Saturday, March 10, 2012

St. Francis and Peace

Giotto's Portrayal of Francis and the Sultan based on Legenda Maior by St. Bonaventure
A different portrayal of Francis and the Sultan
My own adventures in standing for peace go back to my seminary days. The Vietnam War was at its height in 1968 and I had gradually become opposed to it.  It was the first time in my life that I realized that I could not stand with the leaders of my country and so together with other seminary students, and many other as well,  I participated in a protest march that ended on Boston Common where we were regaled by speeches from various anti-war leaders of the time.  The speeches contained vitriol, venom and foul language directed at the US government. I left. I was disillusioned.  I knew that I was against this war as a Catholic and as a Franciscan, but I also knew that this kind of angry venom was not the path that I would choose to express my disagreement. The memory of that experience has stayed with me over the years.  I have continued to be opposed to all sorts of military actions of our country, not for political, but for conscientious reasons, reasons related to my faith. I have been dismayed that many war protestors have such a left leaning agenda that they protest vociferously when a Republican starts a war, but not so much when it is a Democrat, though this is certainly not true of all.    It has been difficult for me to find a way to express my views in this regard until I read Paul Moses 2009 publication entitled The Saint and the Sultan.

    Using excellent scholarship the author provides fresh insight into the experience of St. Francis of Assisi and war.He makes it clear that after engaging in a horrific sort of civil war between Assisi and Perugia, and later returning to Assisi after being outfitted buy his father to go into battle in a crusade that war was no longer in Francis' heart.

   From that moment on Francis became not so much a war protestor, thought there were times when he was, especially later during a crusade where he clearly said that a certain battle was not God's will, but rather a peace maker, one who tried to bring opposing factions together, whether it was Church and civil authorities in Assisi, or the battling social classes of the same town.

  His Peacemaking consisted in building bridges.  It reminds me of what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin tried to do in the Church, building bridges and seeking dialogue between more liberal and more conservative groups. Later in Francis life he helped to reconcile the mayor and the bishop of Assisi.  The big peacemaking effort of Francis though came at the height of the crusades when he met in Egypt with Sultan Al-Kamil,    Some accounts which were trying to spin this event to please medieval Church leaders portrayed it as a confrontation of religions with Francis challenging the sultan to a kind of trial by fire such as the one portrayed above in Giotto's painting.  A deeper look into sources however shows that while neither succeeded in converting the other both of them came to respect one another as men of God.  Also, unlike some of the crusade leaders at the time, the Sultan was at one point willing to negotiate a peace which would have included giving control of Jerusalem to the Crusaders.   Francis was so impressed with things like the 99 Muslim names for God and the 5 times daily call to prayer, that he composed a list of his own praises of God and inspired by praying the 99 names on a set of beads he and other friars along with the Dominicans began using prayer beads to pray different "rosaries" until our present one took shape.  Also our 3 times daily praying of the Angelus which quickly became part of European culture, was inspired by the call to prayer of the Muslims.

   Inspired by Francis I do hope to be a better peacemaker, bridge-builder between all who are divided.  This book also renewed my desire to call for honest and true dialogue between Christians and Muslims.  That, I believe, is how peace can happen


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