When necessary use words. Or not...


Francis of Assisi

I've heard the quote once too often. It's time to set the record straight—about the quote, and about the gospel.

Francis of Assisi is said to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."

This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.

The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.

Let's commit a little history (let me un-humbly draw on some chapters from my biography of St. Francis).

First, no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It's not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples.

Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.

He began preaching early in his ministry, first in the Assisi church of Saint George, in which he had gone to school as a child, and later in the cathedral of Saint Rufinus. He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.

He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests—any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.

He apparently was a bit of a showman. He imitated the troubadours, employing poetry and word pictures to drive the message home. When he described the Nativity, listeners felt as if Mary was giving birth before their eyes; in rehearsing the crucifixion, the crowd (as did Francis) would shed tears.

Contrary to his current meek and mild image, Francis's preaching was known for both his kindness and severity. One moment, he was friendly and cheerful—prancing about as if he were playing a fiddle on a stick, or breaking out in song in praise to God and his creation. Another moment, he would turn fierce: "He denounced evil whenever he found it," wrote one early biographer, "and made no effort to palliate it; from him a life of sin met with outspoken rebuke, not support. He spoke with equal candor to great and small."

Another early biography talked about how his preaching was received: "His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement."

As a result, he quickly gained followers, and it wasn't long before he told his most devoted adherents to preach as well. In the fall of 1208, he sent the brothers out two by two to distant reaches. What did he tell them to say? In an early guide written during this period, Francis instructed his brothers to tell their listeners to "do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance, because we shall soon die … . Blessed are those who die in penance for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be children of the devil whose works they do and they shall go into everlasting fire."