings to the church. Secondly, Francis is known for his love of the environment, his famous "Canticle of the Sun" refers to lakes, rivers and mountains as brothers and sisters, on the same level of humanity and God's creation. Finally, St. Francis' love for the poor is at the center of his entire spiritual practice, as he adopted an ascetic life of self-imposed poverty.

St. Francis Linked War With Poverty And Materialism 

St. Francis' ascetic life of poverty, as writer Paul Moses put it in his book, "The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi," forced Francis to "abandon his entire self-identity" and preach a Gospel that was strongly opposed to war. Francis' father was a wealthy businessman, but despite his family's stature in his commune of Assisi, Francis was expected to go to war. At 20, Francis fought in a battle against the Perugians, a neighboring city, and his experience in this battle forever scarred him most likely making him suffer from what we today know as as post-traumatic stress syndrome. After his terrible experience in this battle, Francis publicly declared his opposition to war, claiming that his experience led him to lead a "life of penance."

In addition to the horror of the war itself, Francis also saw the specific battle he engaged in as unjust and one that was fought over greed and power.  He spent a year imprisoned by the Perugians that was what ultimately led him to adopt his ascetic mission. As Moses points out: "Francis' devotion to Lady Poverty has always received more attention than his peacemaking efforts. The two, however, are closely linked since, as Francis knew, wars are so often fought for economic gain."

Transformative faith figures like St. Francis are often transformative precisely because they make these sorts of radical linkages between spirituality, poverty and violence. Poverty was a source for liberation from materialism for Francis, and he once remarked, "in this life, I wish to have no temporal possessions" a desire that led him to become something like a televangelist personality as we have today. Francis would preach to thousands of people at a time, and he gained a name for himself as a fiery preacher. Francis formed a complicated relationship with Pope Innocent III at the time, and his writings show that he maintained a respect for the church's hierarchy, but Francis' trust in the church was tested when it came to the question of how to make peace between the church and the Muslim world. 

St. Francis' Bold Peacemaking With Muslims 

By the time of the fifth crusade in 1209, St. Francis found himself along the Nile river in a town called Damietta, where the Christian forces stood preparing to conquer the forces of the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil. By the time of this battle, a seminal one in the overall crusade, Francis' opposition to war was at its peak. Francis could not stop the Christian forces from attacking the Muslims, although he attempted to through preaching a message of peace. Once his efforts to convince his own order of generals that the war should stop, he decided to take his case to the Muslims themselves.

Francis ventured into the court of the Sultan in an effort to make pace with the Muslims, and he was graciously accepted by the Sultan himself. While Francis' desire to bring peace was tied up with a desire to convert the Sultan to Christianity, this should be read as the limit to Francis' moral imagination, tied as it was to the time that he lived. The overriding motivation of Francis to ask for peace in the name of Christ was tied to the ethical mandate to "love your enemies" from the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sultan, inspired by the Prophet Muhammad's fondness for listening to Christian monks in his own time, accepted Francis into his court for a debate. The Sultan's top religious advisor was a Sufi, and several scholars have pointed out that the Sultan most likely saw in Francis' ascetic personality something akin to Sufism. While the exchange between the two men is filled with competing accounts, many of which are hagiographic, what we do know is that the encounter forever changed Francis himself, and it forever changed his own view of relations between Muslims and Christians. Despite their meeting, the Christians forces proceeded to lay siege on the fortress of Damietta.

Francis fell into a great depression after his failure to promote peace with the Muslims, but as Moses points out, this sadness led Francis to institute into his teachings and religious order respect for Muslims. Francis sought to modify his previous views on martyrdom, claiming that "everyone should glory in his own suffering and not in that of another."

A Path Forward: Improving Catholic-Muslim Relations Today 

The election of Pope Francis comes at a time when the church faces a whole host of challenges as an institution, and when it comes to external relations, the future of relations with the Muslim world should be a top priority. Like any institutional challenge, it requires experienced leadership, and bold action. One of the major points of controversy is around competition between Muslims and Catholics for missionary work, especially in Africa. While the pope has already expressed an interest in expanding missionary activity, he should not expand it at the expense of an anti-Muslim platform as some church leaders advocate.

It was Pope John Paul II who sent a special envoy to President George W. Bush's office prior to the second Iraq War. Pope John Paul II's worry that a larger "holy war" might erupt between Islam and the west remained at the forefront of his time in the papacy, despite the actions of the United States government after 9/11.  In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI turned Catholic-Muslim relations on their head by quoting a Byzantine emperor Manuel II, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached."

Soon after the pope's defamatory remarks, a delegation of a few dozen Muslims, under the aegis of the Royal Court of Jordan signed a letter requesting a meeting at the Vatican with the Pope. The meeting was granted and the birth of a new initiative, the Common Word Between Us and You took root. The Common Word has become one of the banner Catholic-Muslim initiatives, expanding its membership to include Protestants and all various diverse leaders from within the Muslim world have joined in events and dialogues held around the world between Christians and Muslims. Its efforts should be expanded and Muslim leaders will hopefully be invited back to the Vatican for further engagement.

If St. Francis' love for all of God's creation, animals, plants, rivers and mountains is alive and with us today, just like his ascetic mission of poverty, then so is his bold peacemaking with the Muslim world. This is a mission worthy of his name, and one can only hope that the current Pope Francis heeds this call.