Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi, religious

(Jonah 3:1-10; Luke 10:38-42)

In 1219 Francis of Assisi went to Egypt on a missionary journey. When by a stroke of luck he was able to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the two tried to convert each other. Kamil challenged Francis to walk across the image of a cross woven into a carpet thus committing apostasy. Francis did so but reminded the sultan that there were three crosses on Calvary and he had trod on the cross of the bad thief. Then Francis offered to walk across burning coals if the sultan would convert to Christianity. The sultan demurred saying that if he would forsake Islam, both he and Francis would be executed.

Francis may not have converted the sultan, but his experience did change the heart of his own order. When his friars established the norms for missionary activity among Muslims, Francis insisted that they prohibit any attempt to use weapons as a means of conversion. Nor were they to taunt Muslims into making martyrs of them. The same “conversion of ourselves” is at work in the Book of Jonah. The story of a mass conversion in Nineveh is apocryphal, but the purpose of the book is to move Jews to a conversion of heart. They are to note the attentiveness of the pagan Ninevites to the word of God and to respond with similar thoroughness.

Franciscan friars at their best still call us to renewed conversion. Walking in their habits, attending to the needs of the poor, bringing goodwill to all, Franciscans call us out of the narrow concerns into which even pious people may wander. They urge us, as did their great founder, to compassion, simplicity, and holiness.