Hope for the Pope: Catholic-Muslim relations in the new pontificate

Note: I’m very honored to host my first guest on the blog: Fr. Michael Calabria, a Franciscan friar.  Since we met in the fall, when he came to Georgetown to work on his doctoral dissertation in Qur’anic studies, I’ve considered him a good friend and the “Franciscan friar version of myself.” 

The icon was painted by Franciscan friar, Robert Lentz.

The icon was painted by Franciscan friar, Robert Lentz.

We wrote the following piece together, and shopped it around at a few news outlets. None of them decided to take it–there was too much already written on the topic–so we decided to publish it here.

It seems appropriate to post this piece, today, on Holy Thursday, when Pope Francis washed the feet of a female, Muslim inmate at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Rome.

by Fr. Michael Calabria, OFM, and Jordan Denari

In the summer of 1219, an itinerant preacher in a patched brown robe crossed the Nile River with a companion to reach the camp of the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. While Crusader commanders readied their weapons, he announced the peace of Christ in way that seems to have pleased and impressed his Muslim host. In time, this preacher became a much loved saint: Francis of Assisi.

Though most are familiar with Francis’ commitment to evangelical poverty and his sense of brotherhood with all of creation, few are aware of St. Francis’ simple yet dramatic gesture of friendship towards the Muslim ruler of Egypt. Given the recent flurry of talk about St. Francis due to the Pope’s chosen name and his references to Francis, we hope to shed some light on this lesser-known aspect of Francis’ ministry, which was a natural extension of his service to all people and his love of all creation.

We—a Franciscan priest and a Catholic student educated by the Jesuits— hope that Francis’ example of dialogue with Muslims will shape the attitude and activities of the new pontiff.

Francis of Assisi’s forgotten ministry

In recent years, scholars, examining the writings of Francis following his encounter with the Sultan, have discerned elements that are suggestive of his experience of Islam while in Egypt. Shortly after his return to Italy in the summer of 1220, Francis wrote a Letter to the Rulers of the Peoples in which he enjoined all sovereigns to have an announcement of some kind made every evening that would call people to give praise and thanksgiving to God. Coming so soon after his time in Egypt, it seems likely that Francis was recalling the Muslim adhaan, or call to prayer. Later in 1224, when Francis was in a time of intense meditation on Mt. La Verna, he wrote a prayer known as The Praises of God. To many, Francis’ simple invocations to God as love, charity, wisdom, joy, etc. are reminiscent of the ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God  from the Islamic tradition.

That Francis, a devout Christian, might adapt and incorporate Muslim prayer forms into his own is not surprising, as Francis attributed all that is good not to any one people, but to God, the source of all that is good. Francis may have come to the encounter with al-Kamil with the intent of conversion, but he left with something unexpected: an admiration for the frequency and fervency of Muslim prayer.

Francis’ belief that God can be found in all people and “in all things” was later echoed by the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius, whose spirituality enlivens Jesuit institutions like Georgetown University where we study. Like Franciscan friars, Jesuits find their calling on the “frontiers,” often encountering people of other creeds and cultures–and encountering God in them. The message of Francis and Ignatius proved foundational at the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65), particularly in the Church’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) which speaks of the “rays of Truth” reflected by other faith traditions.

Living Francis’ message

Francis’ example and Church teaching tell us that we can still be true to our own Christian faith–and actually deepen it– while honoring and drawing from the truth, wisdom and beauty  found in other religions.

Francis and al-Kamil

Francis and al-Kamil

We both take this message to heart, and feel our Christian faith deepened when we engage in Muslim prayer. We can be spotted in the congregation at Muslim Friday prayers on campus at Georgetown University–Fr. Michael in his brown habit and Jordan with her hair covered by a scarf. Fr. Michael prays on an Islamic prayer rug when the adhaan emanating from from his laptop calls him to prayer. Jordan became more committed to her prayer life as a Catholic, thanks to her Muslim friends on campus; she now goes to nightly Mass and often prays the Liturgy of the Hours.

