“My life, speech, and actions will be those of someone who is living for Someone else.”
There’s a famous quote of St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
The problem is… he never said that. Even though it’s one of the most ubiquitous quotes attributed to him, there is no evidence of the quote in any of his biographies until the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, this quote is often used to give us a pass for not sharing the Gospel message with words. Forget trying to preach—just live! But we are called to actually preach the Gospel with words. By virtue of our baptism and confirmation, we must preach the kerygma and lead others to Christ’s Church. We are called to explain why we believe what we believe. St. Peter instructed his disciples, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). That requires that we speak words of defense and explanation for that hope. We must be willing to preach the Gospel with words.
There is something important to that St. Francis quote, however, even if he never said it. Because we have all come across people who can quote the Catechism, but their lives don’t reflect the Gospel. They might be able to tell you all about Scripture, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to have traveled from their head to their heart. It’s much easier to memorize the Creed than live it.
These bad examples of Christianity are perhaps more dangerous than a bad teacher of Christianity. Few things people away from the Gospel as quickly and resolutely than a hypocrite.
So while it’s not as tweetable as the fake St. Francis quote, St. John Chrysostom said something similar: “It would certainly not be necessary to preach doctrine if your lives were so radiant, nor would it be necessary to have recourse to words if your works gave testimony. There would not be a single pagan if we conducted ourselves like true Christians.”
His words should make us examine our lives. Why isn’t everyone around me in love with Christ? Am I an example to others? Do I help my friends, coworkers, and family become better people? Have I led them to Christ? What kind of testimony do I preach with the way I live my life? With the way I pray, the way I treat others, the way I speak and act?
We are all sinners. We will all mess up, fall, and be bad examples at times. But what do we do then? And what do we do when others sin against us?
Do we fight with fellow Catholics over things that aren’t important? The real divisions in the Church are scandalous. (The divisions resulting in disagreement over dogma, justification, questions of authority, etc.) But even worse are the ones of our making, due to our sins and pride. To see Catholics fighting with Catholics is enough to make anyone question the Truth that we profess to believe.
Is my life “radiant,” in the words of St. John Chrysostom? That doesn’t mean I will always be smiling, I will never suffer, I will always feel happy. It does mean that my life, speech, and actions will be those of someone who is living for Someone else. It means my life will mirror Christ’s, my priorities will be centered on Him, and I will act like those around me are sons and daughters of God.
St. Peter instructed us to me ready to make defense for what we believe. But notice his instruction presupposes that we are living lives that make people notice. If they call us to account for the hope that is in us… they must have noticed that hope.
Does my life radiate the hope of Jesus Christ? If it doesn’t, why not? Have I asked Him for that hope?
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