The friars came into the market place proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. The Moslem population of Morocco took offence and had the friars taken to Marrakech. But, the friars returned to again preach in the streets. The authorities ordered the friars to either be quiet or to leave the country, but the friars refused.
Finally, after the friars continue to preach, the exasperated ruler ordered them executed. After enduring severe beatings and declining various bribes to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ, the friars were beheaded on January 16. The year was1220. The five friars, Berard, Peter, Adjute, Accurs and Odo, are called the protomartyrs (first martyrs) of the Franciscans.
The friars’ mission to Morocco had been brief and an apparent failure, but the results were surprising. Their story fired many early Franciscans with the desire to also be missionaries and martyrs. It was their particular witness that inspired a young man to dedicate his life to God as a Franciscan friar. We know him today as St. Anthony of Padua.
It is said that when St. Francis of Assisi heard of their deaths, he exclaimed, “Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!”
Last Saturday, I attended the Philadelphia premier of a movie with a very different approach to mission: The Sultan and the Saint. It concerns the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt, Malik Al-Kamil in 1219.
During the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi traveled to the Damietta, Egypt, where the crusaders were laying siege, and then crossed the battle lines to meet with the sultan.
To be honest, I was a bit wary of seeing the movie. In my experience, there can be two extremes in the telling of this story. One is the triumphant Christian one, as exemplified by St. Bonaventure saying Francis “proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ, the Savior of all, with such steadfastness, with such courage and spirit, that it was clear the promise of the Gospel had been fulfilled in him.” The other is the “hippy” Francis, who sets out preach non-violence to both the crusaders and the Moslems.
I think that the reality lies somewhere in between these two. As well presented in the movie – notably through what was explained by my brothers Michael Calabria OFM and Michael Cusato OFM – the reality is more nuanced. The Francis who went to Damietta is not the Francis who left Damietta.
The idea of conversion is a powerful one for Franciscans. Francis had his conversion moment either before a crucifix in the chapel of San Damiano (as related in Thomas of Celano’s second life of St. Francis) or in an encounter with a leper (as related in Thomas of Celano’s first life of St. Francis and Francis’s own Testament). Franciscans value highly the idea of conversion– whether it comes as a result of good preaching, through prayer or though the action of the Spirit
Francis met with the sultan and, at the same time. encountered a deeply religious people. The crusaders sieging Damietta were the coarse Europeans of the Middle Ages; the Moslems he encountered were people of learning and refinement, and also, most importantly, a people of prayer.
Francis could not have missed noticing the dedication to prayer five times a day that was vastly more devotional than the Christian more relaxed approach. It was a moment of conversion for Francis – not to Islam, but rather to a manner in which a people could be dedicated to prayer throughout their day.
Francis left Damietta to spend a time in Jerusalem. He returned to tell the friars, in the Rule of 1221, that there were two ways they could approach mission ad gentes (to the world). He wrote:
The brothers… who go may conduct themselves in two ways spiritually among them. One way is not to make disputes or contentions; but let them be “subject to every human creature for God’s sake,” yet confessing themselves to be Christians. The other way is that when “they see it is pleasing to God, they announce the Word of God, that they may believe in Almighty God.”
One way is the way of St. Francis. Living in peach among them but remaining openly Christian. The other way is that of St.Berard and companions.