By Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Commentary | Published February 20, 2019 | En Español
In the 13th century, when St. Francis of Assisi traveled from Italy to Egypt, such lengthy nautical trips were perilous and lacked any of the conveniences that modern-day travels provide. Ships always tried to sail as close to the coastline as possible in case there were emergencies. There were no internet connections, no GPS guidance, or even weather prediction devices. Yet Francis made this journey to encounter the world of Islam at a time when the Crusades were still in vogue. He even believed that he might himself become a martyr in a hostile environment. However, he eventually returned home with a newfound respect for his Muslim acquaintances and their devotion to prayer.
Eight hundred years later, another Francis recently made a similar pioneer journey to the Islamic world. While the means of his travels were much more efficient and secure, the outcome of his trip was as uncertain as that of the first Francis. Today, the Crusades are now long past, but not the misunderstandings and the all too frequent violence that still separate the Christian and Islamic religions. Much of it can be attributed to a lack of knowledge of one another. This is perhaps the most important reason that both St. Francis and Pope Francis made their journeys—even though eight centuries separated their ventures.
Ignorance is regularly the fertile soil in which human violence is germinated. The Holy Father and St. Francis were each willing to risk a dangerous journey to advance an interfaith encounter. When the first Francis departed from Italy, I am certain that many of his colleagues were concerned for his safety and perhaps advised him against the trip. The second Francis probably received similar cautious advice from his contemporaries. Both travelers were undeterred and moved courageously forward.
The world of Islam remains an enigma for most Christians, and I suspect that many Muslims have little or no accurate firsthand knowledge of Christians. Moreover, this is true in spite of the fact that each religion currently has more than a billion adherents worldwide. There are far too many of us simply to remain ignorant of the beliefs and religious customs of the other. The world in which we live needs us to provide a witness of understanding and mutual respect as a sign of the highest religious principles that belong to each faith tradition. Both journeys advanced that goal. At the conclusion of his recent trip, Pope Francis jointly signed a document with Egyptian Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, that urged Christians and Muslims to pledge themselves to advancing “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
The pope and the saint, who share the name Francis, dared to encounter Islam in a gesture of respect and dialogue. Islam, in return, dared to listen to the voices of these Christian missionaries of peace. There is hope that their encounters will advance the cause of mutual respect and the lessening of hatred and violence that has punctuated human history in this part of the world and spilled blood in other places more recently.
Travel is so much easier 800 years after the first Francis made his trip, but the challenges of living together in harmony and respect remain unfulfilled. That is why the second Francis had to make his trip a few weeks ago. May the efforts of these two bold men, whose kindred efforts are separated by eight centuries, and the receptivity of their Islamic hosts both from the past and from today soon bear fruit for the entire world.