St. Francis didn't even say that: Evangelization means more than a silent witness

Catholics get skittish when they hear talk about evangelization. The combination of confusion and fear is a powerful one. It prevents many Catholic men and women from talking openly about their faith with those who don’t share it and letting their “light so shine before men” (Mt 5:16). It prevents even more Catholics from inviting others to learn more about the faith or challenging people to think more deeply about questions of belief.

Plenty of Catholics will deny that of course. They’ll say they do bear witness to Christ … just not with words. Rather, they claim, they bear witness with their lives, heeding St. Francis’ advice to “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”

There are, however, a couple of problems with that line of thinking, starting with this: The saying is a medieval urban legend. If you talk to scholars of Francis’ life and work, like the ones I work with at Franciscan University, they’ll all tell you the same thing: not a single historical account exists of him saying those words. He certainly lived that way. It captures something of his approach to preaching the Gospel — but not all of his approach. And the words still aren’t his.

That’s not to say that witness isn’t important. It is. It’s incredibly important. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17). People need to see us living the faith we proclaim. It’s what makes our words credible. It is, in many ways, the heart of evangelization — new or otherwise.

The importance of witness, however, doesn’t give us license to dispense with words. Words matter too. They’re essential. And the reason they’re essential is because none of us are so truly and clearly living the Good News that the witness of our lives is sufficient for bringing people to faith.

As I tell folks when they use this excuse on me, “If you really think your witness is sufficient, that words aren’t necessary, go talk to your sister or your spouse and ask them if the witness of your life is so powerful, so moving and complete, that they can just look at you and know everything they could ever possibly need to know about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church, about sin and grace, sanctification, and salvation. Can people see it all in how you live every minute of every day? Could a complete biography of your life replace the Gospels? Or is something, at least occasionally, lacking?”

The answer, obviously, is that something is lacking. A whole lot of somethings are lacking — from my witness, your witness, and the witness of every fallen human being in this world. Even the holiest saints the Church has produced, St. Francis included, needed to use words to lead people to Christ.


The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) acknowledged the importance of bearing witness to Christ with our lives, noting that such a witness has “the power to draw men to belief and o God.”

But it then goes on to say: However, [the lay apostolate] does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life. “For the charity of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14). The words of the Apostle should echo in all hearts, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (n. 6) Again, both words and witness are essential. They work together. They complete each other, making our apostolate effective and whole. The Church doesn’t give us the option of picking one over the other. Nor does she give us the option of letting our preference for one mode of evangelization be our excuse for neglecting the other mode.

Instead, she calls us to overcome our reluctance to evangelize and to do it in word and deed. Not just for the sake of others, but for our own sake as well.

Dr. Scott Hahn holds the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

This is an excerpt from "Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization."