Francis Interpreting Francis

I just noticed this quote from Pope Francis:

Let us all remember this: one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life. Those who listen to us and observe us must be able to see in our actions what they hear from our lips, and so give glory to God! I am thinking now of some advice that Saint Francis of Assisi gave his brothers: preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words. Preaching with your life, with your witness. Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.

I have heard others a number of times take exception to both the attribution of the words emphasized above to St. Francis and to the soundness of the exhortation.  The argument has some merit.  The Franciscan sources do not support the attribution to St. Francis, and it is true that the words can be construed to mean that it is sufficient to be a witness to Christ by one’s life.  Efforts to evangelize are not essential.

But while St. Francis may have never said the words, they are an excellent summary of his spirituality. Pope Francis interprets the meaning of the phrase exactly.  Whoever first used the words did in fact understand St. Francis.  Perhaps it was one of the novices who were led by St. Francis through the streets of the town in their poor habits, telling them: “We are going to preach the gospel.”  After having returned to the friary without having spoken to anyone along the way, a novice asked St. Francis why they had not preached the gospel,  St. Francis simply answered, “We did.”

The Franciscan spirit is in the first place a way of life and a witness.  St. Francis was never afraid to speak out, but he was just as content to be driven out of town as he was to preach with apparent success.  He was not all that impressed by eloquence and declared to the friars that it was not the preachers who converted anyone but Christ alone and that the friars who were faithful to the Rule did more for the conversion of sinners than anyone else.  He called them his “Knights of the Round Table.”

At times when he got up to preach, he could not think of anything to say and just sat back down, and did so without thinking much of it.  The Franciscan Order has always had a tremendous commitment to the apostolic life, but has always been its best, when it hung its hat on nothing but fidelity to the evangelical way of life, by living “the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in obedience, without property and in chastity” (Rule, c. 1).

But stating that fact that witness has more power than words has never been an excuse in Franciscan circles to omit the work of evangelization.  The fact that the idea is misinterpreted is not the fault of St. Francis, and neither is it a reason to deny its validity.  Pope Francis, who is obviously committed to evangelization and reform, far from being confused about St. Francis is showing himself to be very astute in Franciscan spirituality.

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