Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Prophet of Nonviolence

Communion Reflection for The Feast of St. Francis

Yesterday was the 780th anniversary of the death of Francis of Assisi, and today we celebrate not only his feast day but also the beginning of a day of prayer for peace in this chapel. The day will end with an interfaith prayer service at 6:30 this evening, and the reading of passages of Scripture from the Jewish, Islamic and Christian traditions. We will be united under the Tent of Abraham the Patriarch who is reverenced by all three religions.

Of all the saints, none exemplifies radical discipleship more than Francis. When Jesus tells his followers, in the Gospel reading for today, that they will have nowhere to rest their head, we think of Francis sleeping in caves and in open meadows. And when Jesus tells his disciples to forget about their families and the past, we remember Francis renouncing his inheritance in the main square of Assisi and walking away naked. He went through the streets shouting “Pace e Bene!” meaning “peace and goodness to you!” and he was dismissed at first as a crazy fool.

Last summer I stood in that square and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the young son of a wealthy merchant to give up his privileges in order to follow the path of Christ and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The Jesuit peace activist John Dear has summed up this radical transformation by writing that “Francis embodies the Gospel journey from violence to nonviolence…cruelty to compassion, vengeance to forgiveness, revenge to reconciliation, war to peace, killing enemies to loving enemies. More than any other Christian, he epitomizes discipleship to Jesus. His witness continues to shine throughout the world.”

I want to say that Francis lived a life of prayer, poverty, penance, preaching and peace. It is the later quality that I want to speak of this morning, and in particular the role of Francis as prophet of nonviolence and a peacemaker through inter-religious dialogue.

Two years after his death at the age of 44, Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX who himself laid the foundation stone for the great new basilica in Assisi dedicated to the memory of the saint. In the old chapter hall of the Basilica, which dates from that same year, I was able to see relics that included the patched tunic worn by Francis, a pair of his sandals, and a small ivory horn that had been given to him during his journey to Egypt. It is said that Francis called his followers together with that horn, just as it had been used in Egypt to call the faithful to prayer.

The early years of the 13th century were a time of political turmoil and violence throughout Europe and the Middle East. Visiting Tuscany and Umbria, I was struck by the number of towns and cities built on top of hills where they could be defended from attacks by their neighbors. There were constant wars and crusades against Jews, Moslems and “heretics.” At 19, Francis joined a military expedition against Perugia but was captured and imprisoned for a year. Four years later he tried again to be a soldier, but he heard a voice telling him to go home, and he did. Not long after that, the crucifix in San Damiano spoke to him and he took “Lady Poverty” for his bride. His love for others was so great that, in the spirit and poverty of Christ, he could embrace lepers.

This was the time of the Fifth Crusade to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land and the motto of the crusaders was: “God wills it.” Francis begged Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to stop the fighting, but he refused. So Francis, who sought a non-violent solution through dialogue with the enemy, began a long march with a companion to Egypt where the Crusaders were battling the Muslim forces. They were captured by the army of Sultan Melek-el-Kamel and beaten before being taken to see the ruler. In his interview with the Sultan, Francis presented an alternative to conversion by force of arms and showed by example that it was possible to follow the Gospel command that we love our enemies.

The Sultan was so impressed by the kindness and gentleness of Francis that he is reported to have said: “If all Christians are like this, I would not hesitate to become one.” Francis accompanied the Sultan’s nephew to a mosque and prayed there, saying “God is everywhere.” During his visit with the Muslims, Francis was so impressed by the use of prostrations for prayer that in his letters he urged Christians to adopt a similar practice. The Sultan showered him with gifts, but the only one Francis would take back with him to Assisi was the ivory horn.

On his way back out of Egypt the crusaders wanted to kill him as a heretic and the Muslims soldiers had to protect him from the Catholic warriors. Back in Italy, his brother friars also criticized him for his “politics” and for his outreach to their Muslim enemies. But Francis responded by adding to his early rule the instruction that all friars are to love their enemies, “as the Lord commands.”

After leaving Assisi last summer, I traveled down the mountain and visited the little chapel of the Porziuncola, which is now inside the huge basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, and I stood a short distance away on the spot where St. Francis breathed his last breath. As he lay dying, Francis told his followers: “We have only just begun to practice the Gospel.”

Outside the Basilica, there is a large bronze plaque on the wall depicting religious leaders from all over the world who attended a summit for peace called by Pope John Paul II twenty years ago. More than 200 distinguished participants from a dozen faiths, including the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, were part of the historic event, which took place during the tensions of the Cold War. On the 20th anniversary last month, Pope Benedict XVI said that John Paul’s “invitation for a choral witness to peace served to clarify, without any possibility of misunderstanding, that religion can only be a source of peace. We need this ‘education to peace’ more than ever,” the Pope added.

Today, as we gather under the Tent of Abraham to pray for peace with our Muslim and Jewish friends, we can remember the example of the radical discipleship of St. Francis, the prophet of nonviolence and the proponent of inter-religious dialogue, who took seriously the Gospel command that we love our enemies.

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