Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
We’ve heard the saying, “preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” I love that in the opening to the new book from St. Paul Street Evangelization, aptly titled Catholic Street Evangelization brings up this popular quote, and how many people wrongly attribute it to St. Francis of Assisi. There’s no historical account of his ever using the phrase.
Whether he used it or not, the quote is still very powerful. On one hand it perfectly identifies our common need to be excellent examples as Christians. Oftentimes we hear the unevangelized tell us that they don’t trust the church or can recount numerous stories of hypocritical Christians ruining the goodness they otherwise see in our religion. This is an idea we see threaded in the evangelistic teachings of the New Testament.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1 Timothy 4:12
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 1 Corinthians 15:33
Indeed, our example of stewards of Christ is not just the socially acceptable means evangelizing, our demonstration of our faith is the ultimate item that will determine our merit and salvation.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. 2 Corinthians 5:10
With certainty, we cannot argue against the importance of a good reputation. However, it is equally true that the quote, “preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words” is desperately short of the real meaning of preaching. Even grammatically, the proverb is memorable and striking only because it is a contradiction. The phrase is completely incongruous and that’s obvious to anyone. To preach, we must always use words.
The importance of preaching, good preaching, is evident in the life of Christ. He was not just the example; he was the genus by which our faith-life is fleshed out. His establishment of the Kingdom was not brought about by hocus pocus and wishfully thinking that people would act like him – he told them what to do, showed them how to do it, and commissioned them to share that with their disciples. He didn’t stop there: he frequently challenged the religious authorities and with righteous anger he overturned the money tables!
With all of that said, even if our quote might contradict good preaching, there are times in which our quote is actually the best means of evangelizing, but perhaps not the means means of “preaching” per se.
To convert a soul, they need preaching and evangelization.
The foremost example that comes to mind which has been proven over and over is when we convert our loved ones, family, and those closest to us. For example, many of us do our best to convert our spouse, but chances are, the husband or the wife was not the one who was the most effective preacher. Scott Hahn, in his famous Rome Sweet Home had to make a promise to Kimberly to quit talking about Catholicism all the time. We’re talking about one of the best communicators of our faith in the last century! My own experience was exactly the same; after getting into the umpteenth debate and never really getting anywhere, my wife asked me to evangelize with silence. I did. And it worked amazingly.
Shortly after this, things began to fall into place. At a dinner with friends, friends who were instrumental in my conversion, we began to discuss the doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary. For a non-Catholic, these can be the biggest stumbling block: sinless, perfect soul, painless birth, etc. But something amazing happened that night. As soon as my friend made a pithy point on the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception my wife, after moments of silence, said, “Wow, I’ve never heard it explained like that before” in such a tone that we all knew she just moved a step closer to Catholicism and trust in the Magisterium.
In that moment I realized two serious truths. First, spouses tend to be the least reputable people we know. Really! As much as we love our spouse and want to learn from them and grow with them, on issues like this, our spouse needs a different voice, a different preacher. A new voice can be like a train whistle in the business of marriage and everyday life. A new voice can articulate in a fresh new way that doesn’t put any marital pressure on someone to accept a new faith.
Second, silence really can be the best means of evangelism. While we pray for the conversion of our loved ones, we must pray that we become good examples as to to mark the virtue of the faith we want them to accept. And likewise, we must pray for God to place the right person in their life whom they can listen to with a fresh frame of mind, the one who will do the effective preaching.
So even if Francis of Assisi never actually used the phrase, “preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words” we can see the fruit of good preaching, and good examples, even if they don’t come from the same person.”