Making Peace in a Time of War

Father Richard describes St. Francis’s commitment to peacemaking during the Crusades:

Undoubtedly the most famous of Francis’s ventures into peacemaking was in 1219 when he preached peace unsuccessfully to the Christian crusaders and followed that with a personal visit with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil (1180–1238). An account of his interaction with the Christian soldiers has Francis saying, “If I keep silent my conscience won’t leave me alone.”

The saint leapt to his feet, and rushed to the Christians crying out warnings to save them, forbidding war and threatening disaster. But they took the truth as a joke. They hardened their hearts and refused to turn back. They charged, they attacked, they fought, and then the enemy struck back. . . . The massacre was so great that between the dead and the captives the number of our forces was diminished by six thousand. Compassion for them drove the holy man, no less than regret, for what they had done overwhelmed them. [1]

Journalist Paul Moses has written a thorough history of Francis’ visit with the sultan. Moses writes:

In the midst of war Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil found common ground in their encounter outside the besieged city of Damietta, Egypt, in 1219. By that time the Crusades had been fought for more than a century. Christians had seized Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099 but suffered a devastating blow when the great warrior Saladin took it back eighty-eight years later. In the decades that followed, the popes launched one failed military venture after another to win back territory in the Holy Land. . . . 

[Francis] tried, in his own way to stop this cycle of violence. . . . 

A probing look at the early documents concerning Francis reveals that the quest for peace—a peace encompassing both the end of war and the larger spiritual transformation of society—was at the core of Francis’s ministry and thus at the heart of his mission to the sultan’s court. [2]

Father Richard continues:

Unfortunately, history tells us that fighting continued, and Francis returned to Assisi a very discouraged man. Yet his warnings to his followers are apt for peacemakers and those working for justice in our day:

As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that greater peace is in your hearts. Let no one be provoked to anger or scandal through you, but may everyone be drawn to peace, kindness, and harmony through your gentleness. For we have been called to this: to heal the wounded, bind up the broken, and recall the erring. [3]

Feuds and vendettas were so common in Francis’s day that few people went abroad unarmed. Yet Francis forbade his followers to fight, carry weapons, or even swear allegiance to any noble. His teaching and ministry were based on Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:9, which says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

[1] Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, 2nd book, chap. 4, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 265–266.

[2] Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009), 2–3, 4.

[3] The Legend of the Three Companions, chap. 14, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 102.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 88–90.

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