Years ago, long after I had lost my faith, I read about the Crusades in detail for the first time. I was horrified by the brutality employed by the Church and sickened by the political corruption that had infected the Church. My reading helped reinforce my belief that God did not exist. For a long time, religious intolerance was, for me, a stumbling block to God. It seemed that people of faith were more prone to hate than love, more prone to violence than peace. I made a rather fundamental mistake: I viewed religious fundamentalists as if they possessed the real truth of whatever religion to which they belonged. Today, many people see bad priests, phony televangelists, and Christians killing each other in some parts of the world and reach the conclusion that Christianity is full of hot air and empty promises. Likewise, even more people, especially in the West, see Islamic terrorists flying planes into buildings in America, becoming suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel, and beheading “infidels” in Syria and they believe all Muslims are dangerous and Islam is an inferior religion. In these tumultuous and terrifying times in which terrorism, war, genocide and chronic, debilitating poverty engulf the entire globe, religion seems incapable of creating a community of peace, a climate of brotherhood.
St. Francis’ spirituality grew out of the tumultuous times in which he lived; it was an age of tremendous social change and horrific violence. Francis read the Gospels as a man of his times, a man who felt within himself the enraged passions of his age and who was swept along by the social currents of his society. He had all the aspirations of the people of his time. But reading the Gospel made it possible for him to liberate those aspirations from their limitations, and to make them blossom forth into a more complete vision of humanity and human destiny. The Gospel rubbed up against the turmoil within him, and in the depths of his heart, he encountered a peace beyond all understanding, a living peace which made the labor of transformation the only job he wanted. In God’s humility and humanity, Francis saw a way to rebuild society. He knew the accepted form of society, with lords and subjects, no longer worked and new gospel-inspired community of interdependent, mutually respectful people was essential for survival.
The ideal of a true community of all people, excluding no one, is still, eight centuries later, a long, long way from being realized. The blueprint which Francis discovered in his time in the Gospel and which the Sultan found in the Koran is there for us to discover. Our survival depends upon it. We need to talk to each other, listen to each other, learn from each other…and grow in love and compassion together.