“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words,” is an inadequate model for evangelizing and informing culture. It is necessary to fully live the gospel and witness it to others, something which demands the use of language to communicate what is really true.
By F. K. Bartels
10 August 2011
It was St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” This quote is often used to emphasize the importance and value of living the Gospel life by example. Obviously, we cannot evangelize for Christ if our own lives fail to bear the marks of ardent discipleship. There is, too, the healing salve of Christian love and joy, which has the power, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to soften even the hardest hearts. The value of living the Gospel in a spirit of Catholic fellowship and charity cannot be overstated.
However, the above quote is often used in another way: that is, to imply that silence in the public square, in the workplace and at social gatherings is entirely appropriate—so long as one is living rightly. One wonders which came first: did Christians simply begin to lean toward silence of their own accord, or, on the other hand, was this notion imposed on the faithful by the unrelenting drumbeat of secularization which is so common today? I cast my vote for the latter.
Further, religious demographic surveys show that, presently, Americans are broadly Christian. So, with that in mind, promoting the Gospel often involves engaging others in such “forbidden” subjects as living the Gospel life in its entirety, the authority of the Catholic Church, the moral law, the necessity of the sacraments, the importance of sincere and active repentance, the attacks on the institution of marriage, and so forth. Of course, these subjects often arouse negative reactions: many refuse to listen, others resent the notion that they ought to examine their own idea of religion or lifestyle or morals.
Consequently, it is often thought that mere words are rather powerless in combating the many troubling and serious issues of our age: they cannot, so it goes, persuade magisterial dissidents toward loving obedience; nor are they an effective agent against the evils of abortion, contraceptives, same-sex “marriage,” embryo harvesting, et cetera. Thus the unspoken contemporary code is: remain silent. Those who do speak are labeled negatively. “First remove the speck from your eye,” they say. In a word, labor quietly.
There is also another dimension to this silence: the notion that if one should speak the truth, it must be liberally couched in euphemism so as to avoid conflict. Simply, it is unloving, judgmental, intolerant and inflammatory to speak plainly. For instance, sin is no longer sin but only a “mistaken good intention”; and human beings are incapable of committing evil, rather they “only fail to choose wisely.” If this is taken far enough, the important distinctions evaporate in a haze of relativism: there is no longer good and evil, but only good and less good.
Infusion of Catholic Principles: Healing Salve
It goes without saying that rashness, anger, hatred—all of these—are to be avoided. The governance of charity, prayer and humility is to always be employed. However, this is not to say that the truth should be watered down or left unspoken. Is it charitable to remain silent while our society continues to wire itself for self-destruction through its numerous immoral addictions? Are we loving our neighbor if we offer no opposition to relativized notions of truth or, as another example, an impoverished understanding of the inviolable dignity of the human person?
In September of 2010, Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke about “Catholics and the Next America.” He observed that “traditionally, religious faith has provided the basis for Americans’ moral consensus. And that moral consensus has informed American social policy and law. What people believe—or don’t believe—about God, helps to shape what they believe about men and women. And what they believe about men and women creates the framework for a nation’s public life.”
The health of our nation, or rather the healing of its present malady, hinges on infusing Catholic principles and values into the public square. This means we live the Catholic life always and everywhere. We breathe it. We labor for it. We speak it.
Silence and Obedience of Faith
But let us return to St. Francis for a moment. Was he advocating silence? Better yet, let us ask: Did Jesus Christ teach his disciples to refrain from actively speaking the truth? Perhaps we should first look to Jesus’ own example: after his temptation in the desert, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, and “from that time on,” he began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
We cannot for a moment suggest that Jesus advocated silence: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15); and, “Go and make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). So seriously did the Twelve take Jesus’ command to go forth and teach that all of them, save St. John, soon won the martyr’s crown.
Next, we should look to the teaching of the Catholic Church founded by Christ some twenty centuries ago. While there are countless examples in Church documents which explicate the honor and duty of the baptized Christian to participate in God’s salvific plan through bearing witness to the fullness of truth, let us briefly look at a few:
In the interest of understanding the First Commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites St. Paul: “St. Paul speaks of the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) as our first obligation. He shows that ‘ignorance of God’ (cf. Rom. 1:18-32) is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations. Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him” (CCC 2087).
It was St. Paul who said, “Woe to me if I do not preach [the Gospel]” (1 Cor. 9:16). Our duty toward God is to assent to all that he has revealed through the living body of the Catholic Church and to bear witness to him with our whole being. This presupposes the involvement of the entire person: we are to actualize our Faith by worship, prayer, deeds and words. Our Faith then becomes our life. Through self-giving obedience and love, we gather our sustenance and energy from the Other, from Love Itself, and thus participate in that Love as it overflows into society. The gift of the Faith, then, is not meant to be kept private.
The Compendium Of The Social Doctrine Of The Church (CSDC) explains that the Church “seeks to proclaim the Gospel,” making it “present in the complex network of social relations,” thus “enriching and permeating society itself with the Gospel” (62).
It belongs to the laity to faithfully repeat what they hear from mother Church: the laity are “entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth” (CCC 900).
Faith and Morals: Inseparable from Love of God
It is clear that the divine message of salvation involves both faith and morals. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him” (John 3:36). Therefore it is also clear that Catholics have the right and duty to promulgate the moral precepts transmitted by the Catholic Church in order that their brethren the world over will come to full knowledge of the truth—this is especially critical in contemporary society, where the voice of moral deception shouts nearly unceasingly.
Nevertheless, some will maintain that words are powerless motivators. In order to explore this question, perhaps we should reflect on the horrifying sins which are perpetuated through the parroting of untruths and fallacies. Consider abortion and the “pro-choice” argument, or the “married couples have a ‘right’ to sexual pleasure” notion as it relates to contraceptives, or the theologically terrifying idea of assisted suicide as “charitable.” The list could be greatly extended, but the point is, is that truth impoverished language is a caustic poison.
Archbishop Chaput reminded Americans that our traditional Christian “consensus is now much weakened. Seventy years of soft atheism trickling down in a steady catechesis from our universities, social-science “helping professions,” and entertainment and news media, have eroded it.” This present catastrophe is nearly all about words. Catholics have failed to speak, and, consequently, misguided voices have trumpeted the errors of our age for decades.
The Archbishop takes what some would deem a “hard line” on our Catholic failure. Yet he is entirely accurate in saying, “As Catholics, like so many other American Christians, we have too often made our country what it is through our appetite for success, our self-delusion, our eagerness to fit in, our vanity, our compromises, our self-absorption and our tepid faith.”
Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to speaking the truth in public is fear. For instance, it is not uncommon to find people at social gatherings who are engaged in debate over the economy or the need to provide affordable housing for the poor. While it is true that these are important subjects, if one tactfully and with humility points out that these issues pale in comparison to the evils of abortion or the damage wrought on children, marriage and society by contraceptives, one will suddenly find himself feeling as if he just uttered an incomprehensible punch line in a stale joke.
Although the truth is often unpopular, those who promote it with love can be consoled in the knowledge that they are indeed serving our Lord Jesus Christ. After explaining the parable of the weeds in the field to his disciples, Jesus said: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). And in the book of Daniel, we read: “Those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (12:3).
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Caritas In Veritate, reminds the faithful of the nature of charity: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. . . . To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, rejoices in the truth” (1).
Editors note: although often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, it’s now believed that the quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words,” is not his.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.