Spirit Daily

By Michael H. Brown

How St. Francis Preached To the Moslems

It is a little known fact that St. Francis journeyed to the Middle East and witnessed to Islamic leaders. He was willing to undergo martyrdom, and even sought it, in order to preach Christianity to the Moslems.

Compiled by Frank Rega, of "Frank M. Rega's Home Plate"

Contemporary and early source documents indicate he probably traveled to Egypt or Syria, visited the Holy Land, and also attempted to reach Morocco, and possibly other Moslem countries. Passages from three ancient sources are presented here, plus an excerpt from Butlerís Lives.

Brother Thomas of Celano wrote the first biography of St. Francis, and was his contemporary.  It was written soon after the saintís death in 1226,   and it was commissioned by Pope Gregory IX to be the official biography.

from Thomas of Celano, First Life. Excepts from chapters 56 and 57:

   Still, though the branch of the Gospel produced an abundance of the choicest fruits, the sublime purpose of attaining martyrdom and the ardent desire for it in no way grew cold in him. After a not very long time he started on a journey toward Morocco, to preach the gospel of Christ to Miramamolin and his people. He was carried along by so great a desire, that at times he left his companion on the trip behind and hurried to accomplish his purpose, drunk, as it were, in spirit. But the good God, whom it pleased in his kindness to be mindful of me and of many others, withstood him to his face (Gal. 2; 11), when he had traveled as far as Spain; and, that he might not go any farther, he recalled him from the journey he had begun by a prolonged illness.

   But he was not able to rest without following even more fervently the impulse of his soul. Accordingly in the thirteenth year of his conversion, he set out for Syria, at a time when great and severe battles were raging daily between the Christians and the pagans; he took with him a companion, and he did not fear to present himself before the sultan of the Saracens. But who can narrate with what great steadfastness of mind he stood before him, with what strength of spirit he spoke to him, with what eloquence and confidence he replied to those who insulted the Christian law? For before he gained access to the sultan, though he was captured by the sultanís soldiers, was insulted and beaten, still he was not frightened; he did not fear the threats of torture and, when death was threatened, he did not grow pale.

   But though he was treated shamefully by many who were quite hostile and hateful toward him, he was nevertheless received very honorably by the sultan. The sultan honored him as much as he was able, and having given him many gifts, he tried to bend Francisí mind toward the riches of the world. But when he saw that Francis most vigorously despised all these things as so much dung, he was filled with the greatest admiration, and he looked upon him as a man different from all others. He was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly. Still, in all these things the Lord did not fulfill Francisí desire for martyrdom, reserving for him the prerogative of a singular grace.

St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church, was Minister General of the Franciscans in 1260,  when the General Chapter of the Friars Minor entrusted him with the task of writing a life of St. Francis based on all the texts then in existence.

from "Major Life of St. Francis" by St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church.  Excepts from Chapter IX:

   When he left the coast Francis went on a missionary journey about the countryside, sowing everywhere the seed of salvation and reaping an abundant harvest. However, the prize of martyrdom still attracted him so strongly that the thought of dying for Christ meant more to him than any merit he might earn by the practice of virtue. Therefore, he took the road towards Morocco with the intention of preaching the Gospel of Christ to the sultan and his subjects, hoping to win the palm of victory in this way. His desire bore him along so swiftly that even though he was physically weak he used to leave his companion behind and hurry ahead, as if he was enraptured in his anxiety to achieve his purpose. When he had traveled as far as Spain, however, he fell sick by Godís design, because he had other plans in store for him. Prevented by his illness from gaining martyrdom, Francis realized that his life was still necessary for the family he had founded, even though he was convinced that death was a prize to be won, and so he returned to tend the flock which had been committed to his care.

   Still his passionate love urged him on, and a third time he set out to preach faith in the Trinity among the pagans by shedding his blood. In the thirteenth year of his religious life he made his way to Syria where he courageously surmounted all dangers in order to reach the presence of the sultan of Egypt. At that time fierce fighting was taking place between the Christians and the Moslems, and the two armies were drawn up opposite each other at close quarters in the field, so that there was no means of passing safely from one to the other. The sultan had decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be rewarded with a Byzantine gold piece. However Francis, the knight of Christ, was undaunted and had high hopes that he would soon realize his ambition. The thought of death attracted him, instead of frightening him, and so he decided to make the journey. He prayed and was strengthened by God, as he chanted the words of the Psalmist, "What though I walk with the shadow of death all around me? Hurt I feel none, while you are with me" (Ps 22, 4).   

