Great quotes of St. Francis that he didn't say

Luther is not the only one that gets credited for quotable lines that he didn’t really say.  (E.g., the principle of voting for “wise turks,” as we discussed.)  St. Francis of Assissi gets the same treatment.  Here a Franciscan priest, Father Pat McCloskey, responds to a question about that phrase, which I have heard even from people who should know better, that suggests preaching the Gospel doesn’t require words.  He throws in a debunking of the “peace prayer”  (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” etc.)

Q: I keep seeing St. Francis of Assisi credited as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I have looked in several places but cannot find where St. Francis said this.

A: This is a great quote, very Franciscan in its spirit, but not literally from St. Francis. The thought is his; this catchy phrasing is not in his writings or in the earliest biographies about him.

In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

I had been a Franciscan for 28 years—and had earned an M.A. in Franciscan studies—before I heard the “Use words if necessary” quote. That was during Msgr. Kenneth Velo’s homily at Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin’s funeral in 1996.

About a year ago, a friend of mine used the Internet to contact some of the most eminent Franciscan scholars in the world, seeking the source of this “Use words if necessary” quote. It is clearly not in any of Francis’ writings. After a couple weeks of searching, no scholar could find this quote in a story written within 200 years of Francis’ death.

This saying and the “Peace Prayer,” which Francis certainly did not write, are easily identified with him because they so thoroughly reflect his spirit. Unfortunately, they would not have become as widespread if they had been attributed to “John Smith” or “Mary Jones.”

Exhaustive research on the origins of the “Peace Prayer of St. Francis” has led to Christian Renoux’s new book in French. This 210-page study (ISBN 2-85020-096-4) is described at www.electre.com under Les Editions Franciscaines.

An 11th-century French prayer is similar to the first part of the “Peace Prayer.” The oldest known copy of the current prayer, however, dates to 1912 in France. The prayer became more well known in other countries during World War I.

This prayer is sold all over Assisi today—but always under the title “A Simple Prayer.” Whoever linked it to St. Francis guaranteed a wide diffusion of the text. The same is true for the “Use words if necessary” quote. Both reflect St. Francis very well.

via Ask a Franciscan: Great Saying But Tough to Trace – October 2001 Issue of St. Anthony Messenger Magazine Online.

Thanks to Pastor  Matt Richard for the link.  Read his post for an important critique of the notion that we can preach the Gospel without words and the Word.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    When we try to spread the Gospel through good deeds, we aren’t doing anything different. Adherents of other religions, and people with no religion, also do good deeds, and do them very well. It’s our words that are different, and that make an eternal difference – as opposed to a temporary difference, here and now. And this because our words repeat the Word, which has supernatural power, as God has promised. Even our Sacraments depend on the words of the Word.

    I suppose the quote attributed to Francis, and the idea of the Gospel being all about good deeds, appeals to the interfaith sort of Christian, who isn’t very comfortable with being different from others.

  • Tom Hering

    When we try to spread the Gospel through good deeds, we aren’t doing anything different. Adherents of other religions, and people with no religion, also do good deeds, and do them very well. It’s our words that are different, and that make an eternal difference – as opposed to a temporary difference, here and now. And this because our words repeat the Word, which has supernatural power, as God has promised. Even our Sacraments depend on the words of the Word.

    I suppose the quote attributed to Francis, and the idea of the Gospel being all about good deeds, appeals to the interfaith sort of Christian, who isn’t very comfortable with being different from others.

  • reg

    It is a short step from the “if necessary use words” to speaking of “living the Gospel” and “doing the Gospel” which of course are no Gospel at all. They are about what we do, not what He did. The Gospel is proclamation of good news to all who by the grace of God believe. We “do” nothing. While we ought to live lives that speak well of believers and God’s grace and do not lead people to blaspheme the name of God, in gratitude, that is not the Gospel.

