The Franciscan order was founded at the height of the Crusading era. Political and religious leaders were consumed with a noble cause: to recover the Holy Land that had been taken centuries earlier by Muslim forces. St. Francis, however, had a different obsession: to convert the Muslims to the one true faith, Catholicism.
In 1219, the Franciscans held a General Chapter, and St. Francis announced that he would be traveling to the East to preach to the Muslims. At the same time, six brothers were given the task to travel to the West, Morocco specifically, with the same mission. Their first stop was the Muslim-controlled region in Spain.
Before they arrived one of their number fell ill and had to return, but the remaining five continued on. They arrived in the town of Seville clandestinely, keeping their Christian identity a secret as they formulated a plan. After a week, they decided to enter a local mosque and preach the Gospel. They were met with fierce resistance and were beaten and driven away.
They then went to a local Muslim leader and attempted to convert him. He was tolerant of their preaching, but when the friars began to condemn Muhammad, he had them arrested. They were told they would be given a pardon if they renounced Christ and accepted Islam, but they refused. The five Franciscans were then banished from the town.
They continued to Morocco and began to preach again. The leader of their group, Berard of Carbio, went to the center of town, stood on a wagon and loudly condemned Islam to all who passed by. Again, the Franciscans were arrested and banished, but this time they returned to the same town. They resumed their public preaching and condemnation of Islam. And again they were arrested.
This time they were deprived of food and water for twenty days and then released. However, instead of being dissuaded from their mission, they were invigorated to suffer for the sake of Christ. Again and again they were arrested, released, and then went back to preaching. Sometimes they would preach in the public square; other times they would enter a mosque and preach. Finally the King offered them money and women if they would become Muslim. One of the five brothers, named Otho, replied, “Muhammad guides you on a false and lying path, to the place of eternal death where he is tormented along with his followers.”
In his anger, the King beheaded all five Franciscans. They were the first martyrs of the Franciscan order.
When word reached St. Francis of the death of his brothers, he exclaimed, “Now at least do I have true Friars Minor!” He venerated these five men as exemplars of what it means to be a Franciscan. Two centuries later, Pope Sixtus IV held these five men up as models for all Catholics, canonizing them in 1481.
In today’s era of “interreligious dialogue,” the story of the Franciscan protomartyrs is an awkward, embarrassing one for many Catholics. However, as Catholic missionaries, these men were the norm, not the exception. They understood that to preach the Gospel, one also had to condemn false religions, even powerful false religions like Islam. They did this not out of a sense of personal superiority, but rather out of a humble acceptance that Catholicism is the one true faith, outside of which no one can be saved. Their passionate love for the infidel—a love shared by the saintly founder of their order, Francis of Assisi—made them willing to sacrifice even their very lives to bring the Muslims out of their false religion.
More details about these five martyrs, as well as St. Francis’s desire to convert Muslims, can be found in St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims by Frank Rega.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.