My dear brothers of the Order of Friars Minor,
all brothers, sisters and friends of our Franciscan Family,
and all my Muslim sisters and brothers,
May the Lord give you all His peace!
Eight hundred years ago, our Seraphic Father St. Francis set sail for Egypt, finally fulfilling a long-held dream of reaching out to Muslims. He arrived at the camp of the crusading army, among Latin Christians who through years of preaching and the rhetoric of holy war had been taught to scorn Muslims. Those same Muslims had every reason to scorn Francis, assuming that he, like most in the crusader camp, was an enemy and not a bearer of peace. We today celebrate what no one at that moment could have foreseen: that a Spirit-filled man with nothing of his own crossed the battle lines unarmed to request a meeting with the Sultan, was received with grace by that Sultan, enjoyed an extended period of hospitality with the Muslim leader, and emerged from the visit to reflect anew on the mission of the Friars Minor. Francis returned safely to his homeland profoundly moved by the encounter and crafted a new and creative vision for his brothers about how they could go among the Muslims, about the things Friars could do and say “that would please God” (quae placuerint Domino, RnB 16.8). The anniversary of Francis’s encounter with al-Malik al-Kāmil at Damietta in 1219 beckons us to ask again what deeds and words, amid the pluralism and complexity of the world today, would be pleasing to God.
Discerning the signs of the times (Mt 16:3), the Church increasingly highlights interreligious dialogue as an essential element of the mission of the Church today. The Second Vatican Council exhorted the Christian faithful to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life” (Nostra Aetate, 2). In particular, the Council taught that the Church regards the Muslims “with esteem,” and urged Christians to work with their Muslim sisters and brothers to promote social justice and moral welfare, peace and freedom, for the benefit of all (Nostra Aetate, 3). St. John Paul II carried this mission of dialogue forward in his ministry as Bishop of Rome, most especially when he called religious leaders of the world to our spiritual home, Assisi, to witness there the transcendent quality of peace. For those who gathered to pray for peace, the “permanent lesson of Assisi” consisted in Francis’s “meekness, humility, deep sense of God, and commitment to serve all” (John Paul II, Speech at Assisi, 27 October 1986). Popes Benedict XVI and Francis likewise invited religious leaders to make pilgrimage to Assisi and pray there for peace, and Pope Francis invoked the intercession of the Poverelloduring his own trip to Egypt, praying that Christians and Muslims truly call one another brothers and sisters, living in renewed fraternity under the sun of the one merciful God (Francis, Speech at the International Peace Conference, 28 April 2017). It is thus the universal Church calling the Franciscan family to animate this interreligious fraternity in the peaceful spirit of our Seraphic Father. The Church calls us to raise up this seminal moment in our history, the journey of St. Francis to Egypt, to open ourselves anew to the transformation the Saint of Assisi experienced, and to walk together with Muslims and people of all faiths as fellow travelers, as builders of civility, and most fundamentally, as sisters and brothers, children of Abraham, our father in faith.
I encourage the Franciscan family to celebrate this anniversary as a moment when the light of the Gospel can open one’s heart to see the imago Dei in a person one regards with fear and distrust, or even worse, in a person one has been urged to hate. To that end, a number of resources have been prepared to assist all those inspired by this encounter to commemorate it in a fitting way. Accompanying this letter are intercessions that I encourage Friars to use during the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the anniversary year, intercessions that could be used in a variety of ministerial settings when appropriate. In April, the General Curia will make available an online resource book, prepared by the Special Commission for Dialogue with Islam, that provides historical background, Franciscan and Muslim perspectives on the encounter and other materials to commemorate Damietta. Our fraternity in Istanbul, a community of Friars primarily dedicated to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, will host a gathering in October of Friars working in Muslim-majority countries. The Pontifical University Antonianumhas likewise organized several public events in different countries over the course of the anniversary year. Whether academic or pastoral, I encourage you to actively participate in these and other events, and further, to consider creatively how your local community might commemorate Damietta in light of your local reality.
This anniversary offers a unique opportunity for collaboration between different branches of the Franciscan family. A number of Friars, Sisters and scholars of the Franciscan movement, and promoters of Muslim-Christian dialogue have prepared publications for release during this anniversary; I invite you all to take time this year to study and prayerfully reflect on how, in your local situation, the courage and openness to the Spirit seen in the Nile Delta so long ago might live afresh in you. The General Curia is eager to share the news of such efforts to build bridges of interreligious understanding, so please inform us of the events and initiatives to commemorate Damietta in your community and in the various Entities of the Friars Minor.
