"Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words."
This is, perhaps, the best known and most commonly quoted statement made by St. Francis of Assisi. It might surprise some to discover that he did not, in fact, say this. At least not as far as we know. Whether he said it or not, the idea has taken hold of the imagination of many, some who embrace it as great wisdom and some who reject it as compromise. While Francis never made the statement, it does reflect something of a Franciscan quality. However, the saint's actual words were far more nuanced:
"It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."
"...As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word."
From these words (and his example), it is hard to deny the deep commitment St. Francis had to both the proclamation and embodiment of the Gospel. He lived deep within the tension between the two. That tension is very much present in our current context. Some will be concerned by how the first quote might be too easily co-opted by the postmodern tendency to mistrust of words. Indeed, if the quote is used to diminish the importance of verbal preaching/proclamation, then it is a betrayal of the spirit of St. Francis. Yet others fear that too much of Christianity has become nothing more than a product of the Enlightenment, where belief is equated with the affirmation of propositional truths with little demand for lived expression.
Perhaps to better understand this quote and its underlying message we must better understand St. Francis himself. First, it must be noted that Francis lived in a largely pre-literate society -- that is, most of the population could not read or write. Therefore the role of public preaching played an essential role in spiritual formation. While verbal proclamation is still essential today, we need to acknowledge the elevated importance of verbal communication as a means passing on knowledge and information in Francis' time. Further, the majority of those who heard his preaching were already nominal Christians, and thus passingly familiar with the faith.
For Francis, then, the quote would need to understood in the context in which it was said and not, for example, as a universal truth where words should always be of secondary in importance to actions. Instead it is a context-specific corrective to an age and culture that gave lip-service, verbal allegiance to the faith, but whose actions betrayed entirely different beliefs and values. In this way, our own increasingly post-Christian context is at risk of making the same mistakes, where we can all too often worship God without actually following Jesus.
While not a priest, St. Francis was given a dispensation by Rome to preach. However, more often than not, he did chose to do so outside the context of a church, the formal place of worship. He became widely known for his extra-liturgical preaching, with sermons being delivered in the open air of piazzas and pastures. He used styles and tactics borrowed from the troubadours of his day, both through romantic prose and foolish frolicking. Without rejecting the traditional liturgies of the Church, he broke past the norms and conventions of both the church and the culture to preach in ways that caught peoples attention.
Even when he did preach in churches, he would use living examples and props to bring life to the message. One of the most well known traditions popularized by St. Francis is the live nativity. While we might see this as a creative and sentimental example, it was, in fact, a powerfully prophetic gesture. He brought into the heart of the church and the Scriptures the messy reality of the nature of the incarnation (cow manure and all). He saw the story of Scripture to be something to be lived and experience, not merely commemorated. So, while we can defend that preaching is central to Francis' example, we cannot do so without recognizing that he preached in ways that were intentionally disruptive to nominal faith, pointing instead to active participation in the Communion of Christ as His Body.
St. Francis never sought to elevate action over speaking in the task of bringing the Gospel, but neither did he believe that Gospel was only a message to be communicated. Francis recognized that the Gospel was all consuming, the work of God to restore all of Creation unto Himself for His glory. He embraced the truth that the authority of the Gospel he proclaimed with his mouth was given authority by the nature and character of the life he led. And in the same way, he knew that, in spite of his own failings (and that of other Christians), the proclaimed message of hope and love would find fertile soil in the hearts of others, and so that Gospel must be proclaimed.
The example of St. Francis of Assisi in these respects stand as a challenge to Christians today. In the face of our increasingly post-Christian context, we must resist the temptation to fight to sustain our place of power and privilege. In truth, such a position has largely compromised our authority and credibility before a watching world. Instead, let us rediscover the radical life of peace, grace and love that was characterized by Christ and seek to live it. Perhaps then, in the light of a community of believers known for humility and love (rather than self-righteousness and bigotry), the words we proclaim will carry the credibility and authority worthy of the Christ we follow.