How to Evangelize Without Saying a Word

St. Francis of Assisi is said to have once instructed his followers to “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Underlying this statement is the idea that the Christian message is made more credible and powerful when integrated within the flow of our everyday actions. It is one thing to say something; it is another thing to do it. A man may say that he loves his wife, but in the end it is what he does and is willing to go through for her that gives credence to his words.

Bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained with the authority to announce the Gospel to humanity. The laity are also called to proclaim Christ by their words, but they are also in a unique position to witness to Christ by their everyday actions. This is especially true given their close proximity to the secular world and the people therein. In its decree on the apostolate of the laity, the Second Vatican Council noted that “Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.” The laity, then, are in a very real sense the face of the Church—or, to put it another way, the Church facing outward toward a world in need of redemption. This means that they must constantly strive to construct their daily existence in such a way as to give a fitting witness to the reality of the Church’s divine mission. Here are a few steps that can be taken to accomplish this goal.

1. Work to Restore a Lifestyle and Culture Which Respects and Reflects the Sacred Character of Sunday

The sacredness of the Christian Sabbath has long been a firm fixture in cultures built or purified by Christianity. In the not-so-distant past, it was common for shops and stores to close on Sunday. Catholics, and other Christians, went to church and spent the day among family and friends. Although many Western nations today still preserve vestiges of Sunday’s festal character, the sanctity and theological import of the day has generally been lost.

Why is this a day of such importance? As Saint John Paul II noted in his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, the Resurrection, which happened on Sunday, is “the fundamental event upon which the Christian faith rests.” In other words, Sunday’s centrality in the arena of time directly corresponds to the Resurrection’s centrality in salvation history.

Because of this, taking seriously the obligation to honor the Sabbath carries with it a witness to the reality of the deepest truths of Christianity. By doing what he or she can to honor the Sabbath, the layperson is in a real way evangelizing the world by (1) Witnessing to the primacy of God over money and human work. (2) When spent with the family, Sunday shows the primacy of the family over other forms of social relations. (3) Sunday frees Christians from the monotony of temporal existence in order that they may turn their gaze to their ultimate destiny. As Saint John Paul II said, again in Dies Domini, “As the Church journeys through time, the reference to Christ’s Resurrection and the weekly recurrence of this solemn memorial help to remind us of the pilgrim and eschatological character of the People of God. Sunday after Sunday the Church moves towards the final “Lord’s Day,” that Sunday which knows no end.”

Therefore, while it is true that modern circumstances sometimes leave the sincere Catholic with little choice but to work on Sundays, an examination of conscience is due in order to determine what can be done to help reclaim the sacred Sabbath rest given by the Creator.

2. Choose Clothing Styles That Both Guard and Reveal Human Dignity

It is often asserted that one cannot judge a person by what he or she wears. In a certain sense this is correct, as only God can see the true state of someone’s soul. Nevertheless, clothes do matter and are a way of communicating to others. During the course of recent history, the clothing industry has increasingly tailored its output to communicate one thing—sex. In Christianity, sex is a value, but one which is subject to the value of the person made in the image of God. Modern fashion has reversed this relationship, subjecting the person and his or her divine imprint to “sex appeal.” This has led to a debasing of the human person to the level of a mere object. Bikinis, mini-skirts, skin-tight clothing, and low neck-lines are all examples of the industry’s attempt to create a culture of enticement and sexual promiscuity. Anyone who doubts this need only consult any marketing department.

Those who try to live the virtue of modesty are often accused of debasing the body and of treating the flesh as if it were evil. It is certainly true that heretical Christians in past ages viewed the body as evil. But authentic Church teaching is not Manichaean. Modesty is a virtue not because the body is evil, but on the contrary because it is good and sacred. God Himself is the author of the human body. The need for modesty stems from the fact that after the fall human nature became infected with concupiscence, or disordered inclinations, which gave rise to disordered sexual desires. Therefore, there are two realities which need to be accounted for: the reality of the goodness of the body and the reality of fallen man. Modesty takes a realistic approach by recognizing the reality of this inclination to lust, and so takes steps to guard the body and so affirm its goodness and holiness. By dressing modestly—even if at time counter-culturally—the Christian provides a powerful witness to the reality of the sacredness of the body.

