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VATICAN CITY, October 7, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi as a precursor to modern interreligious dialogue painted by Pope Francis in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti does not do justice to the original, experts say. 

In the preamble to Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis says about St. Francis’ mission to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt: 

Francis’ fidelity to his Lord was commensurate with his love for his brothers and sisters. Unconcerned for the hardships and dangers involved, Francis went to meet the Sultan with the same attitude that he instilled in his disciples: if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”, without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake”. In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation. We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal “subjection” be shown to those who did not share his faith.

However, this retelling of the story of St. Francis and the Sultan has been contradicted by journalists and scholars who argue that it jars with historical accounts.

Dr. Samuel Gregg, the Research Director of the Action Institute, pointed out in Catholic World Report that Saint Francis was not the “meek and mild” personage Francis seems to suggest.  

“When the Sultan asked Francis and his companion the purpose of his visit, the saint ‘got immediately to the point. He was the 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’,” Gregg related, quoting from scholar Augustine Thompson O.P.’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012).

“What followed was an exchange of statements by Francis and the Sultan’s religious advisors (who told the Sultan to execute Francis for “preaching against Muhammad and Islam”) in which the two parties outlined the respective truth claims of Christianity and Islam. Francis then engaged in a ‘long conversation’ with the Sultan in which he ‘continued to express his Christian faith in the Crucified Lord and his promise of salvation,’” Gregg continued. 

“At no point did the saint, Thompson stresses, speak ill of the Prophet Muhammad. But Francis wasn’t there for an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries. He wanted to convert the Sultan to Christianity through word and action.”

Gregg said he was raising these facts because, unlike the portrayal of the encounter found in Fratelli tutti, the “saint was concerned with addressing the question of religious truth.” Thus, the encyclical was “wanting” in its portrayal. 

Professor Roberto de Mattei was less forgiving of Pope Francis’ misrepresentation of Saint Francis.

“Pope Francis presents [the visit to the Sultan] as a search for dialogue, when all the sources of the time say that St. Francis wanted to convert the Sultan and supported the crusaders who were fighting in the Holy Land,” he said in a recorded statement for

“But the encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan failed, and Pope Bergoglio seems to want to demonstrate that he is more capable than St. Francis at carrying out the project, starting with the Abu Dhabi document.” 

The 2019 Abu Dhabi Declaration argued that God willed the “pluralism and diversity of religions” in the same way he willed a diversity of sex and skin color. The document was signed by Pope Francis and the Muslim Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.

However, it is unlikely that Pope Francis himself was the first to present St. Francis as a precursor to modern interreligious dialogue.

According to Church Militant, a revisionist account of the saint’s missionary efforts among the Muslims during the Fifth Crusade was published by the Franciscans themselves in 2019. St. Francis and the Sultan, 1219–2019: A Commemorative Booklet, produced by the Franciscan Friars Minor (O.F.M.), “downgrades the primary sources that record St. Francis’ meeting with the Sultan as ‘heavily hagiographical or stereotypically hostile towards Islam, frustrating our attempts to gather a clear picture of what might actually have happened in this momentous encounter,’” Church Militant reported.

The image of Francis as someone who entered interreligious dialogue with Islam and went home edified was promoted by the leader of the Friars Minor, Brother Michael A. Perry.

Perhaps it was [Saint] Francis, not al-Kamil, that needed to be ‘converted’ after all,” wrote Alison Kenny of Canada’s Salt and Light Media shortly after the booklet’s publication. 

There are several medieval sources for stories about St. Francis, one written by his near-contemporary St. Bonaventure in 1260, 34 years after the saint’s death. According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order longed to be martyred and had this in view during his various missions to convert Muslims to Christianity. 

According to St. Bonaventure’s story of St. Francis and the Sultan, the saint and his companion were beaten up by the Sultan’s soldiers before they were dragged before him. When the Sultan asked Francis who had sent him and why, the saint said God had sent him to preach the Gospel.

The Sultan was impressed enough to ask Francis to stay with him, but Francis replied that he would stay only if the Sultan and his people converted “unto Christ.” He also suggested that he and the Sultan’s current religious advisors suffer a trial by fire together. This did not happen, for, as the Sultan pointed out, his chaplains were not willing to do this.

Francis then offered to go it alone but the Sultan, apparently fearing a rebellion if he accepted Christ, tried to pacify Francis with “many costly gifts.” When Francis rejected them, the Sultan was even more impressed. Sadly, according to St. Bonaventure’s story, Francis was not impressed with the Sultan, seeing no “root of true piety” within him, gave up his mission and went home.