With sainthood for martyrs, Pope Francis and Catholics confront engagement with Islam

Pope Francis, center, kisses the altar as he celebrates his first canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican … Continued

Pope Francis, center, kisses the altar as he celebrates his first canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday, May 12. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

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:

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:

In a statement March 22, Pope Francis called for dialog with Islam:

And on Good Friday, which Christians mark as the occasion of Jesus’s death on the cross, Francis spoke of the “friendship” of Muslims:

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.

<iframe width=”584″ height=”329″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/7vXOVe6nM_c?feature=oembed” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
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