  • reg

    It is a short step from the “if necessary use words” to speaking of “living the Gospel” and “doing the Gospel” which of course are no Gospel at all. They are about what we do, not what He did. The Gospel is proclamation of good news to all who by the grace of God believe. We “do” nothing. While we ought to live lives that speak well of believers and God’s grace and do not lead people to blaspheme the name of God, in gratitude, that is not the Gospel.

  • SKPeterson

    It works, sort of, if the works done are viewed as the good fruit produced by the Gospel in believers. They are good works that the believer, now justified by grace through Christ, can now do for his neighbor. The kicker, though, is that for this to be known,or to be distinguished from standard works righteousness, the Word must be spoken and proclaimed.

  • SKPeterson

    It works, sort of, if the works done are viewed as the good fruit produced by the Gospel in believers. They are good works that the believer, now justified by grace through Christ, can now do for his neighbor. The kicker, though, is that for this to be known,or to be distinguished from standard works righteousness, the Word must be spoken and proclaimed.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    Yes, we ought. But we don’t.

    But He did, and He does.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    Yes, we ought. But we don’t.

    But He did, and He does.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Isn’t all this type of arguing fallacious anyway?

    What is the point of appealing to the authority of Luther or Assisi?

    Either the statement is true or it isn’t. The statement doesn’t get bonus/penalty points from its author.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Isn’t all this type of arguing fallacious anyway?

    What is the point of appealing to the authority of Luther or Assisi?

    Either the statement is true or it isn’t. The statement doesn’t get bonus/penalty points from its author.

  • Dan Kempin

    Huh. I always that that was a quote of Francis, and I suppose I have been guilty of promoting the falsehood, since I have attributed it to him.

    Oh well. You know what Luther said: “Attributions are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.”

  • Dan Kempin

    Huh. I always that that was a quote of Francis, and I suppose I have been guilty of promoting the falsehood, since I have attributed it to him.

    Oh well. You know what Luther said: “Attributions are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.”

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    How do you preach the Gospel without using words? Words are always necessary.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    How do you preach the Gospel without using words? Words are always necessary.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Loving your neighbor, as good as that is, is not the gospel. This is not to say that good works are irrelevant-indeed they are not-but they are simply not the same as preaching Christ crucified. Tom speaks the truth: with perhaps the exception of extreme paganism, all religions have a preaching of good works (albeit they define “good works” differently than God does at times) and use that as a gateway to salvation, rather than as a by-product of true saving faith in Christ.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Loving your neighbor, as good as that is, is not the gospel. This is not to say that good works are irrelevant-indeed they are not-but they are simply not the same as preaching Christ crucified. Tom speaks the truth: with perhaps the exception of extreme paganism, all religions have a preaching of good works (albeit they define “good works” differently than God does at times) and use that as a gateway to salvation, rather than as a by-product of true saving faith in Christ.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Great, next you’re going to tell me that St. Francis didn’t build his eponymous city on rock and roll.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Great, next you’re going to tell me that St. Francis didn’t build his eponymous city on rock and roll.

  • Gary

    Yeow! It looks like everyone who commented here completely missed the point of the quote. Whether or not St. Francis said it, it is a perfect reflection in very few words of how we ought to spread the Word of God. “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” The advice here clearly says to use words when necessary, therefore it in no way discourages “preaching”, but rather commands it. What the advice is trying to convey is that before you start preaching the Gospel, you must FIRST be living it. Nobody will believe a word you say if you are a hypocrite. All you do is give the Gospel and everyone who preaches it a bad name if you preach it without living it. And that one person who said “Love of neighbor is not in the gospel” – WHAT?!! Have you ever read any of it? Love of neighbor is a massive part of the Gospel. Just two quotes here, both from Our Lord Himself: “Greater love than this no man has, than for a man give his life for his brothers.” “Love God with your whole heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. In this is contained the whole of the law and the prophets.” I suppose someone out there will say that Jesus never said either of those. Whatever.


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