In the first few weeks of his reign, Pope Francis wasted no time embedding himself in the middle of some of the biggest challenges to the church today — from calling for “decisive action” on priestly sexual abuse to addressing the Vatican’s relationship with its nuns and sisters worldwide, to eschewing many of the more elaborate traditions of the papacy, a move that brings the office down to earth.
Among Pope Francis’s new approaches was the way he talked about Islam — calling for dialogue with Muslims, mentioning “the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters” during a Good Friday address and even washing the feet of a Muslim (reportedly the first time a pontiff had done so) in a Holy Thursday ritual.
Which is why Francis’s canonization on Sunday of 813 15th-century Italians martyrs, said to have been beheaded by Turkish invaders for refusing to convert to Islam, is worthy of attention.
The AP reports that Pope emeritus Benedict approved the martyrs for sainthood in February, leaving his successor to make the announcement of their canonization.
At Mass on Sunday, Francis drew parallels from those 15th century martyrs who “when faced with the choice of renouncing Christ or death, remained faithful to the Gospel,” to Christians who are persecuted today:
“As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, in these times and in many parts of the world, right now still suffer violence, and give them the courage and fidelity to respond to evil with good.”
Francis’s engagement with the Muslim world followed a papacy that struggled to control the narrative around sensitive topics like the church’s relationship with Islam. In a 2006 speech, Benedict quoted a 14th century emperor who said: ”Show me just what Mohammed 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.” The speech was regarded by many as anti-Islamic, touching off global riots. The Vatican worked for the remainder of Benedict’s papacy to emphasize Christianity’s common ground with Islam.
Francis may now have to navigate that same thorny path.
Some of Francis’s previous statements on Islam and engagement with Muslims are below:
“It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam. At the Mass marking the beginning of my ministry, I greatly appreciated the presence of so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world.”
“This evening we have heard the witness given by our Lebanese brothers and sisters: They composed these beautiful prayers and meditations. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to them for this work and for the witness they offer. We were able to see this when Pope Benedict visited Lebanon: We saw the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters and so many others. That occasion was a sign to the Middle East and to the whole world: a sign of hope.”
And on Good Friday, the video below shows him washing the feet of prisoners in a youth detention facility outside Rome. One of the prisoners was Muslim.