Sunday, 14 November 2010

"Preach at all times, and if you must, use words."

How many times have you heard this said? It seems to be a favourite among Catholics, not least because of its association with that most beloved of saints, Francis of Assisi. As 'Franciscan' as it may be in spirit, particularly when we see St. Francis' dedication to the poor (preaching through deeds) as part of the same evangelisation effort as his friend St. Dominic's dedication to preaching, this phrase does present us with some problems.

Setting aside the great difficulty of actually attributing this quote to St. Francis, and the fact that St. Francis was himself a gifted preacher, it embodies an attitude to talking about our faith from which the laity in England suffer a great deal. I wonder whether it is a particularly English problem ('stiff upper lip' and all that), which prevents us from talking openly about the things which are important to us. It is certainly a modern problem, because society-at-large is uncomfortable with the idea of objective truth. When Catholic Christians talk about their faith and their religion, what else are we doing but asserting that there is a Truth and sharing it (Him)?

Ergo, Catholic's can safely hide behind this Franciscan apocrypha and say, "Ah well, St. Francis said you should only use words if you need to." I know that's not what the quote says, but how else are we to read that "and if you must"? Surely, it can only be taken to mean that using words is a last resort, something to be begrudgingly wheeled out when all else has failed? In practice, it's far easier to say nothing, even in the direst circumstances, and save yourself the rejection and ridicule.

The Catholic Church, however, takes a markedly different view. All the baptised share in Christ's three offices of priest, prophet, and king. It is as baptised prophets that we are to evangelise the world. How? The General Catechism says:

905 Lay people also fulfil their prophetic mission by evangelization , 'that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life'.

The paragraph then says that this double evangelisation by word and deed is 'peculiarly effective' through the laity because it is carried out in the ordinary comings and goings of daily life. People are going to hear our joy and see our holiness not just at church, but at home, work, gym, pub, on the street, and so on.

So far, so standard. But here's where it gets interesting. There is a quote immediately after this from Vatican II's document on the role of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, which reads:

"This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers...or to the faithful." [abbreviation in the Catechism].

Do you see what's so unusual about this? We have already had a passage telling us to evangelise through word and "testimony of life". Why, then, did the bishops who compiled the CCC feel it necessary to go back and underline that it is the duty of the laity, as 'true apostles', to be "on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word"?

In all honesty, I have no idea, but clearly they were following the same thinking of the Council Fathers who wrote Apostolicam 30 years before. In it, the Bishops of the world exhort us, the People of God, to "be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church" [AA 6§3] each according to our own ability and learning. Clearly, they saw that if true faith in Christ was to flourish and not be overcome by the "very serious errors" of our era, then the laity, now better educated than at any point in Church history, should play a pivotal role.

This thinking regarding the essential role of the laity could well have been influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman, sometimes called 'the Father of Vatican II', who 90 years before the Council wrote, "I want a laity...who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it." [Present Position of Catholics in England, pg 390]

Bl. John Henry, Vatican II, and the Catechism all agree - we, the laity, have a special role, a 'peculiarly effective' role in bringing people into contact with Jesus, and it is especially important that we do this by explaining, reasoning out, and defending the Faith verbally. In other words, by preaching.

Yet all three sources are united in one other aspect. They all presuppose that Catholics are already living the Christian life, and making the Gospel present in the world by the way they live. Earlier in Present Position, Newman comically points to the effect 'testimony of life' will have: "...the Manchester people will say, 'Oh, certainly, Popery is horrible, and must be kept down. Still, let us give the devil his due, they are a remarkably excellent body of men here, and we will take care no one does them any harm.'" [Present Position, pg 387]

Likewise, Apostolicam reminds us to "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." [Mt 5:16]

So it seems to me that the quote which began this post isn't entirely wrong, but it is missing a huge part of the picture. The fuller way of preaching the Gospel proposed by Newman and Vatican II is to ensure, first of all, that we live holy lives, and continue to do that which the laity has always done i.e. bring a Christian way of being and behaving into everyday activities, and other people's lives.

Then, we must tell people why we do what we do; that it isn't a matter of personal preference, but principles held in common by a worldwide society called the Catholic Church. Let us not be afraid to announce Jesus Christ in conversation, because as He said in today's Gospel, "I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay." [Lk 21:15]


  1. Nice post...and nice true closer: we must tell people WHY we do what we do...the Pope even spoke of this recently telling us to STUDY and memorize our Bibles more...thanks.

  2. Yes. When we are asked why we are Catholic, only words will do.

  3. @ Benevolent Angels - thanks for your comment. The first on my blog! Good luck getting yours up and running.

    I'm curious how you found me, given that I've only told a few friends about it. You're welcome here any time.