Around 1219, after a General Chapter of the Order, Saint Francis decided to undertake a mission to the Muhammadans in Egypt, where also there was a Crusade being fought.
During this time, Francis stayed with the Christian army, and then crossed over to the Moslem lines. Once outside the Christian lines, he was seized by Moslem soldiers. Francis told the soldiers that he wanted to preach Christ to the Sultan, who allowed him into the camp.
When brought to the Sultan, Francis said, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel” (8). And when Saint Francis preached, the Sultan felt himself very much drawn to Francis and to the power of his words. So much so, that he invited Francis to stay with him.
“Willingly,” Francis replied, “if you and your people will be converted to Christ”(9).
Francis then proposed his famous challenge. He said: “If you yet waver between Christ and Mohammed, order a fire kindled and I will go into it with your priests that you may see which is the true Faith” (10).
This painting by Giotto illustrates the famous challenge made before the Sultan. Saint Francis entered the enemy camp and challenged the Muslim priests to go into the fire with him to see which one represented the true religion. The Muslims refused.
The Sultan was not willing to permit this trial by fire, so Francis requested permission to leave. And the Sultan gave orders that Francis be conducted back to his camp with courtesy.
While this was going on in Egypt, there were five firebrand Franciscan Friars kicking up so much dust in Muslim Morocco that all five of them would be put to death. Their names were Brothers Berardo, Ortho, Pietro, Accurso and Aduto.
First they went to Spain, to Moslem Seville. And because they tried to preach the Gospel there, they were scourged, imprisoned and expelled from that kingdom. Then they went over to Muslim Morocco in an attempt to convert the infidels. When they arrived, these Friars did more than just preach in the streets. They marched right into a mosque and denounced Mohammed from inside the mosque (11).
The Friars were seized, imprisoned and scourged, but that did not temper their zeal. While in prison, they tried repeatedly to convert the jailers.
The rulers of Morocco were trying to find a diplomatic way out of this, so they arranged that these imperious Friars be sent out of the country.
And how did the five Franciscans respond? Father Cuthbert relates: “But the five Friars knew nothing of diplomacy and had not the temper to live and let live. Mohammed was, in their eyes, the enemy of Christ, and the souls of this people were rightful spoils for their Divine Redeemer. To go back upon their mission would be a traitorous backsliding from their fealty to their Savior” (12).
At the first opportunity, these wiry Franciscans gave their jailkeepers the slip. Immediately, they returned to the city, and there they were again, in front of the mosque appealing to the infidels to renounce Mohammed and accept Christ.
They were seized, cast into jail and tortured. While they were on the rack, the jailers promised the Friars that their lives would be spared and they would be given gifts, if they would deny Christ and accept Mohammed.
The Friars responded by uttering the praises of Our Lord, and urged the torturers to renounce Mohammed and accept Jesus Christ.
The Muhammadans answered by beheading each Friar, and casting their bodies outside the walls to be the food of dogs. A Portuguese dignitary arranged a stealth operation to have their bodies rescued. They were taken to Portugal, and with great reverence they were laid in the Church of the Canons Regular (Augustinian) in Coimbra.
Among all the people who flocked to pray to and honor the martyred Franciscans, there was a young Augustinian Canon who was enraptured by the zeal and love of Christ that burned in these Friars. He sought out the local Franciscans and begged to be admitted to the Order.
That young Augustinian, who became Franciscan, is now known to us as Saint Anthony of Padua, the Miracle Worker, whom Catholics honor with the title the Hammer of Heretics.
And as for Saint Francis: What did he think of these five Friars who marched into a mosque and denounced Mohammed from within the Muslim’s own holy place? Who urged Moslems for their own salvation not to follow the false prophet, Mohammed? Did Saint Francis organize on the following March 12 a grand apology for the insensitivity of his friars for not understanding that the “Moslems, together with us, worship the same God”?
No! Francis cried out in a transport of gratitude to Heaven, “Now I can truly say I have five brothers” (13).
This is the true spirit of Assisi!