An unfortunate anti-proverb - for lack of a better word - is frequently attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary" (or something along those lines; the exact wording changes from time to time), as we frequently see on internet memes.
Many people are quite of fond of these words because - let's be honest - they mean they do not have to really do anything to preach the Gospel; all they have to do is be a good person, which they generally already think they are. But if, as Saint Paul says, "faith comes from what is heard," these words attributed to the Poverello ring false (Romans 10:17).
It's curious that so many people like these supposed words of Francis, but also love so very much his preaching to the birds:
It's as if we are not supposed to preach the Gospel to human beings, but we are to preach it to animals. This, of course, is ludicrous.
Let us ask a simple question: How can one preach the Gospel without words? By holding the door for someone? Can an atheist not do that? By contributing to a food collection? Can a Buddhist not do that? There must be more to it than simple actions. This is why Saint Paul says, "If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it (I Corinthians 9:16)! The same obligation has been imposed on every member of the baptized!
That Saint Francis never uttered the horrible words attributed to him has been repeatedly demonstrated (here is a post refuting it from 21 May 2009); nevertheless, it is frequently repeated even by those in Sacred Orders.
Writing today in The National Catholic Register, Glenn Stanton seeks to set the record straight yet again by reminding us of what Tomaso de Celano, the first biographer of Saint Francis, records about the holy man of God:
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 [more].
If Saint Francis normally preached using words, why we would he tell others to preach - even if it were possible - without them?