We also look to Francis for an example of how to engage in dialogue today, in the midst of the hateful rhetoric and outright violence that often characterize interactions between Christians and Muslims. While Pope Innocent III called for a Crusade to eradicate Islam in the Holy Land, Francis chose the unpopular and dangerous path of compassion and peace, even though the cardinal leading the crusade opposed his mission. Francis lived dialogue; he didn’t just talk it.  He formed a relationship – perhaps even a friendship – with the Sultan, allowing the time he spent with the Muslim leader to change him for the better.

It is this example of lived dialogue that we try to emulate in the midst of the hateful rhetoric and violence that often characterize Muslim-Christian interactions . Fr. Michael has returned frequently to the land where Francis walked with Sultan, striving to serve as a bridge between Catholic and Muslim communities both in Egypt and in the US. Having spent time abroad in the Middle Eastern country which bears her name, Jordan hopes to return there after graduation to conduct research about the challenges of Muslim-Christian relations. Now, we are working together on campus on a series of dialogues that bring Muslim and Catholic students together to discuss topics like prayer, fasting, and saints.

Hope for the Pope

While Cardinal Bergoglio does not have academic expertise in Catholic-Muslim dialogue as did some of the other papabiles, like Cardinal Angelo Scola, we were heartened by the Pope’s decision to take the name, Francis. In an address on the first Sunday after his election, he explained that he took the name of Francis of Assisi because the saint was a man of the poor, a man of peace and someone who loved the creation. His choice to model his papacy after the saint’s commitment to humble service may signal the new pope’s commitment to a more irenic dialogue with the Muslim community than that of his predecessor.

Moreover, after Benedict XVI’s now infamous 2006 speech in Regensburg in which he inadvertently denigrated the Prophet Muhammad by quoting an obscure medieval text, Cardinal Bergoglio distanced himself from Benedict’s remarks saying that they would “serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.”

This response is only one indication that Francis’ papacy may bring a much-needed change in tone and a re-commitment to dialogue.  As more information has emerged about Bergoglio, we’ve learned that the cardinal was a real unifier between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Argentina.  In 2010 he published a book,On Heaven and Earth, with his good friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka.  It records their own personal conversations about religion, and in it, Bergoglio writes this:

“Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person’s point of view, opinion, and proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth.”

Muslims worldwide are likewise optimistic about the new pontiff. In Italy, the Italian Islamic Religious Community issued a statement saying, “As Muslims of the West, we take as a particularly hopeful sign the reminder, in the name of the new pontiff, of the great example of sanctity and opening to the East and to Islam that St. Francis of Assisi gave.” At the Grand Mosque in Paris, clerics said they hoped the Pope would be inspired by his link to St. Francis, “who at the start of the 13th century voluntarily initiated the first Islamic-Christian dialogue in history.” In the Pope’s homeland of Argentina, Galeb Moussa, the president of the Federation of Argentinian Arab Organizations said: “We have a lot of faith in the breadth of his vision and his openness to dialogue.” At a Muslim prayer service at Georgetown University, two days after the Pope’s election, student Saaliha Khan even read the “Prayer of St. Francis” at the conclusion of her reflection.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Like his namesake, Pope Francis does not have professional expertise in Catholic-Muslim relations, but it is his seeming humble and loving disposition that makes dialogue a such a natural activity for him. We hope that a commitment to dialogue continues to flow from Pope Francis’ unique combination of Jesuit and Franciscan charisms.

In an early press conference as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis expressed his desire for a “poor” Church, and Catholics have begun envisioning what this “poorer” Church will look like. We see deeper ties with Muslims, and an interest in genuine dialogue, as an integral part to our Church becoming poorer in spirit.

We hope that Francis and his poor Church can be an example for Catholics and all people around the world–that it will motivate them to embrace their neighbors (and even their enemies) as the Poor Man of Assisi did.

Fr. Michael Calabria, OFM is a Franciscan friar and chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University. Jordan Denari is a senior at Georgetown University and president of the Interfaith Student Council.

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