We live in a time when people of various faiths traffic on the demonization of Muslims and incite others to fear them. Aside from study and prayer about the themes of encounter and dialogue, I encourage followers of Francis who lack much personal exposure to Islam to recall the experience of our founder by taking a simple and concrete step: meet a Muslim. Get to know him or her, beyond the pleasantries of a cup of tea and social nicety. Try to learn and appreciate what experience of God animates him or her and allow your Muslim friend to see the love God has poured into your heart through Christ. Despite the Second Vatican Council’s insistence that Muslims, with us, “adore the one and merciful God” (Lumen Gentium16), many voices somehow sadly insist that dialogue between Christians and Muslims is impossible. Many contemporaries of St. Francis and the Sultan agreed, seeing conflict and confrontation as the only response to the challenge of the other.
The examples of Francis and the Sultan witness a different option. One can no longer insist that dialogue with Muslims is impossible. We have seen it, and we continue to see it in the lives of many Franciscans and their Muslim brothers and sisters who, with sincere and loving hearts, share the gifts that God has given them through their respective faiths. Fidelity to Francis’s vision involves sharing with humility. Indeed, the distinctively Christian gift we have to share with our Muslim sisters and brothers is not merely a humble Christian, but the experience of a humble God. Unique in his age, Francis praised God by saying, “You are humility” (PrsG 4), and spoke about the “sublime humility,” the “humble sublimity” of God (LtOrd 27). The Christian heart’s quest for God finds rest in the humility of the crib and the cross, signs of a God who stoops down in service and humbles himself for love of us. Francis invites us to reflect that divine humility to those we meet by taking the first step in service and in love. Moreover, fidelity to Francis’ vision calls us to receive the beliefs and believers of other faith traditions with a sense of reverence (OFM General Constitutions, art. 93.2; 95.2), with hearts and minds open to the presence of God in such an encounter.
I recognize that there are some in the Franciscan family, who live as minorities in the lands of their birth or adoption, find themselves caught up in political and sectarian strife, and may feel the threat of violence, as do many today in the land Francis once visited. In some countries, Christians and Muslims share the pains of social injustice and political instability. I invite you to reflect on another of the names Francis used in his Praises of God: “You are patience” (PrsG 4), or as Muslims invoke God: Yā Ṣabūr – “O Patient One!” Francis himself learned the virtue of patience through his ministry among lepers, through the challenges of his travels, and through trends he saw in the Order at the end of his life, when his own brothers abandoned some of the ideals he cherished. Francis meditated at length on the patient love Christ showed in his passion, coming eventually to identify patience as an attribute of a merciful God. “You are patience.” God follows a schedule unknown to us, and God stirs the hearts of women and men in ways unknown to us. Francis struggled to understand God’s plan for those who failed to follow Christ as Lord, and Francis found refuge in the prayer of praise that God is patience. May God grant the grace of patience to each of us as we learn to live together.
To our Muslim sisters and brothers, let me say how warmly we Franciscans remember the hospitality shown to our Holy Father Francis when his life was at risk. The interest many Muslims have shown in commemorating this anniversary testifies to the desire for peace expressed anytime a Muslim greets a fellow believer. I pray that this year will deepen the brotherhood we share under the God who created all things in the heavens and on the earth and that this bond continues to strengthen long after 2019. God could have made us all the same, but God did not (Al-Shūrā 42.8). With you, your Franciscan sisters and brothers are eager to show the world that Christians and Muslims can and do live alongside each other in peace and harmony.
In conclusion, let us never forget that the example of St. Francis was a life of ongoing conversion. As a youth, he was repulsed by lepers, but an act of mercy changed his heart and “what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness” (Testament, 3). That moment, the beginning of Francis’s life of penance, is intimately linked to Francis’s experience at Damietta in 1219. Francis’s heart had been opened by lepers before, and when he found himself in the presence of a Muslim he had been taught to hate, it was opened once more. The biblical call to conversion (Heb., shuv; Aram. tuv) is echoed in the Qur’an’s repeated command to turn to God (tūb), to avert evil with goodness and acts of charity to society’s most vulnerable. Believers today—regardless of the name they use for God and the manner in which they worship—are called to the same courage and openness of heart. Amid the groanings of the world for interreligious understanding, may our humble, patient, and merciful God show all of us the deeds and words that are most pleasing to God.
Rome, 7th January 2019
Peace and all good,
Br. Michael A. Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant
From: Vatican II in Plain English
With Pope Francis, the Franciscan Family celebrates the 800th anniversary of the meeting of Br. Francis and Br. Illuminato with Sultan Malek al Kamil. Considering the Pope’s efforts, let’s take a moment to reflect on what the church has to say in regard to our active involvement with non-Christian religions.
