An Ivy League Catholic: The Saint and the Sultan

Fr Peter Walsh, CSC

Fr. Peter J. Walsh, C.S.C., has given us his second offering in posts from Yale University, where he works in Catholic campus ministry. Today’s story is of a powerful encounter of education in the faith when some of Fr. Peter’s Catholic students and some of Yale’s Muslim students came together in dialogue.

We participate with other religious groups in Yale Religious Ministries, an organization which includes other Christian ministries of various denominations, rabbis from the Jewish center, a Buddhist chaplain and coordinators for Muslims and Hindu students. In many ways I find Catholic ministry in such a setting invigorating. On the one hand, our mission to serve the Catholic community is very clear. In such a religiously diverse place, Catholic identity can be clearer than on Catholic campuses! On the other hand, opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue happen on a frequent basis.

The Saint and the Sultan

This past summer, I came across a book named The Saint and the Sultan by journalist Paul Moses. Paul is a frequent writer for Commonweal and the father of a recent Yale graduate. The book tells the story of a dialogue that took place between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. In a daring attempt to end the war, Francis crossed enemy lines in the hopes of converting the Sultan to Christianity. Instead, both men engaged in a respectful conversation lasting several days that changed both men and offers hope for better understanding between Muslims and Christians. I thought this would be a great topic for Catholic students, so I invited Paul to come to campus around the feast of St. Francis.

The more I thought about it, with rhetoric over the “Mosque at Ground Zero” growing ever more heated, I thought we should collaborate with the University Chaplain’s Office and the Muslim Student Association. Together, we decided to follow the familiar pattern of Theology on Tap (without the Tap) and give students a chance to socialize for a while before the talk. This past Tuesday, students from all three religious organizations came together at the Catholic center over root beer floats for a talk about this thirteenth century meeting. Both Muslim and Christian students voiced surprise that they had never heard this story before.

Paul Moses’ narrative is very interesting and suggests some ways to think about Muslim-Catholic dialogue in our day. I found the students’ interaction equally interesting and hopeful. One student mentioned that she had always found being a person of faith challenging on campus and shared those concerns with some Muslim students. They talked about how difficult it is to be identified Catholic or Muslim given the ways our religious faiths are presented in the media. We plan to have a daylong Muslim-Catholic dialogue in the spring semester to revisit these and other topics.

I am mindful that the Congregation of Holy Cross has a rich tradition working closely with Muslims. One of our earliest missions, entrusted to Blessed Basile Moreau by the Holy See, is in what is now Bangladesh. Notre Dame College in Dhaka, where the majority of students are Muslim, follows the principle of Fr. Moreau and “cultivates both mind and heart to become fully-developed and actualized human beings” (Mission of Notre Dame College). A story about St. Francis became an exciting way to continue the mission of Fr. Moreau!

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