   He took with him as his companion a friar named Illuminatus who was an enlightened man of great virtue, and as they set out on their way they met two lambs. The saint was overjoyed at the sight of them and he told his companion, "Place all your trust in God, because the words of the Gospel will be fulfilled in us, ĎRemember, I am sending you out to be like sheep among wolvesí (Mt 10, 16)." When they had gone farther, they were met by men of the sultanís army who fell upon them like wolves upon sheep and seized them fiercely. They ill-treated them savagely and insulted them, beating them and putting them in chains. Then, exhausted as they were by the ill-treatment they had received, they were dragged before the sultan by Godís providence, just as Francis wished.

   The sultan asked them by whom and why and in what capacity they had been sent, and how they got there; but Francis replied intrepidly that they had been sent by God, not by man, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and proclaim the truth of the Gospel message. He 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, "I will give you such eloquence and such wisdom as all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand, or to confute" (Lk 21, 15).

   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 Christís 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." To that the sultan replied, "I do not think that any of my priests would be willing to expose himself to the flames just to defend his faith, or suffer any kind of torture" (he had just caught a glimpse of one of his priests, an old and highly esteemed man, who slipped away the moment he heard Francisí proposal). Then Francis continued, "If you are prepared to promise me that you and your people will embrace the Christian religion, if I come out of the fire unharmed, I will enter it alone. But if I am burned, you must attribute it to my sins; on the other hand, if God saves me by his power, you must acknowledge ĎChrist the power of God, Christ the wisdom of Godí (cf. 1 Cor 1, 24) as true God, the Lord and Savior of all." The sultan replied that he would not dare to accept a choice like that, for fear of a revolt among his people.

   Then he offered Francis a number of valuable presents, but the saint was anxious only for the salvation of souls; he had no interest in the things of this earth and so he scorned them all as if they were so much dust. The sultan was lost in admiration at the sight of such perfect disregard for worldly wealth and he felt greater respect than ever for the saint. He refused, or perhaps did not dare, to become a Christian, but at the same time he implored the saint to take the gifts and give them to the Christian poor or to churches, for his salvation. Francis, however, did not want to be bothered with money and besides he could see no sign of a genuinely religious spirit in the sultan, and so he absolutely refused to agree.

   Francis now realized that there was no hope of converting the Moslems and that he could not win the crown of martyrdom, and so by divine inspiration he made his way back to the Christian camp. So it was that by the disposition of Godís merciful providence and by the merits of his holiness, Christís lover longed to die for him with all his heart, but never succeeded; he was saved from death to be afterwards decorated with an extraordinary privilege, and yet he had the merit of martyrdom for which he longed. The fire of divine love burned the more perfectly in his heart for all that it only became clearly visible in his flesh later on in his life. It was well for him Ė his body never fell by the tyrantís sword, yet it was marked with the likeness of the Lamb that was slain; he was doubly happy Ė "he did not lose his life in persecution, but he was not deprived of the martyrís palm" (cf. Breviary, Office of St. Martin of Tours, ant. at Vespers).  

The Fioretti, or The Little Flowers of St Francis, was written by an Italian Franciscan,  Brother Ugolino,  about 50-60 years after the saintís death.  At the time of its writing all of the original companions of St. Francis had passed on,  but Ugolino was able to interview many brothers who had known some of these first companions.  His work was probably the result of a call by the General Chapter of 1276 to gather additional material on the life of St. Francis.

from the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St. Francis: excerpts from chapter 24.

   Spurred on by zeal for the faith of Christ and incited by a desire for martyrdom, St. Francis at one time went beyond the seas with twelve of his very holy companions, planning to travel right to the sultan of Babylonia.

   Now when he arrived in a certain country of the Saracens, where such cruel men guarded the roads that no Christian passing through there could escape being killed, by the grace of God they were not killed, but were taken prisoners, beaten in various ways and very roughly bound and then led before the Sultan.

   In his presence St. Francis preached under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such a divine way about the holy Catholic faith that he offered to enter the fire for it. As a result, the Sultan began to feel great devotion for him both because of the unshakable conviction of his faith and because of his contempt of the world Ė for though he was utterly poor he would not accept any gifts Ė and also because of his fervent longing for martyrdom. And thereafter the Sultan willingly listened to him and asked him to come back to see him many times. Moreover, he generously granted permission to him and to his companions to go anywhere and freely preach wherever they wished in all his empire. And he gave them a certain little token so that no one who saw it should harm them.

   After receiving that generous permission, St. Francis sent those chosen companions of his, two by two, into various lands of the Saracens to preach the faith of Christ. And with one companion he chose a certain district, and he went into an inn where he had to rest overnight.