From Book 3 (from a set of three books) entitled The Decrees and Declarations, I have excerpted certain quotes.
Book 3 – The Decrees and Declarations – Chapter 4, The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions
(Although the “verses” below are written in psalm-scripture style in the book, I present them in paragraph form to save space.)
1 In our day and age, people everywhere are growing closer together, and their ties are becoming more profound, even when they are socially diverse.
Because of this reality, the Church is giving more attention to its relationship with non-Christian religions and, toward that end, gives primary consideration in this document to what unites all people and to what people have in common.
This furthers the Church’s task of fostering unity and love among people and even among various nations.
For we believe and teach that all men and women form one human family, have a common origin and God, and share a common destiny in divine Providence.
People naturally look to various religions to answer profound human questions: What does it mean to be human?
What is goodness? What is sin?
What makes us sad?
What is the path to happiness?
What does death mean?
What is beyond the grave?
What, in short, is the mystery of life?
2 People have long sensed the presence of the divine, however that is understood or defined. It seems to hover near us, mysteriously present in the events of life. We have variously known this as a supreme being – a divinity or heavenly sort of parent – and this has given people a religious sense.
In Hinduism for example, people contemplate this divine mystery and speak of it through myths and penetrating inquiry, seeking relief of human struggle through aesthetical practice, meditation, or movement toward God.
In various forms of Buddhism, too, people understand that the current situation is not sufficient and that there is a path for life on which people can reach greater freedom or enlightenment.
In many other religions around the world as well, people strive to relieve the restless hearts through religious practices and lifestyles that consist of teachings, rules of life, and sacred rights.
The Catholic Church does not reject anything that is true and holy in any of these religions and, in fact, looks upon them with sincere respect.
Even though they differ from us, their ways of life and doctrines often reflect the truth that we all seek.
The church of course, continues to proclaim Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life,” but we all exhort all our members to be prudent and loving and open to dialogue with others.
We urge Christians to defend and promote the spiritual and moral benefits found among other world religions, including the values found in their cultures.
3 We also appreciate the Muslems, who adore one God who, they believe, acts with mercy and power, who is our creator and sustainer.
They seek to obey God in the spirit of Abraham and Sarah, even when the divine decrees seem inscrutable.
Even though they do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, nonetheless they revere him as a prophet, and they honor Mary, his mother.
They wait with us for the judgment day, when God will give all their due, and therefore, they value a moral life and practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Even though we have had many hostilities between Christians and Muslims, we now urge all to forget the past and work for mutual understanding and peace.
4 This council also recalls the spiritual bonds that unite Christians and Jews: our common heritage in Sarah and Abraham.
We are the Church of Christ, but we acknowledge that the roots of our faith are in the spiritual ancestors, Moses, and the prophets whom we hold in common.
The very story of Christianity – that God is leading us to freedom – was foreshadowed by the journey of the Jews from bondage to freedom through the desert.
We cannot forget, therefore, that we receive divine revelation through the Jews.
… As Christians, we are rooted in Judaism, and we even believe that in Christ, Jew and Gentile were reconciled once and for all.
Mary herself was a Jew, of course, as we’re all the apostles, not to mention Christ himself – a faithful Jew. …
5 It is really not possible to call upon God, the creator and sustainer of all, if we treat anyone less than lovingly.
The scriptures themselves say as much when they remind us that whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Hence, one’s relationship to God is intimately linked to one’s relationship to those around him or her.
There is absolutely no ground, then, to offer anyone less than full dignity and respect.
Therefore, we outrightly reject and abhor any discrimination against anyone based on race, color, condition of life, or religion.
We beg all Christians to be at peace and to maintain good relations with all peoples.
The Word of the Church
Pope Francis continues to call the Church, the People of God, to address issues of violence, oppression, and death of human beings, and the planet itself. He is empowered to shout this out to millions of Catholics through the statements of compassionate concern and brilliant guidance as given to all of us in the Second Vatican Council documents.
The Council has much to say to us about how we navigate our relationships with each other and our planet. I was recently introduced to a paraphrased version of the documents of the Council, and I have found them to be quite helpful. “Vatican II in Plain English” is written by Bill Huebsch and Paul Thurmes. For authentication of the paraphrased version, on the Publisher Page, the following is written: “The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are official declarations that the material reviewed is free of doctrinal or moral error”.
I believe that we have an obligation to read these important documents and to incorporate them into our daily life, most especially into our prayer lives. This set of books is a great resource for doing just that.
