If you have been involved in Catholic evangelization for any length of time, you have heard the popular quote attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” Typically the quote is used to show that one does not have to outwardly talk about Christ in order to evangelize, but instead one’s life is the primary means of evangelization.
But there are a number of problems with this quote and its use today. First, it was not said by St. Francis. The first reference to it comes centuries after the death of Francis, and frankly, it does not jibe in any way with the great Saint’s life. After all, Francis went town to town preaching to the people, and his life’s desire was to preach to the Sultan. Heck, Francis even preached to birds! Nothing in his life leads one to believe that he would have said anything of this nature.
Another problem is that all too often this quote is used to assuage the feelings of Catholics who are afraid to tell people about Christ, making them feel comfortable with not preaching the Gospel with words. They are led to believe that just living a Christian life is all that is necessary and that God will convert others even if we don’t say anything to them. The truth is that God has made words integral to preaching the Gospel – they are not just an afterthought – and also that just about every Catholic is called to evangelization with words.
Furthermore, this quote is not consistent with the teachings of the New Testament. “Evangelization” comes from the Greek word for “proclaiming good news” and one of its original uses was in the context of announcing news of military victory. This good news was proclaimed to a town, letting them know that they were now free from the enemy. The first Christians quickly adopted the word to mean the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death. The Acts of the Apostles is a story of evangelization, and it has three main characters: Peter, Stephen, and Paul. Each of these three men are seen boldly proclaiming – with words – the Gospel message. There is little mention of how they lived their lives outside of their preaching.
The reason for this is that it was assumed that Christians would live lives of holiness. One would not preach about something that had not changed one’s own life. In fact, the main message of Paul’s preaching was often: look how Jesus has changed my life! But he did not simply live a changed life – he told others about it. To think that Paul, or any other evangelist, would reduce evangelization to just living a Christian life is ludicrous.
Christianity is very much tied to the spoken and written word. After all, the foundation of our faith is the fact that “the Word became flesh.” Jesus Christ is the Word, and we very often need to use words to bring others to him. I would not be Catholic today if my college roommate had not used words (many of them) to explain and defend the Catholic Faith. Yes, the witness of other Catholics’ lives was very instrumental in my conversion, but without the proclamation of the Gospel by my roommate, I would have never decided to become Catholic.
None of this is to say that we should not strive to live a holy life that witnesses to Christ’s love in our lives. This is just assumed of the Christian. But if you live a truly Christian life, it is impossible that you will not be asked about it and that you will not have opportunities to tell others about Christ. As just one example, my wife cannot go anywhere with our five kids without someone making a comment about it. This gives her plenty of opportunities to tell others about the life-giving love of God.
This is also not to say that everyone should do street preaching (although some are called to it). The most effective evangelization is that which is done one-on-one between people who know each other already, i.e. with family members, friends, and co-workers. These people see your life on a regular basis, and you have many opportunities to tell them the reason for the hope that is within you. Often this will mean explicitly telling them about Jesus Christ. Like I already mentioned, if you live a Christian life, God will give you plenty of opportunities to tell others about Christ. Let us not waste those opportunities.
With all this in mind, I think a more fitting quote to attribute to St. Francis would be, “Preach the Gospel always. In words and in deeds.”