Francis not St Francis

The Holy Father has said that his visit to the Arabian peninsula and meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the imam of Al-Azhar, has caused him to think again about the meeting of Francis of Assisi with Sultan al-Kamil.

But this was more than mere musing.

Pope Francis was making a direct connection between his visit and that of his saintly namesake. Just as the Assisi meeting of 1986 deployed the story of Francis’s visit to Egypt during the fifth Crusade, so the Pope is now portraying himself as Francis’s successor as mediator and peacemaker.

But both politicised deployments of the Francis of Assisi story distort the history of the event (in so far as we can be certain about it). St Francis did not cross the military line at Damietta to broker a truce, or to effect a dialog or reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. His aim was to convert the Sultan to Christ. So confident was he of success in this task that (according to Bonaventure, writing some 40 years later) he told the Sultan to decapitate him if he failed.

There is, it seems, in the tale of St Francis and the Sultan, no precedent at all for the doctrinal indifferentism currently championed by Pope Francis. St Francis of Assisi clearly believed that God willed that all men should be Christians, and was prepared to uphold that proposition at the expense of his own life.

See also: Augustine Thompsom, OP, Francis of Assisi: A new Life, Cornell, 2012, pp 67-70; and (for more diverse interpretations of the evidence) John V. Tobin, St Francis and the Sultan : The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter, OUP, 2009.

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