“Go and preach the Gospel. And if you must, use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi to his followers
One of the foundational principles of the Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus is that “our actions speak louder than words.” In my book by the same name, we take up this issue almost immediately, noting that anyone who is known to be Christian participates in building the “Christian brand.” That may sound like modern business-speak, but actually it comes from the Third Century priest and theologian Tertullian, who noted that the behavior of other Christians in his time had prompted a pagan “to put a brand on us.” And that brand was very positive: “See how they love one another.”
How much that must have pleased the risen Jesus, who told his disciples at the Last Supper: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34).
In our society we tend to think of religion as a private matter, so we’re inclined to forget that it also has a public dimension. Christians and non-Christians alike are inclined to judge a person by reference to their known affiliations and creeds. Moreover, they are also inclined to judge the affiliations and creeds themselves. So when our behavior is not consistent what our religion professes, it not only reflects poorly on us, it reflects on our religion as well.
When Jesus was asked which commandment was most important, he said we should love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourself (Mt 22:37-39, Mk 12:30-31, Lk 10:27). So when we act in ways that are perceived as unloving for any reason, we are subject to judgment — and so is our church and all of Christianity, and sometimes even Jesus’ own teaching and life.
When I used the example of how Mohandas Gandhi’s appraised Christians in my book, it raised the ire of at least one reviewer on Amazon.com’s website. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ. If Christians really lived according to the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.” The reviewer objected that Gandhi was ungrateful, given all that Christians had done for the people of India. That may be true. But it nonetheless speaks to the power of personal example in shaping people’s perceptions of Christians and Christianity — including, of course, Catholicism.
On the other hand, when individual Catholics or Catholic agencies act in ways that are perceived as consistent with Jesus’ teaching and example, people are attracted to Jesus, his teaching and the church. For example, with the case of the tens of thousands of people who have joined the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), it seems that nearly all of them began their journey because of the everyday kindness and example of Catholic family members, friends and neighbors.
For another example, many times non-Catholics have told me how grateful they are to Catholic Charities for providing them with assistance for a variety of things, including marital counseling and adoption services. They make it clear that the experience has made them favorably disposed to Christian principles in general and Catholicism in particular — and some of them confess that before they were assisted, they held very negative opinions of Catholicism and Catholics.
What they are describing is an evangelizing conversion experience even if it doesn’t prompt them to become a member of the church. We distinguish between proselytizing, which is seeking to convert people to particular church membership, and evangelizing, which is preaching the Gospel in word and deed so as to open people’s hearts to the Lord’s saving grace.
Leadership happens every time someone tries to influence someone else, so leadership is everyone’s work. So it is with evangelization. As Pope John Paul II said in 2004: “Now is above all the hour of the lay faithful, who, by their specific vocation to shape the secular world in accordance with the Gospel, are called to carry forward the church’s prophetic mission by evangelizing the various spheres of family, social, professional and cultural life.”
When we strive to lead like Jesus, we are more closely living and loving like Jesus too. And when we’re doing that, our behaviors are evangelizing others — whether it’s a matter of encouraging them to be more favorably disposed to Gospel values or it’s inspiring them to become even more committed and hopeful disciples of Christ.
As a practical matter, once people know we are in any way affiliated with Jesus’ teaching, our deeds and words will influence how they think of us, of our affiliation and of Jesus himself. Either we are affirming ourselves, our faith and our Lord to them or we are disparaging all three in their eyes.
Which do you want to be known for — by your neighbor and by your God? And what are you going to do about it?