It was the moonless night that became a radiant source of light for a new generation. The Fifth Crusade brought the epic clash of civilizations to a climactic intensity. Giant Christian and Muslim armies had been facing each other in the Egyptian desert for over two months of sporadic but bloody fighting.
On September 1, 1219, outside of Damietta, Francis of Assisi with just one companion and with unimaginable courage, crossed the dark No Man’s Land at the center of the front line. The two men were immediately captured as they entered the Muslim camp and brought to the Commander in Chief. Francis was as comfortable in his rags as Sultan Al-Malik was in his sumptuous clothing.
They spent a number of days together in one of the most meaningful, improbable and captivating conversations in history. Although the episode troubled almost everybody at the time, the two men were forever changed by the experience. It was the encounter that made everything new.
The Sultan immediately ordered the humane treatment of prisoners of war and offered a series of unexpectedly generous peace terms. And the Saint forbade his brothers the practice of preaching demonization that then was routine. He also developed from the encounter a prophetic new philosophy of engagement and service among Muslims, while preserving a transparently clear Christian identity — an Evangelism of Presence.
For a second time in less than a week, Fr. Alec Reid attended a funeral that ended in massacre. It was March 1988, the bitter sectarian divides of Northern Ireland were now bleeding unspeakable violence into Sacred Venues. Symbolically, it was a kind of moonless night of hope — the infinite sadness of the tragedies was a motivation the priest needed to reach out to opposing parties.
Reid was a lifelong believer in the power of conversation. Everything is possible, he thought, if you can get people to talk. The meetings and dialogues that he facilitated opened the path to the Good Friday Accord and the peace and reconciliation of today. He conducted his mission in such complete secrecy that it took decades for historians and the general public to grasp the pivotal significance of his role. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams once said, “There would not be a peace process without Father Reid’s diligent refusal to give up.”
The two historic episodes described above are not meant to over-dramatize our current national political divide. We truly have a wonderful country. But history is not kind to the complacent. In this election year how do we prevent the political chasm from becoming unbridgeable and therefore dangerous? How do we keep people talking and listening to each other?
There is a brisk current debate about the nature of Christian Identity in culture and for various institutions. Clearly, you would be hard pressed to find more authentic expressions of Christian Identity than Francis of Assisi and Alec Reid. At their best these expressions include the willingness to cross divides. We can become agents of transformation only in so far as we are prepared to be changed in the process of encounter.
Unless we get to know people who disagree with us — nothing can change.
Our system of government requires people with strong opposing political convictions to remain engaged in the Democratic Process. People who know when to be cheerleaders and when to be voices of conscience. People who disagree but welcome debate and refuse to be dragged down by the current climate of hostility. The truth is that many are not comfortable with the tone, the anger, the dishonesty and the unrelenting conflict of today.
By calling, I serve people on both sides of the divide. Differences are real, consequential though wildly inflated. All human hearts break in exactly the same manner.
For anyone who wishes, there will be an opportunity to pledge to remain civil and respectful throughout this General Election Cycle, to pledge to elevate our community well above the current national fracture. It will be very brief and take place right after the 4.30 pm mass, at St Patrick Church, in Butte, on Saturday, March 7. It is a simple communal gesture that can be duplicated anywhere.
Of course, it will take a little moral courage and clarity. That is a good thing, in my opinion, because Conscience can afford to be gentle even subtle, but never fearful and ambiguous.
Patrick Beretta is a parish priest in Butte.
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