What St. Francis of Assisi Didn’t Actually Say

Albert Chevallier Tayler, "St Francis" (1898)
Albert Chevallier Tayler, "St Francis" (1898) (photo: Public Domain)

Last Sunday, our faithful deacon in the midst of his excellent homily used a quote that most of us have heard, perhaps many times.

    “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

It is always attributed to St. Francis of Assisi—founder of the Franciscan Order—and is intended to say that proclaiming the Gospel by example is more virtuous than actually proclaiming it with voice. It is a quote that has often rankled me because it seems to create a useless dichotomy between speech and action. Besides, the spirit behind it can be a little arrogant—which I’m sure our deacon didn’t intend—intimating that those who "practice the Gospel" are in reality more faithful to the faith than those who preach it.

But here's the fact: Our good Francis never said it or anything close.

None of his disciples or biographers have these very quotable words coming from his mouth. It doesn't show up in any of his writings. Not even close, really. The closest comes from his Rule of 1221 on how the Franciscans should practice their preaching:

No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister . . . All the Friars . . . should preach by their deeds.

Essentially, make sure your deeds match your words. While there's a nice and good sentiment in the statement—be sure you live out the grace and truth of the Gospel—the notion as it is typically presented is neither practical, nor faithful to the Gospel of Christ. It does not align with St. Francis' own practice.

His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, writing just three years after Francis' death, quotes him instructing his co-workers in the Gospel thusly:

The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.

Our man clearly spent a great deal of time using his words when he preached, “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 . . . any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.” He was sometimes so animated and passionate in his delivery that “his feet moved as if he were dancing.”

We must know that it's simply impossible to proclaim the Gospel without words and of course our good Francis knew this as well as any. The Gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the Gospel is inherently verbal behavior.

St. Paul was quite clear in this, asking the Church at Rome (Romans 10:14):

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?

The New Evangelization is not a silent evangelization. So next time you hear one of your brothers or sisters in Christ use this quote to encourage or challenge you in the labors for our faith, gently guide them from the land of misinformation and into truth.