Debunking the Myth of St. Francis as a Modern Ecumenist

A new film, “The Sultan and the Saint,” apparently depicts Francis as a proponent of interreligious dialogue, not as a bold preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is a famous story about St. Francis of Assisi meeting the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. The poor Christian monk sought an audience with the great Muslim leader al-Malik al-Kamil in 1219 to talk about religion and try to agree on peace, the story often goes. Today this episode is frequently used to portray St. Francis as a peacemaker and proponent of interreligious dialogue. For example, at the Mass celebrating the feast of St. Francis this year, I heard a homily in which the priest said St. Francis provides an example of ecumenism with “our Muslim brothers and sisters” that is being followed by Pope Francis. It was not the first time I’ve heard this comparison. 

It is such a common story, in fact, it has become almost cliché, at least among Franciscans and ecumenists: 750 years before the Second Vatican Council, St. Francis anticipated the modern ecumenical movement. Based on this story, one US Franciscan website advises young Catholics to “Ask your parish youth leader or your religious education teacher to organize a trip to a local mosque. Talk with Muslims to better understand their faith and pray with them.” But the historical record suggests that such a reading is at best anachronistic, and probably completely ahistorical. It is doubtful St. Francis had the modern idea of ecumenism or interfaith dialogue in mind when he crossed the battle lines and entered the sultan’s tent. What really happened at that meeting in 1219, and what meaning does this encounter have for Catholics and Muslims today?

A new film, “The Sultan and the Saint,” an independent production from Unity Productions Foundation, is scheduled for release in November 2016 that dramatizes this tale. I came across an advertisement for the film the in Secular Franciscan Order’s US national newsletter, “TAU-USA,” requesting financial support to complete the film and encouraging readers to see it. The Franciscan Action Network has also enthusiastically participated in the project and is helping to fund it.

An advertisement for the new film, from TAU-USA (Summer 2016, p. 21)

The exact content and message of the film will only be revealed on opening night. But based on the advertisement and related documentation on the film’s webpage, it looks like there may be good reason to question the film’s historical authenticity and the validity of its interpretation of the meeting. For example, the promotional materials cite specious “facts” about the crusades, insinuating they were instigated by Christians for evil reasons, and make the ungrounded claim that St. Francis “opposed the warfare.” Advertising from Xavier University says the meeting between the saint and sultan “sucked the venom out of the Crusades,” as if the Christians were wrong.

I am not a historical or theological authority. I am just a guy who has read about the life of St. Francis. Hopefully some real historians and experts will give a thorough analysis of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. But the sources I have consulted suggest that the message of this new film, like the cliché of St. Francis “reaching out to Muslims” in a gesture of ecumenism, is at best a distortion or misreading of history, and at worst a flat-out lie. As Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP, notes in his acclaimed Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012), “while modern writers often reconfigure it”—the meeting of Francis with the Sultan—“as pacifistic, antiwar preaching, Francis’ real motives seem very personal, not visionary or ideological.” As Fr Thompson explains, Francis “skipped over the question about messages from the leaders of the Crusade and got immediately to the point. He was an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and had come for the salvation of the sultan’s soul. Francis expressed his willingness to explain and defend Christianity.” Francis made it clear that he was willing to die for his beliefs. 

The truth, then, is that St. Francis’ purpose was to evangelize the Muslims. He was inspired by God to preach the gospel to the sultan. He boldly, bravely, and unapologetically proposed the truths of the Catholic faith to him at great personal risk. He did so with respect – peacefully, humbly, without denigrating or attacking Islam, and with good will. In this sense, he is a good model for interreligious dialogue today. It is vital for Catholics to be able to talk with people of other faiths – to be able to share the gospel truth, to be able to listen respectfully, and to look for common ground.

St. Francis sought peace, yes – but not by means of political negotiations or a legal treaty or by compromising his faith in exchange for coexistence with Islam, but by converting the enemies of the faith to Christianity. He did not dialogue with the sultan with the limited aim of improving mutual understanding; he wanted to save the sultan’s soul by offering him the Good News, or to die a martyr’s death trying. And it was a reasonable expectation that he would be killed for his faith, since a fundamental doctrine of Islam both then and now is that Muslims are obliged to either kill, convert, or totally subject all non-Muslims to Islam.

In his classic book St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography, Omer Englebert tells us that immediately after returning from his visit with the sultan, St. Francis learned that five Franciscan brothers had been martyred in Morocco. While passing through Moorish Spain they had entered a mosque and denounced the Koran. They told the local ruler, “We have come to preach faith in Jesus Christ to you, so that you will renounce Mohammed, that wicked slave of the devil, and obtain everlasting life like us.” Hearing this report, St. Francis exclaimed, “Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!”

St. Francis was above all a faithful Catholic, a fact that is sometimes missed by depictions of him as a modern ecumenist. In the First Rule of the Friars Minor (no. 19), he writes: “Let all the brothers be Catholics, and live and speak in a Catholic manner. But if anyone should err from the Catholic faith and life in word or in deed, and will not amend, let him be altogether expelled from our fraternity.” In his Letter to All the Faithful he advises, “We ought also to fast and to abstain from vices and sins and from superfluity of food and drink, and to be Catholics. … And let us all know for certain that no one can be saved except by the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the holy words of the Lord which clerics say and announce and distribute and they alone administer and not others.”

The film’s advertising implies that the crusades were evil both in intent and in practice. This is a common misconception used as a slur against the Church. The lands around the Mediterranean were predominantly Christian by the AD 700s. Most people there did not convert to Islam voluntarily, but forcibly by Mohammed’s invading armies. The idea of taking up arms to defend themselves against Muslim expansionism – which was the basic motive of the Christian crusades – was reasonable under such conditions.

Sadly, the religious wars continued after the time of St. Francis. Over the centuries there have been innumerable Muslim land and sea attacks, with marauding and long-term occupations throughout Christendom. Some major conflicts that come to mind include Kosovo in 1389, Constantinople in 1453, Belgrade in 1521, Vienna in 1529, Hungary in 1526 and 1566, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna again in 1683. Wars with, and loss of territory to, the Ottomans continued for centuries as they pushed relentlessly to impose Islam on Europe.

St. Francis was a man of peace, but there is no evidence that he opposed the crusades. The notion that the crusades were contrary to Franciscan spirituality is belied by the fact that one leader of later crusades was St. Louis IX, the king of France, a Franciscan tertiary who is now patron saint of the Secular Franciscan Order. Obviously, he and the Church saw no contradiction between Christian faith and morals, or Franciscan principles, and fighting a war of defense against Muslims. The Franciscan Poor Clare monastery in Assisi was even attacked by Muslims in 1240 and successfully defended by St. Clare herself.

In the end, the record shows that St. Francis did make an extraordinarily daring effort by reaching out to al-Kamil, which resulted in a unique personal relationship between the two men. He charmed the sultan with his simplicity and authenticity, and was granted safe passage for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But his “outreach” was a missionary attempt to propagate the faith, not interfaith dialogue as it is typically conceived today. This historical episode is often appropriated by the modernist ecumenical movement which downplays or even rejects the Church’s mission to evangelize. Zeal for souls and trust in providence were the core of St. Francis’ spirituality and motivated his excursion to the sultan. The advertising for the new film, “The Sultan and the Saint,” suggests it presents revisionist history in line with the modernist ecumenical agenda. We have to wait till it comes out to know for sure.

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About Benjamin J. Vail 7 Articles
Dr. Benjamin J. Vail, OFS is an American Secular Franciscan living with his family in Brno, Czech Republic. He has studied sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oslo (Norway), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Masaryk University (Czech Republic).

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