Every time I say this I make enemies, but it needs to be said:
One of the biggest blows to evangelization by Catholics is the quote: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
People often attribute that quote to St. Francis. But the thing is: St. Francis did not say that. There’s no record of him ever saying anything like that. Judging from the what we know he said and did, it would be hard to believe that those words would have come from St. Francis. He did not model that “use words when necessary” philosophy in his own life: he was a preacher. No, St. Francis was an incredible preacher, often preaching in as many as five villages in a single day. St. Francis instructed his followers to do likewise: preach a Gospel of sin and repentance everywhere they went. For St. Francis, words were definitely a necessity in preaching the Gospel.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute quote. And it does make an important point: you have to live out the Gospel by your actions. But it also contradicts Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus say, “Go into the whole world and be nice to everyone”, but rather:
Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Proclaim the Gospel. Not “mirror” the Gospel. Or “live out” the Gospel. Proclaim the Gospel.
- Yes, we’re supposed to do good works (James 2:17).
- Yes, we’re supposed to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick. (Matthew 25:34-40).
- Yes, we’re supposed to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27).
All of those things are evidence of our faith, but they don’t replace the great commission: Proclaim the Gospel.
How are people going to come to believe in the Gospel‒in Jesus Christ‒if we don’t use words to tell the world of His glory? To tell the world our story of how He changed our lives?
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
When we read that verse, we agree with the logic. We see how each verse connects to the next. It makes sense. But when we get to the last verse, we think we’ve found a loophole. That’s not me: I wasn’t called to preach, I wasn’t sent out to do that. Paul must be talking about someone else.
Sorry, you don’t get off that easy. Remember: He created each one of us to go out and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). That includes you.
Preach the Gospel at all times; and always, use words.
(This post comes out of a chapter of my book on Catholic evangelization: The E Word.)