Virtually all Franciscans are familiar with the story about how St. Francis once went through town accompanied by a novice with the intention of “preaching.” However, when the Seraphic Father hadn’t said anything by the end of the day, the novice confronted him. Yet Francis responded gently: “When we witness to others the joy and beauty of our evangelical life in our simplicity, in addition to the care and concern we have shown for one another, we have preached by our example. Remember this young friar: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
Though this last sentence is one of the most quoted phrases by St. Francis, our founder never actually said it, nor does it appear in any of the original 13th century sources. Yet, St. Francis could have said it. And, in fact, he did make similar statements:
“All the brothers, however, should preach by their deeds.” (Rule of 1221: Chap 17, 3)
“I also admonish and exhort these brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste… in a discourse that is brief, because it was in few words that the Lord preached while on earth.” (Rule of 1223: Chap 9, 3)
I recently had an opportunity to follow our founder’s example and “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
This summer I was blessed to go on a ten-day hiking trip through the Dolomite Mountains. Younger, much smaller, and different in geological makeup than the surrounding Alps, the Dolomites are unique for their rough appearance, breathtaking vistas, and cultural charm.
I was invited by an Italian tour guide -- a colleague and personal friend of mine -- to help accompany a hiking tour for a group of fifteen Americans. Accommodations would be in first-class hotels with spas; meals would be taken in Michelin-starred restaurants; and fine wines would abound. How could I resist?
Before we left, Alessandro briefed me on the group dynamics. He said they were mostly business owners, high-powered executives, and other successful professionals who frequently traveled together to exotic destinations around the world. They were not generally religious with a few exceptions. I should say that Alessandro and I share the same Catholic faith. However, he is used to working with people of a different worldview while my work with pilgrims in the footsteps of St. Francis does not afford me the same opportunities.
Nevertheless, I took inspiration in the words of Pope Francis to “get out of the sacristy,” and I looked forward to the opportunity to evangelize. Nonetheless, I wondered how I would be faithful to Christ’s instructions on the one hand not to “deny him” (cf. Matthew 10:33), and not appear to be engaging in obnoxious proselytism on the other. So I settled on middle ground: I would follow the Franciscan maxim to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” I would make my faith apparent by wearing my TAU visibly and making the sign of the cross before meals. However, I would not intentionally initiate discussions regarding the faith. Yet, if asked, I would do as St. Peter says and, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:16). The rest I would leave up to God.
When I met the group, it was immediately apparent that each person was, indeed, highly intelligent, quite accomplished in their careers, and gifted with a wide range of knowledge on a vast array of topics.
And after a few days, I began to get a sense of their values. As lovers of nature, some spoke of the earth’s “energy” we should respect while others frequently referred to how humans are harming the planet. A frequent comment was that there are just too many people in the world as if human existence per se were an existential threat to nature.
I soon began to realize that some had a fondness for nature was different than our Catholic appreciation for creation. We (especially Franciscans) look to nature as the physical part of creation which was created good by God (cf. Genesis 1) and through and for the Word (cf. Col 1:15-16). I soon began to sense that some of the participants had an inverted philosophical understanding of creation in that nature is superior to humanity. It reminded me a little bit of the pre-Christian pagan ethos that had as its form: the gods -- the cosmos -- humanity, and against which the Bible and Christianity countered with: God -- humanity -- nature. In other words, in our Judaeo-Christian worldview, nature and the cosmos were created by God for the sake of mankind and not the other way around.
At any rate, I sought to try to meet them where they were based on their values, not mine. When the topic of the environment came up, I said, “You know, you’re right… It’s a big issue. In fact, our Pope recently wrote an encyclical about the environment. Have you read it?” The response: “Yeah, I heard about that. Your new Pope is great!” A perfect lead-in to introduce the theology of Creation… and a friendly dialogue ensued.
I also used time to ask people about their families and children and to gauge where they needed healing in their lives. I found out very quickly that some of them had some big areas where they really needed prayer.
By the end of the trip, I had developed some new friendships and found myself desiring to pray for them and their needs. And, on the last day, when we went around the table sharing what we liked most about the trip, I asked for forgiveness if I had been too invasive in my conversations. But, I said that I had been praying for each of them and their needs. Some seem visibly moved and others came to me later asking for specific prayers.
Now that some time has passed, I can't say that anyone has “converted” after our time together. Maybe some seeds have been planted, maybe not.
However, surely a “going out” took place, friendships were made, and a dialogue based on mutual respect and care and concern for one another took place. Perhaps people noticed the joy, beauty, and simplicity of a Franciscan’s evangelical life. And maybe someone saw a glimmer of hope that there exists Someone who is eternal and much more powerful than the environment and mountains which He can easily move. And in all this, hopefully St. Francis was happy that a follower of his “Preached the Gospel at all times and when necessary used words.”