By: Peter Herbeck
“He filled all the earth with Christ’s Gospel, so that often in one day he would make the circuit of four or five villages or even towns preaching to everyone the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: and, edifying his hearers not less by his example than by his words, he had made a tongue of his whole body.” (First Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, IV, 97)
St. Francis of Assisi loved to preach. According to the records of Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, his official biographers, St. Francis was one of the most powerfully anointed preachers in the history of the Church. The Lord gave him extraordinary grace in the Holy Spirit to preach with great clarity, confidence, and apostolic authority.
Like the apostles, his preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. His biographers provide long lists of amazing miracles, including healing of the blind, deaf, dumb, and lame, raising of the dead, healing of animals afflicted by various diseases, and the driving out of demons.
St. Francis was compelled to preach by a love for Jesus and a zeal for the salvation of souls. Once he had received his commission to preach he demonstrated an unrelenting commitment to seek and save the lost. With single-minded devotion, even while burdened by frequent infirmities and serious sicknesses, he abandoned himself completely to the call Jesus had placed upon him:
“For during the space of eighteen years, which was now completed, his body had little or no rest while he traveled through various very large regions so that that willing spirit, that devoted spirit, that fervent spirit that dwelt within him might scatter everywhere the seeds of the word of God.” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter IV, no. 97)
Conformed to Christ
The recent election of Pope Francis has brought fresh attention to the life of this great saint. I was delighted when the Holy Father chose the name of St. Francis. It was, to my way of thinking, just the right choice. He’s the ideal model for the Church at this moment of the New Evangelization.
The Second Vatican Council spoke of two fundamental calls given to all the baptized: the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission. St. Francis provides an astounding example of both. In his extraordinary life, holiness and mission were one.
Has the Church ever seen a saint more conformed to the person of Jesus? For Jesus, he lived radical poverty, embraced the poor and marginalized, was filled with humility, compassion and mercy, lived in almost constant prayer and disciplined his body at an intense level to bring it into submission to Jesus. Christ crucified captured his imagination and his heart. He longed to imitate his Lord, to be united to his passion. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus answered that longing by granting St. Francis the utterly unique, mystical grace of the stigmata.
And it was that same love for Christ crucified that compelled St. Francis to preach:
“Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth spoke, and the spring of enlightened love which filled him inwardly through and through bubbled forth outwardly. Verily, he was much with Jesus; ever did he bear Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in his other members” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter IX, no. 115)
In the words of St. Bonaventure, St. Francis was:
“ … a sharp sword all on fire, zeal for the salvation of others pierced the depths of Francis’ heart in his burning love…If he saw a soul redeemed with the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ being stained with sin, he would be overcome with sorrow, and weep so compassionately that he seemed to travail over them continually, like a mother in Christ.” (St. Bonaventure, Minor Life, Chapter 3, no. 8)
With special emphasis, Bonaventure makes the point, “this was the reason he was so energetic in prayer, so active in preaching…Christ gave himself up to death for the salvation of others, and Francis desired to follow in his footsteps till the last.” (Ibid.)
St. Francis “gave himself up” for the salvation of others: “…he realized he was sent by God to win for Christ the souls which the Devil was trying to snatch away…he became a herald of the Gospel and he went about the towns and villages, preaching the Kingdom of God ‘not in such words as human wisdom teaches, but in words taught him by the Spirit’ (1 Cor 2:13)” (Bonaventure, Minor Life, Chapter 2, no. 5)
Seeing St. Francis Accurately
This understanding of St. Francis, given repeatedly to us by his primary biographers and from those who knew him best, is mostly ignored today. The contemporary picture of St. Francis is either focused on his heroic virtues, particularly his love for the poor, or a more ideologically driven image of Francis as an environmental activist or the patron of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Although preaching played a central role in the life of St. Francis, the only wisdom one hears is the often repeated quote that is falsely attributed to him: “Always preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words!” How did this quote ever end up being the standard interpretive key to St. Francis’ attitude toward preaching the Gospel? The quote is not in any of the small number of written documents or letters attributed to St. Francis nor can it be found anywhere in the Omnibus of Sources for the Life of St. Francis.
In defending the quote some people point to a command given by St. Francis in Chapter 17 of the First Rule from the year 1221:
“No friar may preach contrary to Church law or without the permission of his minister. The minister, for his part, must be careful not to grant permission indiscriminately. All the friars, however, should preach by their example.”
He expands on that same command in Chapter 9 from the Rule written in 1223:
“The friars are forbidden to preach in any diocese, if the bishop objects to it. No friar should dare to preach to the people unless he has been examined and approved by the Minister General of the Order and has received from him the commission to preach.”
The point here is that friars are to preach under right authority, whether that be the Bishop of a Diocese or the Minister General who has the authority within the order to commission friars to preach.