   At last, seeing that he was unable to gather the fruit which he desired in that country, St. Francis, as a result of a revelation from God, prepared to return to the lands of the faithful with all his companions, and he assembled them together again. Then he went back to the Sultan and told him that he planned to leave.

   The Sultan said to him: "Brother Francis, I would willingly be converted to the faith of Christ, but I am afraid to do it now, because these Saracens, if they heard about it, would immediately kill me and you, with all your companions. And since you can still do a great deal of good, and I have to do many important things for the salvation of my soul, I do not want to bring about your premature death and mine. But show me how I can achieve salvation, and I am ready to obey you in everything.

   Then St. Francis said to him: "My Lord, I am leaving you now, but after I have returned to my country and at the call of God, gone to Heaven, after my death, through Divine Providence, I will send you two of my friars from whom you will receive the baptism of Christ and you will be saved, as my Lord Jesus Christ has revealed to me. And meanwhile free yourself from all that may hinder you, so that when the grace of Christ comes to you, He may find you well disposed in faith and devotion".

   The Sultan gladly agreed and promised to do so, and he faithfully obeyed.

   After saying good-by to him, St. Francis went back to the lands of the faithful with that venerable group of his holy companions. And after some years St. Francis gave up his soul to God by the death of the body.

   And the Sultan grew ill. But awaiting the fulfillment of the dead Saintís promise, he stationed guards at the gates with orders to bring quickly to him two friars in the habit of St. Francis if they should show up.

   At that time St. Francis appeared to two of his friars and ordered them to travel without delay to the Sultan and to obtain for him the salvation which the Saint had promised him. Those friars set out immediately and devoutly to fulfill his command. And after going over the sea, they were led to the Sultan by his guards.   When he saw them, the Sultan was filled with intense joy and he said: "Now I know indeed that the Lord has sent his servants to me for my salvation, as St. Francis promised me through a divine revelation."

   And after receiving instructions in the faith of Christ and holy Baptism from those friars, he died reborn in that illness, and his soul was saved through the merits of St. Francis.

To the glory of Christ the Blessed. Amen.

A footnote to this chapter of the Fioretti states: St. Francisí interviews with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil (1180-1238), during a lull in the Crusadersí siege of Damietta in the Nile Delta in September 1219, are documented by contemporary writers. The Sultan was a cultured Moslem with a taste for mystical poetry, which explains his liking for Francis.

The above three selections from Celano, St. Bonaventure, and the Fioretti, are taken from St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies. English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Edited by Marion A. Habig. Third Edition. Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago Illinois 61609. Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, December 5, 1972.  

From Butlerís Lives of the Saints, St. Francis, October 4.

   St. Francis sent some of his friars from this chapter on their first missions to the infidels, to Tunis and Morocco, reserving to himself the Saracens of Egypt and Syria. Innocent IIIís appeal at the Lateran Council in 1215 for a new crusade had resulted only in a desultory attempt to bolster up the Latin kingdom in the East: Francis would wield the sword of the Word of God.

   He set sail with twelve friars from Ancona in June 1219, and came to Damietta on the Nile delta, before which the crusaders were sitting in siege. Francis was profoundly shocked by the dissoluteness and self-seeking of the soldiers of the Cross. Burning with zeal for the conversion of the Saracens, he desired to pass to their camp, though he was warned that there was a price on the head of every Christian. Permission was given him by the papal legate and he went with Brother Illuminato among the infidels, crying out, "Sultan! Sultan!" Being brought before Malek al-Kamil and asked his errand, he said boldly, "I am sent not by men but by the most high God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the gospel".

   Discussion followed, and other audiences. The sultan was somewhat moved and invited him to stay with him. Francis replied, "If you and your people will accept the word of God, I will with joy stay with you. If you yet waver between Christ and Mohammed, cause a fire to be kindled, and I will go into it with your priests that you may see which is the true faith." The sultan answered that he did not believe any of the imams would be willing to go into the fire, and that he could not accept his condition for fear of upsetting the people. After some days Malek al-Kamil sent Francis back to the camp before Damietta. Disappointed that he could do so little either with the crusaders or their opponents, St. Francis returned to Akka, whence he visited the Holy Places. Then, summoned by an urgent message of distress, he returned to Italy.

From Butlerís Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition. Edited by Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater. 1987. Christian Classics, Westminster, Maryland. Originally published 1756-9. Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1953. Permission to reproduce is pending depending on ability to contact the publisher. 

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