Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, entitled Fratelli tutti, has already elicited some comments, but the interest shown in it has not been general - far from it. No doubt because of the concern with health news and the American political news has diverted attention. But the content itself has something to do with it.
For a first step, we must stop at the third paragraph of the encyclical which requires careful examination. The Pope relates there a well-known episode in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, his visit to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil in Egypt. Francis gives the following interpretation:
“That journey, undertaken at the time of the Crusades, further demonstrated the breadth and grandeur of his love, which sought to embrace everyone. Francis’ fidelity to his Lord was commensurate with his love for his brothers and sisters. Unconcerned for the hardships and dangers involved, Francis went to meet the Sultan with the same attitude that he instilled in his disciples: if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”, without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.”
The First Rule of the Friars Minor
The quote is taken from what has come to be known as the “First Rule of the Friars Minor.” It is in fact the second rule written by St. Francis. The text of the first rule has been lost.
The Pope's quote is taken from the 16th chapter, entitled: “From those who go to Saracens and other infidels.” St. Francis begins by specifying that “whoever of the brothers may wish, by divine inspiration, to go among the Saracens and other infidels, let them go with the permission of their minister and servant.”
The founder continues: “The brothers, however, who go may conduct themselves in two ways spiritually among them [the infidels].” What are these two ways? “One way is not to make disputes or contentions; but let them be ‘subject to every human creature for God's sake,’ yet confessing themselves to be Christians.” We recognize the quote made by the encyclical.
The holy founder continues: “The other way is that when they see it is pleasing to God, they announce the Word of God, that they may believe in Almighty God,—Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost, the Creator of all, our Lord the Redeemer and Saviour the Son, and that they should be baptized and be made Christians, because, ‘unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’”
The end of the chapter fixes what precedes. He insists on the preaching: “These and other things which please God they may say to them, for the Lord says in the Gospel: ‘Everyone that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven;’ and ‘he that shall be ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man shall be ashamed, when He shall come in His majesty and that of His Father, and of the holy angels.’”
The saint concludes this chapter with this last consideration: “And let all the brothers, wherever they may be, remember that they have given themselves, and have relinquished their bodies to our Lord Jesus Christ; and for love of Him they ought to expose themselves to enemies both visible and invisible, for the Lord says: ‘Whosoever shall lose his life for My sake, shall save it" in eternal life.’” The others merely comment on it.
St. Francis’s Word Distorted
It is quite clear from reading this chapter of the first rule, that St. Francis does not intend to separate the two attitudes he describes, but to unite them in a succession. It is not a question of: either living as a Christian in the midst of infidels, and nothing else; or preaching Jesus Christ. But the first attitude can be adopted while waiting for the second to be made possible, or even compulsory in a confession of faith.
The proof is given by the text, and by the insistence of St. Francis on the preaching and on the total gift of oneself, until martyrdom, if it is a question of communicating the way of salvation to those who are foreigners there.
The truncated quote distorts the thought of the saint. It also forgets that St. Francis wanted to go to Egypt to convert the Sultan, or to die for the faith, as the life of the holy founder written by St. Bonaventure affirms. It reduces supernatural charity and apostolic zeal to a simple “love” wanting to “embrace all men.”
The end of the third paragraph of the encyclical concludes as follows: “In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation. We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal ‘subjection’ be shown to those who did not share his faith.”
What one can be impressed with is to see the total crushing of the missionary impetus of St. Francis, and to read a practical negation of his rule from the pen of the Pope who wanted to take his name. This flattening and denaturation will snake its way throughout the text of the encyclical.