By Andrew Parrish
St. Francis made two trips to the Middle East, according to his medieval biographers: the first to Morocco via Spain, and the second to Syria. The reason for his travel was not to “appeal for peace”; somewhat to the contrary, St. Francis so strongly hoped that the Muslims would murder him for proclaiming the Gospel to them that, as St. Bonaventure writes, “…the thought of dying for Christ meant more to him than any merit he might earn by the practice of virtue… he took the road towards Morocco with the intention of preaching the Gospel of Christ to the sultan... his desire bore him along so swiftly that even though he was physically weak he used to leave his companion behind and hurry ahead.” (Major Life of St. Francis, Chapter IX)
Prevented by an illness from realizing this plan, St. Francis’ desire for martyrdom remained so strong that he undertook a second trip to Syria several years later, while a Crusade was ongoing. He successfully navigated a battlefield with a Franciscan brother, as Mr. Lamb correctly states, and made his way into the presence of the Sultan, the Muslim forces’ commander. As St. Bonaventure recounts, “[Francis] proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ, the Savior of all, with such steadfastness, with such courage and spirit, that it was clear the promise of the Gospel had been fulfilled in him”; Bonaventure continues: “When the sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him. Francis, however, was inspired by God to reply, "If you are willing to become converts to Christ, you and your people, I shall be only too glad to stay with you for love of him. But if you are afraid to abandon the law of Mahomet for Christ’s sake, then light a big fire and I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy." (Major Life, Chapter IX) The sultan refuses this repeated entreaty for a conclusive test, and Francis, stymied, eventually leaves in peace and returns home.
While there is always room for discussion about the most effective way for Catholics to interact with the faithful of other religions, this discussion cannot be carried on effectively if the facts are obscured. The purpose of interacting with those of other faiths is to convince them to convert to Catholicism, a point which Francis did not forget. Contemporary apologists would be well advised, perhaps, to remember the fiery and uncompromisingly dogmatic spirit of the saint of peace, a man willing to undergo diplomatic awkwardness, torture, and even death for the sake of a clear and unapologetic Faith.
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