Saudi King Abdullah's recent visit to the Vatican where he met with Pope Benedict should not be overlooked as a possibly significant step toward security and peace in the world. Pragmatic pessimists may see a too small step on a too long journey. On the other hand, Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, said of the visit, “If we do not begin, we will never arrive.” Actually, this has been a long journey, begun centuries, and unfortunately marred by a series of senseless slaughters known as the Crusades. In 1219, during one of those wars, St. Francis of Assisi undertook an extremely dangerous journey in order to meet with the Sultan of Babylon.
Committed to peace, Francis decided that if the sultan would convert to Christianity that the killing would cease. So he offered to stay with the sultan to teach him, or if the sultan rejected the offer to build a bonfire into which he and the sultan's priests would walk to demonstrate which was the faith more worthy to be followed. Impressed, the sultan offered gifts to Francis, which he scorned as he did all earthly possessions. Now in awe of the holy man, the sultan sadly declined the offer of conversion ironically due to the fear of more violence, that being the rebellion of his own people.
Neither King Abdullah, nor Pope Benedict has yet to show the wisdom of either man in the earlier encounter between these faiths. Benedict is still struggling to soften the impact of his statements a year ago that suggested Islam has a tendency toward violence. And unlike Francis, the pope accepted a jewel-encrusted gift from the king. The gift was a sword, we can only hope it was a symbol of the laying down of such arms. While the king has been something of an ally in the efforts to oppose terrorism, there is clearly more he could be doing. There is also the issue of the suppression of Christianity in Saudi Arabia, where Christians are not permitted to worship publicly. Apparently, Benedict raised this issue with King Abdullah, but it was not discussed.
Another part of the story of Francis' journey is important to understand for us today. Along the way, he encountered some sheep and spoke to them, telling them that like them he was like a sheep among wolves. He understood that simply offering the good news of peace was risky business. King Abdullah and Pope Benedict have at least taken the risk of acting like sheep among the wolves of the world. Given the power that they wield or have access to, they run the risk of being wolves themselves. In the dangerous world today, it would not only be foolish, but wrong to identify the wolves and sheep simply by their religious affiliation. Is not Pakistan's Musharraf a wolf in sheep's clothing and Iran's Ahmadinejad a sheep in wolf's clothing? We need more discernment as well as the willingness of St. Francis to talk both to the sheep and the wolves.