Among Muslims

February 16 2020 | by

IN THE YEAR 1220, in the Augustinian Monastery of the Holy Cross in Coimbra, Portugal, Fernando, a young, nobly-born priest in his mid-20s, was increasingly agitated. He was concerned about spirituality in the monastery, especially with Prior John’s return following a two-year mandated penitential absence for sexual sins with men and women, boys and girls – John’s penance had not stopped his abuse. In addition, Fernando felt that he was not meeting his personal goals in attaining sanctity. Continually he prayed for God’s direction. That would come from poor Franciscan brothers.

A few years earlier, Queen Urraca, wife of King Afonso II, had donated a small chapel on a hill of olive groves to the first Franciscan friars arriving in Portugal. The Monastery of the Olive Groves (Olivares) consisted of rude huts built against a chapel wall.

Meanwhile, because of his background, compassion, and counseling skill, Fernando was assigned as porter of Holy Cross, to answer the door and distribute alms. Since the Franciscan friars were needy, they walked the four and a half miles from Olivares to Holy Cross to beg. Humbled by the poor clothing yet rich faith of the begging friars, Fernando compared his own relatively easy life with theirs. Then he learned that five friars, whom he’d come to know, had been viciously martyred in Morocco for bringing the Gospel message to the Saracens (Muslims). When these five martyrs were interred in the Cathedral of Holy Cross, Fernando spent many anguished moments praying at their tombs. Finally, he felt that God was also calling him to go to Morocco, to preach to the sultan and, if necessary, joyfully to embrace martyrdom. Therefore, he asked the friars to receive him into their Order if they would send him to Morocco. They agreed.


Common desire


After somehow receiving permission from his Augustinian compatriots, Fernando switched Orders, stayed a short time at Olivares, then set sail for Morocco. By that time, since Fernando wanted to change his name, the Franciscan friars changed it to Anthony, after the great desert hermit to whom their monastery was dedicated.

Ironically, the founder of the Franciscan Order, Francis of Assisi, himself wished to preach to the Muslims and, if God so willed, to be martyred. After two failed attempts to reach Muslim lands, Francis finally achieved success in 1219 by accompanying Crusaders to a siege taking place at Damietta, Egypt. Thus, while Fernando was at Coimbra, seeking a deeper surrender to God, Francis, accompanied by Brother Illuminato, was visiting the Sultan. For several days, the men developed a mutual respect by sharing their faiths. Although the Sultan didn’t convert to Christianity, he gifted Francis with a horn which Muslims use to call one another to prayer.


Saddened and disturbed


When Francis heard of the deaths of the five first martyrs, he was both saddened and disturbed. He forbade his friars to speak of the martyrs, stating that the brothers needed to be holy, not merely discuss holiness. Francis phrased his thoughts in his sixth Admonition: “Let us all, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd, who to save His sheep bore the suffering of the Cross. The sheep of the Lord followed Him in tribulation and persecution and shame, in hunger and thirst, in infirmity and temptations and in all other ways; and for these things they have received everlasting life from the Lord. Wherefore it is a great shame for us, the servants of God, that, whereas the Saints have practiced works, we should expect to receive honor and glory for reading and preaching the same.”

After visiting the Sultan, Francis knew how he wanted his friars to evangelize. In the Earlier Rule, presented to the Pope in 1221, Francis explained, “The Lord says: Behold I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be prudent as serpents and simple as doves. Let any brother, then, who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant. If he sees they are fit to be sent, the minister may give them permission and not oppose them, for he will be bound to render an accounting to the Lord if he has proceeded without discernment in this and other matters.”

This was precisely the procedure which Anthony’s superiors followed in granting his request to be sent to Morocco.


Two choices


Anthony faced two choices. The Rule codified these: “As for the brothers who go, they can live spiritually among the Saracens and nonbelievers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians. The other way is to announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord, in order that [unbelievers] may believe in almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator of all, the Son, the Redeemer and Savior, and be baptized and become Christians because no one can enter the kingdom of God without being reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. They can say to them and the others these and other things which please God because the Lord says in the Gospel: Whoever acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father.

Both Francis and Anthony recognized that preaching to unbelievers was potentially dangerous. The Rule of 1221 recorded Francis’s admonition: “Wherever they may be, let all my brothers remember that they have given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. For love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible, because the Lord says: Whoever loses his life because of me will save it in eternal life. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Blessed are you when people hate you, speak evil of you, persecute, expel, and abuse you, denounce your name as evil and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad on that day because your reward is great in heaven.

This Earlier Rule acknowledges martyrdom as a possibility: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of them and do not fear those who kill the body and afterwards have nothing more to do. See that you are not alarmed. For by your patience, you will possess your souls. Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”


No martyrdom


Francis escaped martyrdom because the Sultan respected him and saw no justification for taking his life. Anthony also escaped martyrdom because he never got to preach. On the way to Morocco, Anthony contracted an illness that prostrated him. Finally, his superiors decided that he had to return home to regain his health, so he began his return trip without ever preaching. However, a vicious storm arose. It blew Anthony’s ship off course until it broke to pieces on the shores of Sicily, where all aboard washed ashore. Thankfully, no lives were lost.

Anthony, learning that the annual Pentecost Chapter was about to be held in Assisi, made his way thither where the next step of his journey to sainthood would evolve.

Updated on February 16 2022