It seems to me that the current trend is to disregard this quotation as inauthentic and misleading, rather than understand it for the truth that it conveys, especially for Catholic Gentlemen. In part, this may be because it has been overused and has become the popular mantra of modern-world Catholicism post Vatican II – I mean, we all know that Saint Francis of Assisi said it! It captures the essence of what Christianity means, and is the backbone philosophy of every high school Christian Studies course. For decades it has been interpreted as meaning “live a life that visibly reflects the love of Jesus and you’re being a great Christian because you’re sharing the Gospel with your actions.” It tells us Christians that we should not confront or challenge others with the truth of the Gospel by words and verbal dialogue. And it lets us live within our Christian comfort zone because it takes less courage to preach with our actions than with our words. In a nutshell, the quotation represents a watered down Christianity that is too easy to be indifferent to. Its credibility is further challenged because modern scholarship cannot even establish that a particular humble hero from Assisi ever said it!
I’ll confess that I did use, in the past, this quotation as a cop out to verbal preaching, and if we look back at the past 50 years, it’s not hard to see that the majority of my fellow Catholics have also dropped the ball in the verbal preaching department – probably because this quotation was their subconscious mantra. I mean, in our age over all others, there are likely more people than ever before who: are not Catholic, misunderstand Catholicism, are poorly catechized, are former Catholics, and think that being a “good person” is sufficient. All of this actually suggests a lack of teaching and the lack of preaching in the last two or three generations of modern Catholics. Where we thought the “be a good person and love everybody” would naturally attract souls like honey does flies, we were not completely correct. As perfect as Jesus’ life appeared, he still needed to preach in order to teach us. Therefore, this quotation can single-handedly be blamed for the current state of our Church here in North America…
…Or maybe we just need to look at what it is really saying. (And just because we can’t accurately pin this quotation on Saint Francis of Assisi, doesn’t mean that the words have no value.) I propose that we need not throw these words out to the trash, but rather grasp the simple understanding of what they mean in their fullness.
“Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words…”
Let us analyze this.
“Preach the Gospel” means to evangelize, to share the good news of Christ and the message of our redemption and salvation. This command is pivotal to the Christian life and a key mandate Christ entrusted us with.
Next, if you’re preaching, but not using “words” or your voice, what are you using? Well, if human experience can affirm the truth in the saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” then actions can not only speak, but they can also speak louder and perhaps more effectively than words. Thus, the implied message of this quotation is pretty clear. It becomes the overwhelming lesson and takeaway of the quotation, ergo the overwhelming direction of our modern interpretation.
Of course, no one can deny that actions speak volumes. And no one can deny that actions are important to the Christian life. But our actions as Christians are based on the teachings of Christ through Scripture and Tradition. Our actions are to be guided by our conscience as formed by the teachings of our Holy Catholic Church. This begs the question: How is it that we learn how to act as a Christian? As a Catholic Gentleman?
Can we merely “observe” other Christians and know just how to act? To a certain point, yes, and maybe there was a time in past ages where this was sufficient to living a holy Christian life and passing it on to others. But another real question we need to ask is if, by observing how people act, we can know what to believe, and then in turn let that belief dictate our own actions? This reminds me of a great joke I once heard about a silent theological debate between a Franciscan and a Dominican over who owned rights to the fruit of a particular apple tree on the property line between them. I don’t want to ruin the punchline, but the point is that interpretation of action simply lacks precision. It can be misinterpreted, under interpreted, or overinterpreted. I encourage you to check out a great rendition of the joke here! (I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.)
If actions are not sufficient, then how else can we be preached to? Well, by “word.” It is at this point in our analysis that the word “necessary” jumps out. The quotation never says, “don’t use words,” so it is funny how the cultural interpretation would conclude that words are not necessary. The opposite, of course, is true. Words are necessary. So when evangelizing by word is “necessary,” then this quotation doesn’t exonerate us from speaking, but rather compels us to!
Look at the quotation again, itself preaching words! Obviously, the wise soul who spoke these words did not take speaking lightly, in other words, if he is going to “use words,” then you’d think they’re going to be pretty important. So if he said this particular phrase, then these “words” must be pretty “necessary“ words to say!
But why the cautionary note to use words only when they’re necessary? Probably because of the truth in another saying: “Words cut like a knife.” They can injure and hurt, and end up doing more harm than good (especially if our own actions are perceived as hypocritical to our words). But, words can be uplifting. They can be spoken with gentleness and charity. They can be words that inspire. We all know that “some things are better left unsaid,” but when there’s an opportunity to share with someone the beautiful truths of our Faith (ultimately truths that draw him into the fullness of his purpose), then perhaps in these moments, we muster up the courage to speak.
The quotation is not giving us an ultimatum of either/or, but both/and. It says we must preach “always.” Sometimes by action, other times by word, and other times by both. But in no moment are we to not preach – even if no one is looking or no one is listening, and I think that is significant and Biblical, for what we do and say in secret is seen and blessed by the Father (Matthew 6).
To conclude, why should the quotation, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words” provide great council to any aspiring Catholic Gentleman? It is because it compels us to preach, evangelize, and share the love and message of God. It tells us to do this in both word and action, which is prudent, balanced, and sound advice. Next, it presupposes that we have the practical ability to act and speak in truth, which means we know the teachings of our Faith and are forming our intellect, will, and conscience accordingly. Therefore, this quotation actually demands that we grow in the virtue of Faith and in trusting our Holy Mother Church to teach us in truth, that we may live our life and speak our words in accordance with the the Gospel. In our information age, it is no longer enough to leave the knowledge of our faith to the experts, theologians, and clergy. Rather, we are all called to learn our faith and to be prepared to make a verbal defense of it. In addition, it asks that we discover and practic prudence to know when speaking is necessary or not, to which only your specific and unique circumstances, situations, and graces can tell for sure. Finally, it instructs us to use every occasion, whether seen or unseen, to bear witness to the Gospel.
Here’s a rendition of the Serenity Prayer inspired by the topic of this post:
God, grant me the grace
to always bear witness in action;
courage to use words when I must;
and wisdom to know the difference.
May the Lord guide you as a Catholic Gentleman to preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.
~ The Catholic Gentleman's Guide