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St. Francis of Assisi and the Call to Conversion
On multiple occasions, I have been a part of discussions on evangelization with other Catholics. The conversation follows a typical path.
“How can we evangelize or spread the gospel”?
Awkward silence, before someone hesitantly speaks…
“Well, uhhhh, we can tell people we know about Jesus.”
“Or maybe invite them to Mass.”
“I mean, it’s not like we’re supposed to be all preachy or anything.”.”
Chuckling ensues at the clever remark ridiculing the idea of preaching the Gospel.
“After all, we also spread the Gospel by how we live our lives.”
“Exactly! We live our lives, and people will see there is something different about us.”
“After all, didn’t St. Francis say: preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
The conversation invariably ends at that point with sighs of relief that we don’t actually have to do anything weird, like preach the Gospel. In fact, we don’t have to do anything at all. We simply have to live our lives like the wonderful people we are, and, in the process, people will come to recognize how wonderful we are… and just naturally want to be Christians like us.
Evangelization is not easy for modern Catholics. In some quarters it even seems to be regarded, under the label of proselytism, as something wicked and wrong. According to some, we shouldn’t try to convert other people: what could be more awkward, more narrow-minded, and more uncomfortable? In this line of thought, people are fine the way they are. Most people are well-intentioned, so things will be fine. Why should we try to change them? We should respect their beliefs, maybe even dialogue with them, discussing holiday celebrations and how to compromise on our varying beliefs.
But heaven forbid we try to convert them!
These same people committed to dialogue and “good intentions” also tend to sanitize the saints to justify our modern lukewarmness. Dietrich Bonhoffer once commented that “It is a wicked sophistry to justify the worldliness of the Church by the cross of Christ.” The same is true of the saints, especially St. Francis. We must not sanitize the saints to suit our modern weaknesses. How insulting and presumptive! And yet, St. Francis seems especially subject to such rewriting.
As to the supposed quote “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words,” it is wholly apocryphal. There is no record of St. Francis having said it. Nor would he. It is wholly opposed to his spirit and life. St. Francis was a firm believer in using words. One of his dearest wishes was that he and his little brothers should travel about Europe preaching to sinners and calling for their conversion. St. Francis was a man who believed so firmly in the power of words that when there were no humans around to preach to he preached to the birds! This was a man who believed in the power of words and his duty to preach the Gospel.
And as for conversion, St. Francis not only wanted to convert Christians to a deeper Christianity, but he wanted to convert pagans to Christianity. He once proposed to end the Crusades, peacefully, by converting the sultan of Egypt to Christianity. He went into the lion’s mouth, stood before the sultan and called on him to abandon his false faith and to embrace Christianity. He even offered to prove the truth of Christianity by walking through fire (though the sultan declined his offer). Many of the sultan’s men who stood by called for Francis to be executed, for according to the strict laws of Islam, teaching another religion meant death.
He was spared that fate, his Franciscan biographers believed, by the will of God. But the episode shows a zeal for conversion and the souls of others that our contemporary world has too often lost.
For conversion is at the heart of Franciscan preaching: conversion from sin, conversion to peace, conversion to a life of penance. These are the great messages of St. Francis and his early brothers. They are as proper today as they were then. Today, indifferentism,the idea that differences in religious belief are not important, or the idea that somehow God (actively) wills all religions, are fatal to the great missionary zeal of St. Francis. We need to recapture his zeal, and remember, honor, and imitate the Saint who called others to a life of conversion, penance, and union with God.
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