( modern grave markers within the ancient cemetery located within the grounds of St Kevin’s Monastery, Glendalough National Park, County Wicklow, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015)
In 1219 a humble and simple Italian Franciscan monk ventured across raging seas and hostile lands with the hope of eventually crossing enemy lines in order to meet one of the most feared men of his time, Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt… who also happened to be the nephew of the greatly feared Muslim warrior Saladin.
This was the height of the 5th Crusade. The Holy Roman Empire was embroiled, once agin with Muslim forces, as Jerusalem and what is known to Christianity as the Holy Lands, was under Muslim rule. Pope Innocent III and his successor Pope Honorius III, along with King Andrew II of Hungary and the Grand Duke Leopold VI of Austria launched a Holy Crusade to rid Christianity’s holiest city and her lands of Muslim rule once and for all. The irony here however is that Sultan Malik al-Kamil was actually one of the more tolerant Muslim rulers and allowed Christians living in and traveling to and from Jerusalem safe passage as well as greater freedoms than had previous rulers. Gone were the days of persecution and vast bloodshed. Yet the Catholic Church and most of Europe held the belief that the only good Jerusalem was a free Jerusalem.
Francesco Bernardone, affectionately known to us today as St Francis of Assisi, according to historical record longed to travel to the land of the Saracens not only to witness to the Muslims in the name of Christ but to broker peace. There is much debate over this encounter—had Francis simply wished to die a martyr in his hope to convert the Sultan as some historical documents record or had he hoped to intervene a peaceful solution putting an end to the ages of hostility, violence and bloodshed which had existed between these two religions for hundreds of years…scholars continue to debate these varying schools of thought.
The one fact however greatly agreed upon is that the meeting was one of mutual respect and peace.
Both men departed company with a lasting impression of mutual admiration and an understanding that each honored God…albeit in his own way.
As the world sits and watches the daily violence and mayhem unfolding within the very same region of the encounter of Francis and the Sultan…in Northern Arica and the Middle East, there appears to be an endless rolling wave of violence and bloodshed that seems to have been relentless since the dawn of mankind…as those deadly ripples reverberate ever outward into a gravely unaware world.
And it is during these global dark days in which my thoughts often turn to the teachings of that humble monk from Assisi.
I wonder how St Francis would view the current crisis with the current global assault by ISIS…
As this rising new unbending rule within Islam seems to lack the wisdom and tolerance of the long ago Sultan.
There is a historic meeting which is soon to take place.
It is a meeting between the two leading men who sit on the ancient thrones of their collective branches of Christianity.
Pope Francis, the Sovereign of Vatican City and the Bishop of Rome, the leader of the western Latin Roman Catholic Church, who is the 266th pope to sit on the throne of St Peter, will meet with his Orthodox counterpart, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leading patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
This meeting is a first between these two branches of the same tree. Previous popes have attempted to meet with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy but the rift between these two “sister” churches is deep.
All of which indeed goes back to the Great Schism of 1054 when Christianity was divided between the Latin West and the Eastern Orthodox.
However with the Russian Orthodox the wariness seems to go even further as the Mother Church of Russia looks at the Latin Church as one who has long hoped to lure away the Russian faithful while the Catholic Church has long wondered how “close” the Russian Orthodox Church has been first with the ruling Tsar’s and then later with the Communist regime…with current continuing questions regarding the relationship and roll between it and Vladimir Putin’s government.
Yet it is with grave mutual concern over the rampant rise in global Christian persecution, especially in the region of Northern Africa and the Middle East, that these two holy men will put aside all differences in order to come together in a greatly historic and unprecedented union in hopes of creating a unified front, while the world watches and wonders how many more must die at the hands of barbarism before someone stands up and says enough is enough.
As the time of this historic meeting fast approaches, may our collective Christian families join together in united prayer for these two men as they prepare to meet later this month in Cuba.
May the Holy Spirit make His presence known and felt as these two men of deep Christian faith, who speak as representatives on the global stage for all of Christianity as well as humanity itself…may they find the necessary common ground within their shared faith, their love of Jesus Christ…may their two voices join as one as they speak for those who cannot speak.
May the world stop long enough to hear these two men’s collective wisdom which is steeped in the wisdom of the One True Spirit of God.
And may all Christians join together in support as we stand together as the Light shining in this every darkening world….