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  • Franciscan Conversion: Turning Toward the Truly Good
  • Krijn Pansters (bio)

1. Religious Conversion

The year 2019 marked 900 years ago since Francis of Assisi’s visit to Egypt to visit Sultan Al-Kamil and speak to him about Christ. All around the world, people celebrated this important event as a groundbreaking Christian-Muslim encounter, often seen as the first example or one of the earliest forms of interreligious dialogue.1 Nothing is known about what the saint and the sultan talked about, and we are not sure about the true motives of Francis on this mission and about the sultan’s true reasons for receiving Francis. Francis probably intended to do what he describes in chapter 16 of his own rule as good behavior in those who go among the Saracenes: “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 [...].”2 This, naturally, was to be done in a peaceful way, in a way that contrasted with the violence of the crusaders. I also tend to agree with Thomas of Celano and other biographers: “Francis traveled to the region of Syria, hurrying to the Sultan. Assaulted and beaten he preached Christ.”3 His primary aim was, in other words, conversion to Christianity.4 [End Page 1]

The subject of interreligious and missionary conversion in the Middle Ages as well as in our own “age of pluralism” is well-researched and well-documented.5 Conversion as a general phenomenon remains a controversial and contaminated subject. Inherently connected to core issues of freedom, power, and ideology, it is also often associated with compulsion, subjugation, and extremism. For missionaries as for mystics, however, it represents the gateway to a better life and the key to salvation. Regardless of their repugnant or promising aspects, the different uses and guises of conversion point to a profound process with life-changing potential. Conversion as a religious phenomenon has occupied many social scientists with different backgrounds at least since Stanley Hall’s lectures (1881) on the psychology of religious conversion and Freud’s theory of conversion disorder, which defines hysteria as “the transformation of psychical excitation into chronic somatic symptoms.”6 The larger part of these scholars are primarily interested in innerreligious conversion – an area much discussed by scholars of religion.7 [End Page 2]

The current article will deal not so much with the fundamental spiritual and moral reorientation of another person, i.e. conversion as a process brought about primarily by the normative agency of another (active conversion), as with the transformation process that revolves around the personal experience of a decisive new beginning, a profound change of self and identity (passive conversion). The fact that the two are usually interrelated becomes especially evident in the Franciscan tradition: within a decade after Francis’s death, many thousands of Franciscan “converts” spread the Gospel message in word and deed to thousands of others. Within two decades, the Franciscan order had become a leading religious institution in Western Christianity. Conversion remained a key moment and a key instrument in the lives of these many brothers and sisters (as well as in Franciscan-Muslim relationships). Many scholars have studied the societal effects of the revolutionary program based on the Franciscan call to the virtues of poverty, penance, and peace. More work remains to be done on the Franciscan order as one of the largest conversional efforts in medieval and modern society. Here, the focus will lie on the spiritual dynamics and moral dimensions of Franciscan conversion in the lives of Franciscan converts, including some of their implications for modern-day moral conversion.8

2. Franciscan Conversion

Of his own conversion, Francis tells us in his Testament: “For when I...


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