In saying that “all friars should preach by their example,” St. Francis is simply stating the obvious, that one’s life is a message, not that the witness of life is to be preferred to preaching or that preaching should only be done on rare occasions.
To miss or ignore the important and nearly constant role that preaching played in the life of St. Francis is to miss who he actually was. In St. Francis the preacher, we find the challenge and inspiration needed to take up the urgent call for a New Evangelization.
Faith Comes Through Hearing
The recent Popes have exhorted all the baptized to take up the mission of proclaiming the Gospel, not just in deeds, but also in words. Pope Benedict Emeritus provides a typical example in his encyclical Verbum Domini:
“Since the entire People of God is a people which has been ‘sent’, the Synod reaffirmed that ‘the mission of proclaiming the word of God is the task of all of the disciples of Jesus Christ based on their Baptism.’ No believer in Christ can feel dispensed from this responsibility which comes from the fact of our sacramentally belonging to the Body of Christ.” (Verbum Domini, no. 94)
How many Catholics know deep down, that they have been personally “sent” by Jesus to proclaim the word of God? How many have ever felt the burden of this “responsibility”? Here Pope Benedict is simply echoing the clear teaching of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:
“However, an apostolate of this kind does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life.” (Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 6)
To “announce Christ by words,” to believers and non-believers alike, ought to be a normal part of a mature, authentic and integrated Catholic life. Simply put, it’s what followers of Jesus do.
Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangeli Nuntiandi, challenges all of us to examine ourselves on this very point:
“Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the Kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn.” (EN #24)
Has the “unthinkable” become the norm today for most Catholics? How many in our day ever feel it “necessary to use words?” Instead of finding in St. Francis the inspiration to use words, far too many want to find in him a reason not to speak directly to others about the gospel. The “if necessary” emphasis provides an excuse to avoid speaking about Jesus. It lets us off the hook.
If the New Evangelization is going to become more than an effort of a very small minority of Catholics to proclaim the Gospel, we all need to examine our lives in light of Pope Paul VI’s “test of truth.” We need to be honest with ourselves; have I ever made the effort to speak directly with another person about Jesus and the good news of salvation? If not, why not?
We have to overcome what Vittorio Messori described so aptly as a “mutism” that grips the Church in our time:
“Today, precisely today, we may note on the part of many Christians—and, unfortunately many Catholics—a kind of mutism, a kind of reticence of re-proclaiming the faith and its reasons. So many who could alleviate the current lethal claustrophobia of the world, by explicitly re-proclaiming the Word that does not delude and that saves us from despair, seem to want to be merely ‘like others’: devoting themselves indeed, to others, but only as human, extremely human ‘social workers’; devoid of any wish to say that it is Christ who inspires them and that it is he who gives a significance to their actions.” (Vittorio Messori, “Confessors of the Faith in Our Time,” from Laity Today: Rediscovering Confirmation, p. 29)
How many of us stand mute today because the world demands it from us? What is the reason for so few words about Jesus? Is it the fear of men? Do we want to simply be “like others”? What is holding you back from speaking to others about Jesus? Are we embarrassed by the gospel?
St. Paul tells us, that “faith comes through hearing, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) The proclamation of the gospel is an essential and irreplaceable part of evangelization. There is no evangelization without it. Until we understand that and embrace it, the New Evangelization will never get off the ground.
We all must take to heart the words of Pope John Paul II to the Church in America:
“Everyone should keep in mind that the vital core of the new evangelization must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the Kingdom. (Ecclesia in America, no. 66)
“Everything planned in the Church must have Christ and his Gospel as its starting-point. Therefore, the Church in America must speak increasingly of Jesus Christ, the human face of God and the divine face of man. It is this proclamation that truly makes an impact on people, awakens and transforms hearts, in a word, converts.” (Ibid., no. 67)
Unleash the Word
The time has come for all of us to “speak increasingly of Jesus Christ.” The tendency to limit evangelization to the witness of life, as important as it is, is simply not enough. Authentic Christian witness is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
Why is proclamation irreplaceable? Because the gospel message about Jesus Christ “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” (Romans 1:16) This is why proclamation “makes an impact,” and “awakens and transforms hearts.” Only the power of God can awaken the human heart. God set it up that way. He has decided to reveal himself and the plan of salvation through the preaching of the gospel:
“For since in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:21)
St. Francis understood this. He embraced the folly of the cross with passion in his own life and he “preached Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) knowing that through the folly of that message God’s power would go forth to win souls for Christ, to snatch them from the clutches of the devil, to free them from sin and the death-directed destiny it produces.
St. Francis shows us the way forward with holiness and mission, witness of life and proclamation. It’s time to break the silence and to unleash the power of the word of God!