Times Past

St. Francis risks his life in visit to Egypt

 Would a Christian dare set foot in the court of the leader of the Muslim enemy during the time of the Crusades? St. Francis did just that in 1219. He was seeking to bring peace by ending the terrible Fifth Crusade.

            Pope Francis I, a Jesuit rather than a Franciscan, seems to be emulating his medieval namesake by seeking simplicity and taking risks based on compassion for others.

            During the 1260's, St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), a distinguished scholar and follower of the Franciscan Rule, wrote about Francis’ visit to Sultan Malik al-Kamil (1180-1238), the “The Sultan of Babylon.” His capital was in the very ancient section of Cairo, Egypt known as “Babylon.” He was part of the Ayyubid dynasty of Kurds descended from Saladin who had defeated Richard the Lion Hearted of England in the Third Crusade.

            Malik was noted for his efforts to negotiate peace with the Crusaders. You can read all of Bonaventure’s account in Francis of Assisi: The Founder, Early Documents. Brother Bill Short, who was at Mission San Miguel for several years, is one of the three editors of this remarkable compilation.

            Bonaventure wrote of Francis’ arrival in the Holy Land:

            “By divine providence [he was] led to the Sultan, just as Francis had wished. When the Sultan inquired by whom, why and how they had been sent, Francis replied with an intrepid heart that the Most High God had sent him to point out to the Sultan and his people the way of salvation and to announce the Gospel of truth.

            “Francis continued: ‘If you wish to be converted to Christ along with your people, I will most gladly stay with you for love of him. But if you hesitate . . . then command that an enormous fire be lit and I will walk into the fire along with your priests so that you will recognize which faith deserves to be held as holier and more certain.’

            “The Sultan replied that he did not dare accept this choice because he feared a revolt among his people. Nevertheless, he offered Francis many gifts, which the man of God spurned as if they were dirt. Seeing that Francis so completely despised worldly possessions, the Sultan was overflowing with admiration and developed an even greater respect for him. Thus it came about that the divine fire burned still more perfectly in Francis' heart, so that later it would be clearly seen in his flesh.’”

            Bonaventure is referring to how St. Francis, nearing the end of his life, prayed for and received the gift of the stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ.  It was the ultimate fulfillment for this Christ-like figure.

            Monday, April 8 is Community Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day commemorates the loss of six million people because so many Europeans lacked compassion for Jews and Gypsies and other victims of the Nazis. Others were simply afraid to take risks.

            St. Francis and many of the most joyous people that you will encounter throughout history and in real life are those who take risks on behalf of those who suffer.

            They are like the people of Le Chambon in France who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. It’s one of the wonderful mysteries of being human.

            Holocaust survivor Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, a star soccer player in pre-War Czechoslovakia, is the subject of the film “Broken Promise,” a-true-to-life, award winning 2009 Czech/Slovak film. He will be at San Luis Obispo’s commemoration on April 8 at 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth David, 10180 Los Osos Valley Road. The SLO High School Choir and the congregational choir will provide music.

            “Broken Promise” can be seen on Sunday, April 7 at  7 p.m. at Temple Ner Shalom, 875 Laureate Lane in SLO.

            There is no charge for either of these programs.