When Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in February 2019 to sign a declaration of peace with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, the meeting was called “historic,” “landmark,” and “a clarion call for robust dialogue.” And it was—no pontiff in Church history had ever visited the Arabian Peninsula. But such a bold measure of goodwill toward our Muslim brothers and sisters isn’t revolutionary: The pope merely followed an 800-year-old path cleared by his namesake, Francis of Assisi.
The faith life of Saint Francis was never still. Though he was comfortable with solitude and prayer, he was a doer. Whether he was repairing churches, building the foundation of his order, or preaching Christ’s message of love and justice, his faith was an ever-evolving organism. And it was on fire, compelling him to journey to Egypt in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade to convert Sultan Al-Kamil to Christianity—or die trying. He succeeded in neither converting the sultan nor achieving martyrdom, but his mission trip was hardly a failure. The ripple effects from that meeting are still felt today.
Saint Francis, Teacher
Pope Francis, in more ways than can be explained here, takes his name seriously. His goodwill mission to Abu Dhabi is another example of how the saint continues to influence the pontiff. “Saint Francis reminds us that Christians set out armed only with their humble faith and concrete love. If we live in the world according to the ways of God, we will become channels of his presence #UAE #ApostolicJourney,” the pope tweeted on February 5.
Clearly, Saint Francis was part of the Catholic delegation who went there. The brave efforts of Saint Francis continue to encourage peaceful dialogue. Here are five lessons we can glean from his historical visit 800 years ago.
Dialogue is key. In this era of instant gratification through smartphones and social media, it’s easy to tweet aspersions and walk away. It is dialogue with those who oppose us that takes real courage. Saint Francis once said, “Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” As Catholic Christians, we should heed those words when approaching conflict.
Evangelize with compassion. In the Rule of Saint Francis, he writes: “I also admonish and exhort the brothers that in their preaching their words be studied and chaste, useful and edifying to the people, telling them about vices and virtues, punishment and glory; and they ought to be brief, because the Lord kept his words brief when he was on earth.” Let our actions toward those on the periphery reflect that spirit of goodwill.
Peace and good. Building peace should be our mandate. In Chapter 3 of his Rule, Saint Francis, perhaps influenced by his encounter with the sultan, advised his brothers that when engaging with the world, “they should not be quarrelsome or take part in disputes with words . . . or criticize others; but they should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble, speaking respectfully to everyone. Whatever house they enter, they should first say, ‘Peace to this house.’”
Seek to understand. In the peace prayer attributed to Saint Francis, we read, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Read between the lines and you see a call to listen before speaking; to build bridges, not walls; to choose understanding over ignorance.
Love thy neighbor. This was a hallmark in Francis’ life and his life’s work, and it is articulated in his 9th Admonition: “Our Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Love your enemies’ (Mt 5:44). A man really loves his enemy when he is not offended by the injury done to himself, but for love of God feels burning sorrow for the sin his enemy has brought on his own soul.”
Many Faiths, One Family
Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE echoed his namesake’s mission centuries earlier. Dialogue with the Muslim world has always been a priority of his pontificate. He’s visited Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb on several occasions and has spoken pointedly about our Christian duty to build inroads of peace in the Muslim world.
In turn, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass on the Arabian Peninsula that drew a crowd of 135,000—with 4,000 Muslims among them. In his homily, the pope spoke of our shared “human fraternity.” We worship differently, culture divides us, but we are one human family.
When Pope Francis returned to Rome, his tweet reflected real hope. “This visit to the United Arab Emirates belongs to the ‘surprises’ of God. So let us praise him and his providence, and pray that the seeds sown may bring forth fruits of peace.”
Eight hundred years ago, Saint Francis brought that very message to Sultan Al-Kamil, a stranger, symbolically planting an olive tree of peace in the soil of a foreign land. It grows there still.