Once upon a time, in a land, far, far, away, there lived a holy man named Francis.
Francis was a poor man, a humble man, and he loved God very much. He showed that love by dressing simply, fasting constantly, and taking on penances great and small. He also showed that love through gentleness and kindness. He treated every person he met, especially the poorest of the poor, with charity and respect. He even treated the animals in the forest with respect.
Francis sought in every possible way to be the man God made him to be. But he didn’t just want to be holy. He wanted other people to be holy as well. He wanted them to know how beautiful and just and merciful and loving Jesus is. He wanted everyone to love Jesus and find joy in life with him.
To help people discover that, however, Francis knew he had to do more than just live the Gospel. He had to proclaim it. And not just with his actions, but with his words. He had to tell people about Christ, about his mercy and his love, his death and Resurrection, his Church and his sacraments. He had to tell people what God asked of them, what God wanted for them.
And he had to do all that for two reasons.
First, because Francis knew his limitations.
He knew, for all the love he had in his heart, that his life was not the Gospel. No one looking at him could possibly know everything they needed to know about Jesus. He was not the Word of God, and his life, no matter how beautiful, was not sufficient for handing on the truths of salvation.
Second, Francis knew he had to use both words and deeds to proclaim the Gospel because that’s what Jesus did.
Jesus healed the sick. He raised the dead. He turned water into wine and fed the multitudes on a handful of loaves and fishes. But, he also backed up his actions with words. He called people to repentance and conversion. He called them to prayer. He called them to love. He condemned the faithless and the proud, the corrupt and the hypocrites, those who proclaimed false teachings and those who led his little ones astray. He also spoke of the Kingdom, of Heaven and Hell, death and judgment, mercy and forgiveness. He spoke of David and Solomon, of the prophets, and the history of salvation.
Again, Francis knew that. He knew how his Master called others to himself. And he knew he was no better than his Master.
So, every chance Francis got, he proclaimed the Gospel. He proclaimed it to the wolves in the forest. He proclaimed it to the Sultan in Egypt. He wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. He couldn’t. Anymore than a woman in love can stop talking about her beloved. The thought of not speaking about his love, about Christ, to the world, would have horrified the little Poverello.
So, why do I write all this?
Because the election of our wonderful new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has triggered an avalanche of people talking about the first Francis and his injunction to, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
But see, here’s the thing. St. Francis never said that. We don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Francis. It’s not in any of his known writings. It’s not in any of his companions’ writings. It’s not in anyone’s writings about Francis for the first 800 or so years after his death.
Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.
That would have horrified Francis (and probably still does). It would have horrified him as much as the thought of not talking about Christ. Again, he knew what the Church has always known. There is no “if” about the necessity of words in evangelization, just as there is no “if” about the necessity of actions. They are both necessary. They are both essential.
As Pope Paul VI made clear in his 1974 encyclical on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi:
“Nevertheless [witness]always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified…and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” (22).
We should rejoice at the election of our new Holy Father. We should rejoice at the example of charity, humility, and love of the poor that his ministry makes manifest and follow his example in all that.
We also, however, should follow the example he has set for us in courageously speaking out against the evils in the culture. This Francis no more thinks his witness is sufficient for evangelization than the first Francis did. He has proclaimed the full Gospel through his words as much as his actions. He has said the unpopular things. He has engaged in the uncomfortable conversations.
So must we. We must live the Church’s teachings, and we must speak them.
Both Pope Francis and St. Francis wouldn’t want it any other way