You know what I think is one of the biggest cop outs we hear in the Catholic Church?
“Preach the Gospel always. Use words when necessary.”
There are many variations on this adage, almost always wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and it’s a nice sentiment: The idea that we need to live in such a way that people know we are Christians. We should definitely do that. The reason I think it’s a cop out is that many people avoid correcting wrongs in the name of good manners, and would cite this quote as a justification.
There are many sinful thoughts, words and actions that are now deemed acceptable by a world that is more interested in being polite than anything else – and those of us who call ourselves Christians are often the worst culprits of this. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so we mistake love for looking the other way.
I can be as bad as anyone with this – I mean, really, who wants to be the curmudgeonly Christian who spoils everyone’s fun? It is easier (and safer for your reputation) to say that you’ll just lead by example and hope that others will follow.
I was once a real proponent of the adage, but I got to the point where I thought it was overused, and then finally I started to roll my eyes because it’s so cliché anymore. I have now come to believe that it is actually destructive to our mission – ever since I heard this reading at Mass:
Thus says the LORD:
You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.
If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, “
and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
the wicked shall die for his guilt,
but I will hold you responsible for his death.
But if you warn the wicked,
trying to turn him from his way,
and he refuses to turn from his way,
he shall die for his guilt,
but you shall save yourself. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)
I, for one, am not willing to put my soul at risk because I’d rather be polite and well-liked. Obviously we need to practice prudence – there is a time and place for everything, and we should always be well-meaning and constructive when we challenge someone on their views or actions. But speak the truth we must, else we may bear the responsibility for neglect or indifference on our watch.
The adage goes, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words when necessary.” It does not say “Never use words.” When souls on are on the line (ours and theirs), words are often necessary.
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