Tom of Disputations looks at the saying “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” that is falsely attributed to St. Francis.
Let me suggest that the Franciscan ideal behind the “if necessary, use words” saying assumes a society in which Christianity has been found difficult and left untried. A bad Christian is far more likely to understand the good example of a good Christian to be an example of Christianity than is a bad non-Christian; for that matter, a good Muslim, say, might understand it to be an example of Islam!
This is an interesting observation. Many groups that are not Christian have been affected by Christian morality and try to bring those truths into their practices. Some modern Pagan groups now have soup kitchens and display other signs of love of neighbor. These same acts done by different groups in a way preach the Gospel, but it is heavily filtered down and distorted. In a society such as ours more needs to be done.
On the last carrier I served on I worked for a Senior Chief that preached the Gospel through his actions, but unfortunately never found it necessary to use words. His example to my then atheist sensibilities was powerful, yet I had no idea what his religious beliefs were other than that he was a Christian. We talked much on politics, culture, and family and still the subject of religion did not come up. This good man as many others I worked with showed an example I was attracted to but no one ever tried to evangelize me. Strangely It wasn’t till after I became a Catholic that people started to hand me books and flyers of a religious nature. It takes more than seeing a good example to make you want to change. We all desire change and most of our efforts have the longevity of the time-unit known as a New Years Resolution; a unit of time much smaller than what constitutes ticks in an atomic clock. We can only truly change through grace, but we can’t cooperate with grace to a fuller extent unless we know the truth. We must be preached a Christ that goes beyond Hallmark sentimentality but focuses on our sinfulness, need of redemption, and on Christ who is our redemption. I could not infer any of this from someone’s outward good actions, though I had a growing awayness of my sinfulness and that stoic efforts were not a solution.
The Franciscan phrase highlights an important truth about good example but actions don’t always speak louder than words. Preaching the Gospel through your actions can be a fertilizer to help the truth grow in someone, yet it will be to no avail if the seed of ideas through words is not also planted. This is another case of the great Catholic Both/And where both concepts are true and are dependent on each other.