I was a college student when I first learned that St. Francis of Assisi had a meeting with a sultan.
Some friends introduced me to “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a series of devotional legends about St. Francis and his followers. Despite not having much basis in actual history, these sentimental stories opened my eyes to a different flavor of Catholicism than what I’d been taught as a child. Catholicism wasn’t just dark and grey, musty and worn. St. Francis’s Catholicism was simple and childlike, full of whimsy and strange occurrences. I had a vague familiarity of St. Francis as the man who talked to birds out in the woods, and myy only concept of a sultan was Princess Jasmine’s tubby, bearded father from Disney’s Aladdin. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
I’ll give the full version here since I don’t think I can do it justice in retelling:
HOW ST FRANCIS CONVERTED TO THE FAITH THE SULTAN OF BABYLON
St Francis, urged by zeal for the faith of Christ and by a wish to suffer martyrdom, took with him one day twelve of his most holy brethren, and went beyond the sea with the intention of going straight to the Sultan of Babylon. They arrived in a province belonging to the Saracens, where all the passes were guarded by men so cruel, that no Christian who passed that way could escape being put to death. Now it pleased God that St Francis and his companions should not meet with the same fate; but they were taken prisoners, and after being bound and ill-treated, were led before the Sultan.
Then St Francis standing before him, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached most divinely the faith of Christ; and to prove the truth of what he said, professed himself ready to enter into the fire. Now the Sultan began to feel a great devotion towards him, both because of the constancy of his faith, and because he despised the things of this world (for he had refused to accept any of the presents which he had offered to him), and also because of his ardent wish to suffer martyrdom. From that moment he listened to him willingly, and begged him to come back often, giving both him and his companions leave to preach wheresoever they pleased; he likewise gave them a token of his protection, which would preserve them from all molestation.
At length St Francis, seeing he could do no more good in those parts, was warned by God to return with his brethren to the land of the faithful. Having assembled his companions, they went together to the Sultan to take leave of him. The Sultan said to him: “Brother Francis, most willingly would I be converted to the faith of Christ; but I fear to do so now, for if the people knew it, they would kill both me and thee and all thy companions. As thou mayest still do much good, and I have certain affairs of great importance to conclude, I will not at present be the cause of thy death and of mine. But teach me how I can be saved, and I am ready to do as thou shalt order.” On this St Francis made answer: “My lord, I will take leave of thee for the present; but after I have returned to my own country, when I shall be dead and gone to heaven, by the grace of God, I will send thee two of my friars, who will administer to thee the holy baptism of Christ, and thou shalt be saved, as the Lord Jesus has revealed to me; and thou in the meantime shalt free thyself from every hindrance, so that, when the grace of God arrives, thou mayest be found well disposed to faith and devotion.” The Sultan promised so to do; and did as he had promised.
Then St Francis returned with his company of venerable and saintly brethren, and after a few years ending his mortal life, he gave up his soul to God. The Sultan, having fallen ill, awaited the fulfillment of the promise of St Francis, and placed guards in all the passes, ordering them if they met two brothers in the habit of St Francis to conduct them immediately to him. At the same time St Francis appeared to two of his friars, and ordered them without delay to go to the Sultan and save his soul, according to the promise he had made him. The two set out, and having crossed the sea, were conducted to the Sultan by the guards he had sent out to meet them. The Sultan, when he saw them arrive, rejoiced greatly, and exclaimed: “Now I know of a truth that God has sent his servants to save my soul, according to the promise which St Francis made me through divine revelation.” Having received the faith of Christ and holy baptism from the said friars, he was regenerated in the Lord Jesus Christ; and having died of his disease, his soul was saved, through the merits and prayers of St Francis.
Although it’s not meant to be taken directly as fact, it’s a beautiful story of respect for others despite differences in religion.
And, there are facts to back this up. According to Thomas of Celano, St. Francis’s biographer, there was a meeting between Francis and Al-Kamil, a sultan, during the Fifth Crusade in Egypt. Some historical accounts claim that this meeting happened during a ceasefire between the Muslims and Christians. Even more interesting is that not long before this visit, some friars had been martyred by Muslims for preaching the faith. This martyrdom influenced young St. Anthony of Padua to become a Franciscan, which is another story for another time. But think of that! Francis, and his fellow friars, had every reason to resent—even hate—the Muslims for killing their friends. And yet, they reach out in genuine love to their companions’ killers.
I thought of this story while pondering the social media response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. Despite all of the positive outreach, I was horrified to see my fellow Catholics posting anti-Muslim videos, claiming that maybe those Muslims in New Zealand weren’t bad, but there sure as hell are some in [insert city of your choice]. The message was clear: “They don’t belong here.” “Some of them are violent.” “Their religion is one of violence and hate.” “We need to get them out of our country before they take over.”
So many were up in arms about the cruelty of “bad Muslims” killing Christians in Nigeria, claiming that this sort of thing could happen to us. It was only a matter of time.
In the midst of this Islamophobic rhetoric, I thought of those many other people who reached out to the Muslim community in love and shared sorrow. The Grotto Network had a wonderful suggestion of calling a local mosque to show support.
I highly recommend doing this. Yes, the attack happened two weeks ago, but people are still hurting and grieving, still afraid of being labeled a “bad Muslim.” When confronted with anger and hate towards our Muslim brothers and sisters, let us follow Francis’s example and reach out to them in love.
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Francis+and+the+sultan&title=Special:Search&profile=advanced&fulltext=1&advancedSearch-current=%7B%7D&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1&searchToken=7eel3uxizo962srgafova7701#%2Fmedia%2FFile%3AGiotto_-_Legend_of_St_Francis_-_-11-_-_St_Francis_before_the_Sultan_%28Trial_by_Fire%29.jpg