“Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; and if necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi
Perhaps you’ve heard the above quote before. It’s gotten a lot of millage. I’ve heard it in many homilies, in several classes during my formation as a deacon, and at many a church meeting from the lips of well-intentioned Catholics.
I’ve got a couple of big problems with this quote.
First off, St. Francis never said it. Or, at least, it’s not in any of the writings we have from him or even within a couple hundred years of his death.
Second, too many Catholics use it as an excuse.
The mandate from holy Scripture is clear: “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). In 1 Corinthians 9:16, the apostle Paul expresses his compulsion to preach; in the Book of Romans (10:14), the apostle asks: “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World) seemed to echo the alleged St. Francis quote when he wrote, “Above all, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. … Through this wordless witness, these Christians stir up irresistible questions. … Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News …” (21).
But the Holy Father didn’t stop there. In the next paragraph he states: “Nevertheless, this 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.”
This is where we fail as Catholics. This is where we forget that every one of us, at all times in our lives, are called to a missional life. Yes, the witness of our life must proclaim the Gospel, but so too must the words of our mouth.
In Streetwalking With Jesus: Reaching Out in Justice and Mercy (OSV, 2011), I use stories from my two decades spent working with men involved in prostitution on the streets to explore what living a missional life means. Here are some concrete ideas on how to live that way:
Realize you are an immortal, and you will only die when God chooses to call you home. As spiritual beings, we have just begun our journey, and it will last forever. We are truly immortal beings. Believing that and living out of that belief can give us a boldness to live our life and preach the Gospel where others would not.
We are people of light who are made for the darkness. Jesus calls us to be a light in the darkness, not a spark in the bonfire. Our hands, our feet, our eyes and our hearts need to be dripping with the muck of this world.
The Incarnation is the model of the missional life. Jesus, the creator God of the universe, incarnated himself into the madness and chaos of our human condition. Looking for ways we can live incarnationally in this world can lead us to a deeper missional life.
Live the reversals. Compared to the ways of the world, Scripture is full of these wacky reversals like: “The first shall be last,” humility and contrition vs. pride and arrogance, stewardship vs. greed, giving it all away vs. hoarding it for yourself. We are called to live in a way that is opposite to that of this world.
Identify your tribe. What and who is God putting on your heart? We call them charisms in the Church. The poor, the elderly, the disabled, kids, families, etc. — oftentimes, there is a group or “tribe” that we want to be a part of. Follow that charism, because it’s been put there by the Holy Spirit.
When searching, confused or in doubt, go to “God’s default.” It used to be that when you opened a document in Word that the font was set at Times New Roman 12 point. That’s the default. I think God’s got a default too: When in doubt, serve the poor. When searching or confused, engage in those meaningful corporal acts of mercy. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit the prisoner. God will speak to us through those actions.
There is a world out there that needs Catholics who not only proclaim the Gospel in their actions but also in their words. This combination is the missional life. It’s a life that every one of us is called to. The words of Blessed John Henry Newman sum it up well:
“God has created me to do some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission — I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He had not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do his work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it — if I do but keep his Commandments. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends; he may throw me among strangers; he may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me — still, he knows what he is about. Therefore, I will trust him.”
Deacon John Green founded and directed Emmaus Ministries in Chicago for 20 years.
He is director of Catholic Charities Community Services of Summit County Ohio.