From Book 2 (from a set of three books) entitled “The Constitutions”, I have excerpted certain paragraphs and sentences. This Book helps us recall our shared journey, our need for a renewed understanding of our sense of community, our sense of unity, one that places us on an equal basis with all people, and all their faith traditions, most especially the lowly for whom we strive to create conditions of life worthy of people redeemed by Christ.
Constitution on the Church
Chapter 2, The People of God
(As I quote these “verses” below, which are written in the psalm-scripture style in the book, in an effort to save space, the verses are in paragraph form. Also, in bold and italicized form, I have parenthetically made brief comments in verse 9.)
9 God has always welcomed anyone whose heart is ready to experience the divine presence. These are the ones whose lives reflect goodness and who cultivate a sense of awe. But God has always chosen to welcome women and men, not merely as individuals but bound together, united as a people who recognize the divine. So, coming together as a people is an essential element of salvation. … the house of Israel came as one people, united in a covenant with God, slowly growing more and more ready to receive God fully, ready to live within a full and new covenant. In Christ, this new covenant was instituted, and all were called together as a people: Both Jew and Gentile, united in one common Spirit. … The church is constantly moving and searching, wandering . . . not unlike the Hebrew experience in the desert. (or the experience of the displaced now moving north through Mexico). And even though the Church’s movement is sometimes filled with trial and tribulation, nonetheless, it (we) remain faithful overall. It (we) continues to be a visible sign of unity, a sacrament of salvation for all people. Aware of the absolute importance of its mission, the Church seeks constant renewal. It never ceases to beg the Holy Spirit for the grace it needs to be the light of the world. Lumen Gentium! …
12 … This same spirit likewise sanctifies the whole world, which means that through the Spirit every aspect of the world will eventually be brought to goodness and holiness. This will happen because the Spirit gives gifts to each person and assists each in using them well. The power we need to do this comes only from God and leads us insistently to more and more become exactly who we are created to be. We call this shared, loving, sacred power by a name: we call it “grace.” … It is given to everyone at every rank of the Church. It forms us into a community which also has a name: The People of God!
13 All people everywhere and throughout all time are called to belong to this People of God. And doesn’t this fit God’s way of doing things? God did, after all, create us in the divine image to share human nature together. Together we share an inescapable sameness. God even became one of us in Jesus Christ so that we might be united as human beings, that we might begin to realize that this sameness is a wonderful gift. But human unity may seem like a far-off dream. Our experience of national tensions and cultural warfare makes such … unity appear impossible! God’s reign, however, is not like an earthly one because it encompasses citizens of every race with all their various cultures and it forms these people into a Church. …
14 Everyone on earth is welcomed into this unity, and each is called in a unique way. For those called to be Catholic, the church is necessary for salvation, according to both Scripture and tradition. …
15 Those called to be Christians in other churches and with whom the pope is not yet fully united are nonetheless linked to the Church in many ways. United to Roman Catholics by Scripture, prayer, charity, and even sacraments, together we hope and work toward full unity. The Church urges all its members to lives that are holy and renewed to enable this.
16 And the many people who are not Christian are also connected to the People of God. The Jews remain dear to God for example, as do the people of Islam, as well as all those who seek God with a sincere heart. Likewise, those who seek no God whatsoever, if they are good and true, are also related to God’s People. …
The Word of the Church
Mike Carsten, OFS
November 7, 2018
via NBC News:
Websites like Church Militant, LifeSite News and the Lepanto Institute are ratcheting up the rhetoric while replacing polite and prayerful discourse with personal attacks on supporters of gay Catholics, they say….
“They inject fear, hatred and homophobia into religious discourse,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.”
“They use the same tactics as the political alt-right: lies, personal vilification and demonization of minority groups,” he said….
In response to repeated requests for comment from NBC News, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the following response from their spokesman Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont:
“The promotion and defense of the faith should invite an encounter with the merciful love of Christ and contribute to a more civil and peaceful dialogue…
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Reflection on the Canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero by former FAN board member, Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, who is working at Catholic Charities as well as helping with formation of the postulants for the OFM provinces.
October 14, 2018
Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM
This Sunday, October 14, Archbishop Oscar Romero is being officially recognized in Rome as a saint. There will be a lot of jubilation, especially among the Salvadorans and many thousands of people who have been inspired by the prophetic words and deeds of this contemporary saint. I count myself as one among them. At the same time, I cannot shake off a lingering, somber question: what would Oscar Romero do and say to us in the United States if he were alive today?
This is not just a pointless speculation. Forty years ago, Oscar Romero vigorously denounced the state-sponsored violence and terror that were being inflicted upon…
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