By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Both Example and Words with St. Francis of Assisi

In my graduate class, a student pointed out to me that no one can find evidence that St. Francis of Assisi said these eloquent and insightful words: "Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words."

As usual, I follow up on any lingering questions raised in class. Here is the result of my research:

1. Indeed, no one has yet found these exact words in the writings of St. Francis of Assisi or of those recording his words.

2. But most seem to agree that this eloquent phrase is true to the teaching of St. Francis. It is a "Franciscan" saying, if not one directly quoting the saint himself.

3. Below is what I found at the Franciscan Archive and in an old online translation of The Little Flowers of St. Francis. All source links are found below so you can freely make up your own mind on whether the popular saying matches the saint.

4. My personal conclusion: The famous saying above eloquently and accurately paraphrases what St. Francis says below in The Little Flowers. But you are free to differ!

5. I do not interpret the popular saying as telling us that words are not to be used, or are not necessary. That would be an uncharitable interpretation of the saying which would create a straw man in any discussion.

Rather, the popular saying is telling us that you can always preach the gospel, even when you are not proclaiming it in words. Et . . . et: both example (deeds) and words at different times, as necessary. The saying reminds us that deeds are the necessary background and context for credible and effective proclamation with words, and that deeds themselves speak loudly. To interpret the saying as signifying that you never use words to preach the gospel is an absurd interpretation possibly motivated by extraneous polemical factors.

Below is what I found at the Franciscan Archive website (it is not an official archive):

Preaching without Words

according to St. Francis of Assisi

Many sayings are attributed to St. Francis, but were never actually written by him. One of the more famous of these has to do with preaching without words. This one is based on what St. Francis said and taught.

What St. Francis said about giving good example, and how this was more important that preaching with words comes from a variety of sources, on[e] of which is:

The Little Flowers of St. Francis: Chapter 50

At the end of this chapter, in the English translation by T. Okey, which appeared in the Everyman Library edition of 1951, Philosophy and Theology, n. 485A, p. 295, St. Francis is quoted to have said:

But 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.

"The Holy Rule" is the Rule of St. Francis.


Source link to web excerpt:

Franciscan Archive

You can read the book quoted above at this link (the entire book is available free online; go to p. 223, Ch. L, last sentence, in the online book and the quote matches what I found above at the Franciscan Archive):

Translation of Little Flowers of St. Francis.

(The image of St. Francis of Assisi stripping to signify his abandonment of riches is in the public domain.)