To be a “man of God” means to be ready for dialogue and listening, to feel respect and empathy, to promote peace, reconciliation and harmony in human relationships, among people of different cultures and religions. This is the legacy of Fr Francis Nadeem, a Capuchin friar who died on 3 July in Pakistan at the age of 65 after a long ordeal with dialysis and a heart attack. Nadeem, who lived in Lahore, capital of the Punjab province, was the Capuchin Provincial in the “land of the pure” and, given his invaluable dedication in the field of relations with leaders and communities of other faiths, he was called by the bishops to coordinate the episcopal Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. He was at home in mosques and madrassas, and numerous Islamic religious leaders appreciated his meekness, patience, openness, pure and authentic faith, Franciscan spirit of “certain hope and perfect charity”. His work and presence were extremely helpful to Pakistani society, which was infected with the virus of fanaticism and shaken by the shifty flow of hatred and religious violence.
Francis Nadeem was part of a group of some 600 Franciscans in Pakistan, including men and women religious, sisters and lay people who live “the spirit of Assisi”, a synonym for welcoming every human being. Their presence, a legacy of the missions established in the subcontinent by Capuchin friars at the end of the 19th century, is characterized by a commitment to justice and peace. It means offering, often silently, constant support to those who suffer discrimination, injustice, persecution, poverty. Franciscans, as the priest used to say, “put the Gospel into practice and live the culture and spirit of mercy, which is a common value of Islam and Christianity”. This was not simply a verbal pronouncement but the very life of the friar, as evidenced by the experience of a genuine friendship that Nadeem cultivated with Shafaat Rasool, the leader of a Sufi community in Pakistan. It was a solid and deep relationship that surpassed the confines of their different faiths to get to the roots of their common humanity. Recalling Fr Francis with emotion, Rasool explained to L’Osservatore Romano: “Our friendship was based on the conviction that the mystical experience, be it Christian, Muslim or of another creed, unites in the desire for and promotion of peace, the supreme universal value, because ‘peace’ is the name of God”. For both of them, he recalled, there was an event in history that constituted a principal reference point and which, mutatis mutandis, highlighted their relationship: the meeting between Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil, which took place in 1219 in Damietta, Egypt, during the time of the fifth crusade: “The protagonists of that time rejected any rationale of subjugation, choosing the experience of encounter, recognizing in the other not an enemy to eliminate but a person to listen to and welcome”. The friendship between the friar and the imam, in a land wounded by extremism and religious hatred, was a seed cast on a sometimes fertile, sometimes thorny soil: “Our common commitment to interfaith dialogue, understood as the relationship between men of prayer and as a powerful instrument of peace, proves that in Pakistan, a harmonious, respectful and tolerant society is a feasible reality”, Rasool observed. Francis “was always very humble and patient with me. Our relationship gradually strengthened with dialogue and frequent visits to each other. Thanks to his humility and patience it became a genuine friendship, based on spirituality. This is how we began working together for interreligious dialogue. For years we were side by side in this work, to build the common good of the country”, he emphasized, moved by his emotions.
Some 20 years ago Father Nadeem started a Committee for Interreligious Dialogue in Lahore which brought together Christian representatives of other confessions for meetings, cultural events, prayer encounters, concrete gestures of closeness between believers and leaders of various faiths. In 2006 the Capuchin friar received the Pakistan Civil Award for this laudable work, and was then called by the bishops to continue in this work. Through the years he created a virtuous network of people, Christian institutions, and Koran schools (madrassas), cultural centres and associations that identify with the message of peace and harmony. The aim of this network is to defuse the hatred, violence and prejudice circulating in Pakistani society by promoting dialogue, respect and welcoming among Muslims (who make up 90% of Pakistan’s 200 million inhabitants) and the Christian and Hindu religious minorities.
By the age of 20 Francis Nadeem had already become a Franciscan friar, listening to God’s call to follow in the footsteps of the Poverello of Assisi. His confreres appreciated him very early on, choosing him as Vice-Provincial for two triennial terms, then as Provincial for another two (the latter of which began in 2017), trusting in his “good leadership”, his humility, his capacity for listening and mediation, his evangelical spirit as a true Franciscan, and his peaceful heart which was full of God’s grace.