“I like to think that the most important job we have to do between us, as humanity, is done with our ears, by listening,” Francis told the four-man group as he greeted them warmly at the Vatican for a private audience.
“The ability to listen is so important. Those who have it speak softly, quietly. Those that don't talk loudly, shout even.
“Among brothers, all of us have to talk and listen gently, to seek the way together.
“And when we listen and talk to each other, we are already on the path. I thank you for taking this path and ask almighty and merciful God to bless you. And I ask you, to pray for me.”
The clerics at the talks were Shiite scholar Syed Ali Raza Rizvi, Moulana Muhammad Shahid Raza, an imam who heads the British Muslim Forum, Ibrahim Mogra of the Christian Muslim Forum and Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, Director General of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society.
Since his election four years ago, Francis has overseen a steady improvement in relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world, overcoming the acrimony caused by a series of spats under his predecessor Benedict XVI.
The Argentine pontiff hosted top Sunni cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb at the Vatican last year and will meet him again when he visits the Al-Azhar mosque as part of a visit to Egypt at the end of this month.
Ties were badly soured when the now-retired Benedict made a September 2006 speech in which he was perceived to have linked Islam to violence, sparking deadly protests in several countries and reprisal attacks on Christians.
Francis has made interfaith dialogue one of his priorities, describing fundamentalism as a disease of all religions.
And he endeared himself to many Muslims last year when he returned from the migrant crisis island of Lesbos with three Syrian Muslim families who are being put up by the Vatican in Rome while their asylum requests are processed.
The reconciliation efforts have not prevented Francis from regularly imploring moderate Muslims to speak out more strongly over the actions of extremists claiming to act in the name of Islam.
Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP