In an early Franciscan collection of remembrances of the Saint from Assisi, commonly referred to as The Legend of the Three Companions, there is a story of Francis talking to the earliest group of brothers that had been inspired to follow Francis’s way of Christian living (vita evangelica). The story points to the challenges that lie ahead for anyone who is committed to live in this world following the Gospel of Christ. His words to those first half-dozen men continue to speak to women and men today. Francis begins by reminding the friars of the reason why they are there, that they have responded to the working of the Spirit in their lives to live in a different way, focused on proclaiming the Gospel in deed as much as word. This is one of the foundations for that misattributed, yet wildly popular (and true to the spirit of Francis, if not his actual words), aphorism: “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” Here is one way he really said this:
Calling together the six brothers, Saint Francis, since he was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, predicted to them what was about to happen. “Dearest brothers,” he said, “let us consider our vocation, to which God has mercifully called us, not only for our own good, but for the salvation of many. We are to go throughout the world, encouraging everyone, more by deed than by word, to do penance for their sins and to recall the commandments of GOd. Do not be afraid that you seem few and uneducated. With confidence, simply proclaim penance, trusting in the Lord, who conquered the world. Because by his Spirit, He is speaking through and in you, encouraging everyone to be converted to him and to observe his commandments”
Francis then goes on to foretell the challenge of such a commitment and the struggle that each brother will inevitably face in their ministry.
“You will find some faithful people, meek and kind, who will receive you and your words with joy. You will find many others, faithless, proud, and blasphemous, who will resist and reject you and what you say. Therefore, resolve in your hearts to bear these things with patience and humility”
These are themes that are echoed elsewhere in the historical writings of Francis. Frequently, in his admonitions, the Saint exhorts his followers to bear tribulation and challenges in the spiritual, ministerial, and evangelical life with “patience and humility.” This is also something that appears in the famous Canticle of the Creatures, when Francis of Assisi, in a very brief way, identifies what it means to be human in the same way that he previously identified what it meant to be the sun or moon or earth. To be human, to live as God has intended us to live, means to be peacemakers and reconcilers who are exhibit patience and humility toward one another.
The Legend of the Three Companions concludes this Franciscan pericope in the following way, highlighting the reaction of those first friars to Francis’s words.
When the brothers heard this, they began to be afraid. The saint told them: “Do not fear, because after not much time many learned and noble men will come to us, and will be with us preaching to kings and rulers and great crowds. Many people will be converted to the Lord, Who will multiply and increase His family throughout the entire world.”
For Francis, he understood that to preach the Gospel in a manner befitting the call of the Spirit meant to do so with patience and humility. When that was done in action and in speech, when a model of another way to live in the world that did not exhibit the selfishness, competition, and self-centeredness encouraged by society, then others would indeed follow. As the personified Lady Poverty echoes in the early Franciscan allegorical text The Sacred Exchange Between Saint Francis and Lady Poverty, there will always be some who refuse to hear the Gospel, who despise evangelical poverty, who cannot bring themselves to follow in the footprints of Jesus Christ. Francis says, that’s ok. You cannot make anybody do something against his or her will.
However, we can embrace our vocation to live the Gospel and do so with patience and humility. If others are so moved, great. If not, just keep on keeping on!