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It’s a Big Year for Dante. Here’s How One American Plans to Celebrate

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John Burger - published on 02/10/15

It’s an interesting yoking of the two figures. How did you discover Llull?

I wrote my dissertation on another Ramon—Raymond of Penafort, who was a Dominican, and therefore a preacher, but in an unprecedented way, in the history of the Church, set out trying to convert the Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain. He asked Thomas Aquinas to write the Summa Contra Gentiles, which would offer philosophical support for believing in the Gospel and rejecting things that fall short of the Gospel. So he established schools for friars to learn Arabic and Hebrew so they might use the books that Muslims and Jews consider holy, to point to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. It was a bit of a polemical approach to interreligious dialogue. For example, in 1263 there was a famous debate between a Dominican friar who was a convert from Judaism, and an eminent rabbi of the day, Moses Maimonides, and in 1263 in Barcelona, the king orchestrated the debate between the Jew and the friar as to whether or not Christ was the messiah. The Dominican used the Talmud to prove that he is. It was around this time that Lllull experienced his conversion, and it was probably about 750 years ago this year that he met with Raymond of Penafort because Llull had done his penance and was about to embark on his journey to convert the infidel, and he wanted to take the traditional route, which would have been to go to the University of Paris and study theology and be able to write scholarly works and address scholarly minds.

Penafort urged Llull to stay in his home of Mallorca, the island off the coast of Spain… So he acquired a Muslim slave to teach him Arabic…and he made a couple of trips to North Africa, where he tried to preach to crowds about Christ. The second time, in 1315, he found himself in front of an angry mob, almost to the point of beating to death and he died, according to tradition, on his way home to Europe. He was beatified in 1847. The Church considers him a martyr, both as a red martyr and a white martyr, devoting his life for the sake of others.

What will Cardinal Burke’s role be in this pilgrimage?

In addition to the fact that his name is Raymond—and Raymond Lllull is his namesake—Cardinal Burke is now cardinal-patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The title of our conference is Conversion and Coexistence. When we look at Lllull and Dante we’re looking at personal conversions. We’re looking at the conversions of others. And there’s the issue of "How does one get along with one another?" This year happens to be the 450th anniversary of the great siege of the Island of Malta by the Turks. During the Renaissance the Ottoman Turks were a tremendous threat to the survival of Christian Europe. And one of occasion was the great siege of Malta in 1565. The island was controlled by the Knights of Malta, whose name at the time was the Knights Hospitallers, or the Knights of St. John of the Hospital. They started out as what we would call a military-monastic order, that is, knights who fought in crusade to protect pilgrims traveling to the holy Land, or to try to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims who were controlling it politically. So these were men trained in military tactics, but they led a monastic life. they were celibate, they were supposed to be poor, they followed the head of the order in obedience, they engaged in various pious practices, fasting and personal devotions.

By the time we get to the year 1565 the Christians have been driven out of the Holy Land and in a sense the West lost the crusades. in 1298 the French crusaders lost their last stronghold in Syria, and eventually the Knights of St. John ended up on Malta, which are two little islands south of Sicily. Today the Knights of Malta are marked by their missionary work in terms of helping the sick. They help disabled people get to Lourdes, and they’re known for their charitable work and religious practices. They don’t fight military battles any more.

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