As Catholics, we have a number of phrases and sayings we use with one another on a consistent basis. One of the most common sayings is “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” This quote is popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The saying is often used as a recommendation for how we should primarily or even exclusively evangelize. But, did St. Francis of Assisi really say this? And, did he really live this out as his primary means of evangelization?
Well, the truth is, there is no evidence that St. Francis said this. It is clear that St. Francis’ life and actions did provide a great deal of evangelization on their own. In the context of a society where many clergy lived extravagant lifestyles, St. Francis’ vow to poverty was a stunning image of the Gospel.
And yet, what is often lost amid a portrayal of a man who is usually pictured with animals is a saint who was not afraid to preach the Gospel verbally to others. It was said that he would go to the extravagant parties of the rich and preach the Gospel to them. When walking the paths of Assisi, St. Francis would often preach the Gospel to those he met. In fact, St. Francis is pictured with birds because the story goes that St. Francis even preached the Gospel to them. If he went so far as to preach to birds than surely he wasn’t afraid to preach to the men and women he met.
There is no doubt that our lives should proclaim the Gospel. But, we should also be able to articulate the Gospel to others. As Pope Benedict says in Verbum Domini, “It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers (no. 93). St. Francis lived this both/and rather than an either/or. If he did ever say, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words” then he must have thought it was necessary to do so on a consistent basis.