In Order to Preach, You Must Use Words

News: Commentary
by David Gordon  •  •  September 28, 2020   

Evangelization happens through articulation

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Everyone, alas, has heard the nonsensical bromide "Preach the gospel; use words if necessary." This poisonous nugget of specious wisdom, often falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, has for decades been liberally deployed by tepid Catholics to justify their obstinate refusal to submit to Christ's universally binding Great Commission: "Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

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The popularization of the cliché has been of disastrous consequence: It has effectively blinded generations of modern Catholics to their duty to spread the gospel with vigor and urgency. It has allowed many to believe that one can be an adequate Christian simply by living a milquetoast, mediocre, comfortable existence and being really nice to people. Allow me to disabuse the world of this pipe dream: You can't.

The bitter irony in the attribution of the foregoing sentiment to St. Francis is that, not only did the good saint not ever utter such impious words, Francis' whole public ministry was a lived rebuttal of them. St. Francis expressly longed to die a martyr's death for teaching about the Faith.

In fact, during the Fifth Crusade, he famously crossed into enemy territory and preached the gospel to the Muslim sultan of Egypt and his attendant religious ministers, subsequently challenging them to a "trial by fire," wherein Francis offered to prove the veracity of what he'd taught about the depositum fidei by walking through searing flames. The sultan refused the offer, but, according to St. Bonaventure, later converted to Christianity and was baptized. So let's not dishonor the memory of St. Francis by attributing to him the flaccid evangelization philosophy of indolent post-conciliar warm-bodies.

Many want the honor of the Christian title; few want to do the work to earn it. Many want to soldier; few want the Purple Heart.

Whether out of a mawkish reticence to alienate one's heathen friends and relatives who would be "scandalized" upon hearing the words of eternal salvation, whether out of a craven fear of reprisal from the godless men who hold the reins of power in this world, or whether out of a malignant indifference originating from a latently held universalism (the heretical idea that members of all religions may be saved), the vast majority of modern Catholics simply do not and will not preach the gospel. Many want the honor of the Christian title; few want to do the work to earn it. Many want to soldier; few want the Purple Heart.

But make no mistake about it: If you forsake your duty to preach the gospel — with words — you are no disciple of Christ. If we love Christ, we have it on the highest authority that we must keep His commandments — even when they're inconvenient, even when they pose a hardship. There is no place for acedia or cowardice in the Christian religion.

The Christian pedigree is one of suffering and martyrdom. The nascent Church was founded upon the broken, pierced corpses of heroic martyrs, and it was bonded with the mortar of their blood. To refuse to evangelize boldly in the modern era (an era where we in the West actually luxuriate in legal protections against violent retribution for our religious speech) is a betrayal and a mockery of our dauntless forefathers. How can the "moderate Christian," who is little more than a common yellowbelly, fathom sharing eternity gazing upon the elect who've given up everything for a cause, when he's given up nothing?

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Many, seeking to justify their sloth, point to the infamous "spirit of Vatican II" and allege that it relieves laymen from the duties of evangelization and catechesis. However, the explicit words of the council's own documents repudiate such anti-Christian claptrap. The Second Vatican Council's decree on the apostolate of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, states that evangelization:

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. [Apostolicam Actuositatem, § 6].

So taking for granted that the spirit of Vatican II contradicts the actual words of the Vatican II fathers, let's cherish relegating the spirit to the ashbin of history where it belongs, alongside all the other failed philosophies of human and Luciferian provenance. It remains a basic precept of the Christian religion that we are to spread the gospel using words.

It's actually mind-numbingly idiotic to believe that one can have any success in spreading the gospel without words.

If you forsake your duty to preach the gospel — with words — you are no disciple of Christ.

Even assuming one is a trained pantomime who has facility in communicating ideas and concepts through bodily movements (most people can't even reliably score points in Charades, by the way), how in the name of all that is good and holy is one — without recourse to words — to teach the unchurched and godless about the high dogmas of the Holy Trinity, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the hypostatic union?

This is actually a comically undeveloped line of reasoning. Since acts of the intellect precede acts of the will, it's simply not possible, without making use of verbal articulation and argumentation, to convince someone of the merits of your worldview.

And thank God, too, since if being overly nice were the most efficacious means of teaching (or, more accurately, a means of teaching at all), we'd all be Mormon. Moreover, even assuming arguendo that a person would change religions simply out of a desire to emulate a kind soul in all things, anyone so impressionable as to convert to a particular religion because he happens upon a benevolent practitioner thereof will quickly fall away and apostatize when he meets an even kinder practitioner of an alternate religion!

Ven Abp. Fulton J. Sheen preached to thousands
on his show Life is Worth Living

The other angle of the "preach the gospel; use words if necessary" mantra that shouldn't escape our ridicule is this: You have to be a clinical narcissist to actually believe that you are so good and holy that all that people will require in order to make the life-altering decision to change religions or find God is to see you live your quotidian existence or to interact with you about some piffle.

The unwitting arrogance conveyed by proponents of the you-don't-have-to-speak-to-evangelize banality is unrivaled. What's more, anecdotally speaking, I've never met one apologist or advocate for the cliché that actually led what I'd consider to be a life of heroic virtue. In fact, in my dealings with these folks, I've never met one that I'd consider to be of passable virtue. It's an attitude I've really only encountered in cultural Catholics who are either members of a dying generation synonymous with lukewarmness or who have been infused with said generation's noxious faux-wisdom.

All the above isn't to say that Christian evangelism isn't most effective when coupled with an authentically Christian life: It most certainly is.

Actions, as they say, often speak louder than words. One can frequently adjudge whether a person believes his own rhetoric by discerning if the person's rhetoric is consonant with his conduct. If a person's life isn't, in fact, shaped by his espoused ideals, then it is natural for an observer to wonder what defect the person sees in his own ideals that makes him not want to live them.

Students of argumentation should bear in mind that one can make a moving argument simply on the basis of logic; however, one makes a stronger argument when he combines logic with ethos — with witness of life and station. Conversely though, one cannot make an argument at all on the basis of ethos alone. Logos is the pillar of all argumentation; it is the primary weapon of the pedagogue. It is, therefore, indispensable in handing on the true Faith.

So go forth and preach the gospel the only way that it is able to be preached — with words. But be on guard not to fall into hypocrisy. In so doing, not only will you lose your soul, you will also put obstacles in the way of the conversion of others, as they'll wonder why Christians fail to hew closely to the message of salvation that they haphazardly mete out.

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