CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 10 November 2018

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St. Francis as a pioneer of mission among Muslims

HONG KONG (SE): St. Francis of Assisi is well known for his finely tuned sense of appreciation of nature, as well as being a dedicated peace-maker, but at an evening held at the Anatolia Dialogue Centre in Wan Chai, Franciscan Brother Raymond Yeung Yim portrayed him as a dedicated, ground-breaking missionary among people of the Muslim faith.

St. Francis had travelled to Morocco and was well acquainted with the Muslim religion, as well as being deeply impressed by the people’s deep spirit of prayer.

Brother Yeung pointed out that in the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans, the constitutions that St. Francis wrote set aside three periods of prayer each day.

“He was inspired by the Muslim custom of praying five times a day,” Brother Yeung said. “And I believe that his inspiration for introducing this custom came from his experience among the Muslim people.”

Early in the life of the Franciscans, around 1219, some brothers were sent to Morocco as missionaries to live among the Muslim people. However, two of them were brutally killed and Brother Yeung said that St. Francis has been attributed with uttering the words, “Now at least I have two friars as martyrs.”

However, Brother Yeung says that he finds it hard to believe this, as it has been interpreted as meaning that he had a desire for martyrdom, which he thinks was not in the makeup of St. Francis.

In addition, he noted that there is no record in St. Francis’ own writing that he ever said these words and nothing to suggest that he glorified martyrdom as something to be sought after.

However, Brother Yeung took the words as his cue to present the philosophy of St. Francis on mission in the midst of Islam. He said that in his First Rule of the Order announced at Pentecost in 1221, he requested the friars not to confront Muslims directly, as those in Morocco had done.

Then in his Second Rule, he devoted one whole chapter to being a presence among the Muslims. He requested the ministers of Franciscan communities not to send firebrand preachers who would confront and condemn, but only friars who could be judged to be suitable, who would work among the people, sharing their knowledge and resources, but only address the topic of faith when questions were asked.

“When there, live among the ordinary people, only speaking of faith when someone asks a question,” Brother Yeung interpreted his instruction as meaning.

He said that what St. Francis really thought about the friars who were killed in Morocco we do not know, but we do know that his experience of war as a soldier in his younger days had engendered an abhorrence of violence in him.

He later met with the Sultan of Egypt in an attempt to broker a peace deal between him and the Crusade.

He even stayed in the camp of the sultan, but the bishop in charge of the Crusader force refused to accept the sultan’s twig of peace and would not back off.

Sadly, St. Francis’ negotiating was unsuccessful, but such was his aversion to all forms of violence and despise for others. In addition he certainly did not want to fight with the Muslims.

Brother Yeung is of the opinion that the words about martyrdom were placed in the mouth of St. Francis by a later friar in his own reflections on the founder, but believes that it is an important question for today, as the Franciscans have people living in Syria.

Brother Yeung says that some of them have been kidnapped, which poses deep questions about the viability of their presence, as paying ransom money to kidnappers is only supporting the cause of the perpetrators of the violence.

But he also believes that St. Francis’ dedication to the mission with Muslims has other dimensions that are relevant for today, as he says it is a challenge to modern day friars to be aware of people of other faiths, make friends with them and share their faith insights with those of different religious traditions.

“I think that we do not do enough of that,” he said humbly, in speaking to the predominately Muslim gathering. But he added that he believes that there is hope, as right up until today, the friars are still living in Morocco.

The Anatolia Cultural and Dialogue Centre is, as the name suggests, a Turkish organisation, and promotes cultural and religious dialogue and friendship. The director of the centre, Muhammet Alper, spoke warmly about the Muslim respect for Jesus and Mary.

In introducing Brother Yeung he said, “If you see a good Muslim, look at his face and you will remember God.” However, the same wisdom is not faith-specific and the gathering had the opportunity to look at the face of Brother Yeung and were indeed inspired to 

 

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