Q: I keep seeing Saint 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 Saint Francis said this.
A: This is a great quote, very Franciscan in its spirit, but not literally from Saint 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.”
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 Saint Francis guaranteed a wide diffusion of the text. The same is true for the “Use words if necessary” quote. Both reflect Saint Francis very well.