Mark Galli sets the record straight on the saying famously attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Galli doesn’t believe that St. Francis said it and reminds us that he was known for his preaching as well as his voluntary poverty. In fact, preaching is what the friars of the Middle Ages were supposed to do.
Here is Galli’s description of Francis’ preaching:
He began preaching early in his ministry, first in the Assisi church of Saint George, in which he had gone to school as a child, and later in the cathedral of Saint Rufinus. He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.
He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests—any who gathered to hear the strange but fiery little preacher from Assisi.
He apparently was a bit of a showman. He imitated the troubadours, employing poetry and word pictures to drive the message home. When he described the Nativity, listeners felt as if Mary was giving birth before their eyes; in rehearsing the crucifixion, the crowd (as did Francis) would shed tears.
Contrary to his current meek and mild image, Francis’s preaching was known for both his kindness and severity. One moment, he was friendly and cheerful—prancing about as if he were playing a fiddle on a stick, or breaking out in song in praise to God and his creation. Another moment, he would turn fierce: “He denounced evil whenever he found it,” wrote one early biographer, “and made no effort to palliate it; from him a life of sin met with outspoken rebuke, not support. He spoke with equal candor to great and small.”
Another early biography talked about how his preaching was received: “His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.”As a result, he quickly gained followers, and it wasn’t long before he told his most devoted adherents to preach as well. In the fall of 1208, he sent the brothers out two by two to distant reaches. What did he tell them to say? In an early guide written during this period, Francis instructed his brothers to tell their listeners to “do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance, because we shall soon die … . Blessed are those who die in penance for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be children of the devil whose works they do and they shall go into everlasting fire.”
This last quote raises questions about the content of Francis’ preaching. He was clearly a product of his age and his church. It’s hard to tell sometimes if “penance” for Francis meant something more akin to biblical repentance, or to the medieval version of “works righteousness” that the Reformers eventually and rightly condemned.
The point is this: Francis was a preacher. And the type of preacher who would alarm us today. “Hell, fire, brimstone” would not be an inaccurate description of his style.
I just used this famous (mis)quotation a couple weeks ago. Guess I won’t be doing that anymore.
Hat tip: Justin Taylor