3. Step It Up for Sunday Mass

Clothes have also traditionally been a means to communicate the importance attached to certain events. A family barbeque is a casual, relaxed enterprise, and so people dress accordingly. A funeral, on the other hand, is a life-changing, sorrowful event, and so the respective attire is formal and somber. In the liturgy, the priest wears different vestments depending on the solemnity of the feast. Clothing does matter, and communicates much.

It used to be common for the laity to dress formally for Sunday Mass. Many photos and video footage from the first half of the twentieth century attest to this. During the past half-century or so, the atmosphere has become much more casual. This lax attitude reflected in the Sunday attire of many Catholics is reflective of the informal disposition of the modern churchgoer toward the liturgy itself. This means that the laity have a powerful opportunity to discourage this casual relationship to the liturgy by taking the time to dress suitably for Mass. This gives a powerful indicator that Sunday is no ordinary day, and that it is no ordinary thing happening on the altar.

4. Baptize One’s Speech

Charity demands that Christians guard their tongue against foul language, and the Second Commandment forbids the misuse of the Lord’s name. Both of these guidelines are violated on a daily basis by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This reality is coupled with a large-scale resignation to the proliferation of swearing and blasphemy in modern media.

If it is true that actions often speak louder than words, it is also true that the very absence of words at times speaks volumes. Swearing and foul language have become such a staple of human society that when someone refuses to speak in such a manner, people notice. At times, they may even start to become apologetic for their own language. Human speech is meant to serve as a vehicle of truth and love, and working to regain this original end of language is a powerful witness to the reality of the moral order and to the dignity of the human person.

5. Work to Restore Family Life to the Center of Society and Culture

In Catholic social teaching, the family is the fundamental unit upon which society rests. In the natural order, the family bond is the strongest and most important of all human ties. Part of the reason that successful societies have flourished throughout history is that the family was given pride of place. Societies that have not respected this reality have given way to decay. The breakdown of the moral and social fabric in the Western world by way of contraception, abortion, divorce, absent fathers, and the failure of parents to give their children a sound, moral education all attest to this fact.

What can the Catholic family do to give witness to this sacred centrality? The best way is nothing more than to actually be a family. This may sound simple, but the fact is that patterns of life today leave little time for a family to be a family. Restoring the family meal, taking time to pray together, and cutting the time spent on social media can go a long way (it is a problem when family members living together know more about each other through Facebook statuses than through talking). Such a sense of holy unity is a powerful witness to a broken world hungering for love. To conclude with a quote from St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families “Created in the image and likeness of God, man cannot fully ‘find himself’ except through the sincere gift of self. Without such a concept of man, of the person and the ‘communion of persons’ in the family, there can be no civilization of love.”

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Easter Morning” was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1959 for the Saturday Evening Post.

Jared M. Silvey

By

Jared M. Silvey received his BA in philosophy in 2012 and his MA in theology in 2014 from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

  • Sharon

    Great article. We need to change our culture and your suggestions are exactly what we need to do.
    Father Pacwa said on Ewtn yesterday that the quote is not St. Francis of Assissi but St. Francis DeSales.

  • Sophia

    Last night on EWTN Father Mitch Paquwa (sp?) said St Francis of Assisi did not say that famous quote and preached with words a great deal.

  • Fred

    Great article Jared, thanks. I could not agree with you more and reflect often on that quote as I think about how best I can go about evangelizing. I do also feel that we are in a particularly precarious times and need to also be aware that our faith is being attacked vehemently by the secular, humanist centric world. I personally think a new evangelism is in order and it starts by reflecting on how we approach and live our own faiths, but I think the world is crying out in pain and needs us as much now than ever to bring the good news of Christ and the gospel and timidity will not help. To your point though, we need to start by being strong in our faith and not be timid is sharing the joy that is having a relationship with Christ. God bless.

  • fredx2

    The Norman Rockwell painting that accompanies the article is so perceptive. The women and kids going to church, the guy staying at home. True in so many cases.
    But look closer – the women are eyes straight ahead, firm in their purpose. But the little boy is sneaking a peek at the father. Little boys instinctively look to the father for the example of what to do and what not to do. Putting little things like that in a painting are what made Rockwell great.

    Same sex couples will not provide that guidance.

    • Desert Sun Art

      Did you also notice how the father’s messy hair sticks up like two horns? I wonder if that was intentional-seems to be.

