St Francis is (mis)quoted as saying “Always preach the gospel. If necessary use words.” In fact, that appears to be a later apocryphal addition rather than a genuine quote (as was the “Prayer of St Francis”), but the saying does capture something essential: people see what you do before they hear what you say.
But I would state it differently today: “Preach the gospel, but avoid words if you can.”
The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Walker Percy talked about the way the Christian terms have been emptied out by overuse and overfamiliarity. He was saying this as early as the 70s, but the pattern he saw then has continued exponentially since, and has been intensified by many trends: the scandals that have come to light in every branch of Christianity, the rise of the Christian Right, bent on warmongering, defending torture, and by all appearances tribal and nationalistic in its faith, the absurdity of so much public Christianity (think Westboro Baptist, televangelists, and Raymond Arroyo).
All these things render Christianity odious to outsiders. Add the nominally Christian background of many modern secularists, with its tiny, comprehensible (and thus false) god, and you have a recipe for rejection.
There has been a conversation in the comboxes about this, and someone linked to a blog post by Fr Dwight Longenecker, in which he raved:
I’m scared because I think that rage is not going to remain behind the mask of nice-ness for long. We’re seeing that demonic rage lurking beneath the surface beginning to emerge, and when it does take cover. That’s why I’m scared, and that’s why I am very careful what I write on this blog–because I have already had threats from homosexualists that they know where I live and they are out to get me. I have already witnessed the burning acid of irrational rage against the Catholic Church in com boxes and in emails to a priest friend who dared to criticize Obama. I’ve already witnessed the howling, screaming rage against the truth, beauty and goodness of the Catholic Church and her saints. What I’ve seen reminds me of the sub human creatures, taken over by a virulent disease in the film I Am Legend. The once human beings live like zombies in a half life–hiding by day and coming out on the rampage at night ready to kill and devour anyone who is still uninfected by their horrible disease. That’s why I’m scared.
I’m sorry, but I really don’t think most proponents of gay “marriage” are subhuman creatures and zombies. Bourgeois consumerists maybe, but not zombies. Nor do I think most of them are raging against the truth, beauty and goodness of the Church.
Rather, most of them are reacting to hypocrisy and ugliness. 99% of the problems of the Church in relating to this culture are ones of credibility. When “prolifers” defend torture, when high-ranking hierarchs, supposedly celibate, are caught in sex scandals, when polls show greater support of aggressive foreign policy among churchgoers, when alleged Catholics, like the Acton Institute spokesman I heard on the radio the other day, show utter incomprehension of the plight of the poor (he suggested they quit whining and become entrepreneurs), well, who is going to listen when these same people speak of the dignity of human life? Let alone their faith in Jesus Christ?
That is why Pope Francis is such a gift to the Church: he speaks first the visual language of simplicity, refreshingly eschewing the princely trappings of the papacy, informal and humble in style. And when he uses words he speaks plainly, not in obscure theological terms (and no disrespect is intended for his more philosophical predecessors).
Having established credibility, Francis can be heard when he speaks. Would that we would learn from his example.
The world cannot stand wordy hypocrites. The language it understands is mercy, justice, and beauty.