While articles and commentaries abound on America’s strategy dealing with the threat of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) after President Obama’s speech, and the world debates the level of intervention necessary to defeat Islamic extremists, there is a larger question in my mind as to how the church should respond to the crisis.
It is a larger question because, unlike the deliberations of nations who see and weigh events with a severe eye focused on self-interests, the church must use a much wider lens. It is the duty of the church, in the person of the pope, to maintain the continuity of the faith given to him over the course of centuries, indeed millennia. It is his mission to preserve truth and persevere.
President Obama and other national and world leaders have to take into consideration issues of national defense and security, international alliances, political realities and repercussions, the media, and polling numbers. The issues of the day and how people feel about them are what drives political discourse (if such a thing still exists in civil circles) and shapes political, social, and military action.
The pope has a higher responsibility and must answer to a higher pay grade. This is the awesome weight the papal office bestows on any occupant of the Chair of St. Peter. Hence, the pope relies on the Holy Spirit for guidance because without divine intercession he could not move a finger beleaguered as he is under such a heavy burden. Our prayers for him are crucial, too. Without our prayers the pope is left unguarded in an empty citadel, at the mercy of unmerciful enemies who, like the Islamic State, take no prisoners.
Different popes steer the ship that is the church in different ways, in different times, under different conditions and circumstances. This should be obvious. But, the ship’s captain must always be aware of changes: uncharted shoals, rogue waves, and storms so huge sometimes a skipper cannot sail around them. He must take his ship directly into the maelstrom.
The turbulent seas that surround us now might be such a moment for Francis.
His two predecessors plotted their courses differently and both were threatened with sudden gales and hidden obstacles just below the surface of the sea. John Paul II, bravely, like American naval hero John Paul Jones, steered his ship directly into the conflict firing not cannon, but a call to dialogue. For most of his pontificate, JP II built successful relations with Islamic countries. Together, Muslim nations and the Vatican fought the International Planned Parenthood agenda at the United Nations, and (to some extent) handed successive defeats to the pro-abort NGO lobbies in Mexico City, and the Clinton abortion-on-demand teams at Cairo and Beijing during the International Conferences on Women and on Population and Development.
He not only visited Muslim countries but was the first pope to pray in a mosque. John Paul II cajoled, invited, apologized – gave every indication to the Muslim world that he meant what he said. He established lines of communication through inter-faith dialogue. He reached out to Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest center of learning in Egypt, and encouraged annual meetings, alternating discussion sites between Cairo and Rome. He called Muslims “brothers and sisters” despite being shot by an Islamist, and he made the reconciliation between himself and his assassin public as an example to the world.
He publically advised the United States against “Desert Storm” in 1991. And, twelve years later, after congressional approval, during the heady patriotic aftermath of 9/11, the pope publically cautioned against an invasion of Iraq and privately pleaded with President Bush not to engage in “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” This earned John Paul II the esteem and trust of the Muslim world.
Or, so it seemed.
Benedict XVI’s ship floundered just after it left port. At a familiar setting for the pontiff, the University of Regensburg, on September 12, 2006, Benedict, engaging in academic discourse (again, if such a thing still exists) innocently quoted an obscure Byzantine emperor. I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s important, at least in my mind, so bear with me.
“Show me what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
This one comment, taken out of context, was unilaterally condemned in all Islam. A “Perfect Storm” of protest and violence ensued and successfully severed the main mast of Benedict’s ship.
Really? Decades of fruitful discussion and good will were suddenly swamped all because Benedict, a former professor of the university, cited an ancient text? Was there really a relationship with Islam based on mutual trust or was it just shills and decoys?
Benedict raised a jib and sailed on, tacking out of and then into the wind without capsizing his ship. Skillfully using the true compass of Christ, he navigated through troubled waters until his surprising decision to abdicate primacy of the church, forcing a new election to fill the shoes of the fisherman. I do not know, nor will I speculate, if the quote at Regensburg had anything to do with his decision.
Enter Francis I.
When I was the Director of Religious Education at my parish and taught young students preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I always cautioned them to deeply discern their chosen name. I encouraged them to own that choice and choose a saint’s name whose personal witness they could identify with and emulate.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio made a similar choice when he chose his name as pope.
Any serious student on the life of St. Francis would know about his famous and brave confrontation with the sultan of Egypt during the crusades. Cardinal Bergoglio, of course, knew of this amazing meeting. But, what was the lesson St. Francis taught us about his deliberate encounter with the followers of Muhammad?
Was it to reconcile differences? Was it meant to bridge gaps and establish communication?
No. It was to bear witness to the truth. It was St. Francis accepting his cross, knowing what might happen to him despite the message he felt charged to deliver. It was an honest attempt at persuasion rather than force. The sultan, or any of his soldiers, who were rewarded a gold piece for the head of every Christian they killed, could have easily slaughtered Francis without a second thought. But, they didn’t.
The simple boldness of a man traversing the desert that was the no-man’s land between enemy lines, as if he owned it, in search of the great sultan in order to speak to him, intrigued the Arabs. Perhaps, they thought, he was a magician or a madman or both.
When he met the sultan (as legend would have it, because although we know St. Francis did travel with the crusade and was in Egypt, we cannot verify this incident through primary sources) Francis offered a test of faith. He would walk into a fire with the sultan’s imams and mullahs. If Francis walked out of the fire unscathed, his flesh intact, and the mullahs were burned to death, then the great sultan would see the truth and convert to Christianity. The sultan dismissed Francis but let him live. He awarded him safe conduct to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. My guess is that the imams breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Would it really surprise anyone if Pope Francis tried to emulate his namesake? Would his sudden presence in Bagdad, Damascus, Mosul, or even the frontier of northern Iraq or anywhere in the vastness of the Levant shock us?
Not this pope. He’s a hands-on type of guy. He’d pilot his ship, possibly a small sloop, not an expensive sailing yacht with bright brass fittings and teak wood floors, right into the foray of war, where hatred and evil are perpetuated in the name of God and the false pretense of religion. I wouldn’t put in past him. Would you?
Just perhaps, the enormous efforts of recent popes, saints or not, to reconcile differences between the Islamic world and ours with reasoned argumentation, patient understanding, and olive branches is the wrong approach right now. Maybe direct confrontation, as politically incorrect as it might seem, is the true answer.
Military solutions, although desperately needed to thwart terrorists plots against civilian populations and end the genocide of innocents, are really no solutions at all when challenging believe systems, are they? What the Islamic state is shoving down the throats of those who do not adhere to their absurd observance of Muslim doctrine is to convert to their cult or die by the bloody sword. As if people of any kind of conscious can do that without lying to their very souls. What nonsense.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, maybe our pope would do better to walk into the sultan’s tent and present Islam with a challenge. This time, however, not through academic dialogue and inter-faith discourse – but with the truth: that those who take up the sword do, indeed, die by the sword. That, like the angels Muslims and Jews and Christians profess to believe in, people have the God-given gift of free will and because of that determine their own destiny – their redemption or destruction. Not by a bloody sword, but by the dictates of their conscious, their acts, their thoughts, and their disciplined passions.
Pope Francis may yet walk into the ancient holocaust of middle earth and invite the imams and mullahs to join him. The goal would be for all three monotheistic religions to stand together and condemn violence in the name of religion. It would be historic. It would be a mission of hope and love that, with God’s help, may someday “beat swords into plowshares.”