    • Dominic

      Is your comment about same sex couples meant to be ironic? In cases of two women they won’t provide the opportunity of seeing the “guy staying at home. True in so many cases”.
      The children that go to my parish mass go with both their father and mother. I can’t name a family in which only one parent goes. So this idea of the father staying at home and being a dead weight on the spiritual life of the family is simply not true in my experience. Either father and mother work together or it doesn’t happen. Beware of a feminist perspective which puts the genders in opposition to each other with the man being a negative and oppressive element. As the women becomes “liberated” from his dominance he is seen to become more and more unnecessary and produces the Homer Simpson or Family Guy type in the popular media’s imagination.
      There may have been previous generation where it was culturally acceptable that the mother did go to mass and the father didn’t but we cans see by the world today what foundations that built. In such cases the women has a duty to her spouse and to her children to ensure that the whole family go to mass together. To acquiesce to any other situation is not love but comfortable passivity.
      In this picture the Mother doesn’t do that. There is a spiritual pride in that too straight back and staid expression. Does she not care about her husband and his role in raising the children or is she just content to be the prim and proper one?

      • anon

        Wow, really?? She’s a mother, doing what she knows is right to do, taking her children to church on Sunday, and you are going to criticize that?? Oh God help us, when so-called Christians think it’s fine to sit on their couches and spout out such high and mighty thoughts on websites. And it’s a good thing that I don’t belong to YOUR parish, brother. Because since my hubby quit going to Mass, it’s my fun to get our many children ready to go and out the door each week, and when I end up out back with multiple crying or fussy toddlers and tears in my eyes, are you going to sit there judging me or LEND A HAND??? I’m so tired of so-called Christians flinging out judgments left and right on these boards.

        • Dominic

          It’s great that you do that. I can’t speak from experience but I know that must be tough.
          I am critiquing the woman in this painting because she represents the mindset of a past generation where it is the done thing for women to go to mass but not for men. She is simply following the social norm. If truth alone was her guide she would oppose her husband for his own benefit and that of her children.
          Today however is a different story altogether. It is now the social norm that neither men or women go to mass. For you to persevere in bringing your children to mass under these conditions is an act of sincere faith in God and shows a strong love of your children.
          I am sorry I was too sweeping in my comments that only families with both parents go to mass. There is always exceptions and I shouldn’t hold up my limited experience as definitive. Lasting good can come of these exceptions.
          I reacted overly defensively to the comment that it is “true in so many cases” that men don’t go to mass. I think this comment is too simplistic and its not a case of laying the blame at one sexes feet. We need to understand how both men and women contribute in different ways to both the successes and failures of family life.
          I really hope things go well for you. I’ll do my best to lend a hand by saying a prayer for you, your husband and children. God Bless.

  • Captain America

    A good column, but I am troubled by what I see as the anachronism of St. Francis’ famous quote.

    It assumes that the people around us, (a) know us, and (b) spend enough time around us to know us reasonably well, and (c) that they also reflect on our behavior and then (d) attribute it to our Christianity.

    A lot of assumptions in the Year 2014! Most of the people around us don’t know us and may never see us again—how does one evangelize in a very, very broad world of first impressions and zero repeat contact?

    • Catholic and loving it

      These are good points. In the modern world (unlike most of human history), families & individuals are living more in Big Cities (where many don’t care about each other, like in the Daily NYC subway carts) & less in Small towns, villages & countryside communities (where there are more & stronger human bonding). The Holy Spirit certainly can work inside a NYC subway, but the apathy (many of the commuters intentionally avoid looking at human faces) is discouraging for many who seek to evangelize by witness in daily life. Extreme courage & persistency is needed. “Spread the Gospel & use words when necessary” to me also means not to be a hypocrite. Example, if we as Christians believe killing is against God’s commandment, you don’t go off killing. Our words must be in perfect harmony with our actions & life’s example. This article gives good practical steps on how to do this

  • ForChristAlone

    Those Catholics interested in seriously responding to Christ’s commandment to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world and who are looking for guidance in how to get started can refer the the St Paul Street Evangelization website. There, you’ll find the tools you need. My guess is that on the Day of Judgement, Christ will ask each of us: “So tell me about how you went about proclaiming the Good News.” And our answer will be………………

  • Teresa Roberts

    Thank you for these wonderful comments and practical ways to share our faith. I appreciate so much the simplicity of it all.

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