One theme that emerges from the Church’s documents on evangelization, education, and catechesis is the primacy of personal example, of the “witness” of one’s life over and above one’s mere words. As Pope Paul VI (1975) wrote in Article 21 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.” The pope continued by contemplating what would happen if “a Christian or a handful of Christians” were to give a witness of understanding, solidarity, and faith in the midst of the larger community. He anticipated that such an example would give rise to questions on the part of the surrounding community, and thus bring about “a silent proclamation of the good news . . . an initial act of evangelization.” Cardinal Baum (1982) made a similar point in article 32 of Lay Catholics in Schools. As he wrote: “Conduct is always much more important than speech. . . . Students should see in their teachers the Christian attitude and behavior that is often so conspicuously absent from the secular atmosphere in which they live.” A similar intuitive preference for actions as opposed to words probably also accounts for the popularity of the quotation dubiously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”
This naturally leads to a question: if actions are so important for Christian witness, why do we need words at all? What is it that prevents us from giving up the task of talking about the Christian faith? The possibility is tempting: no more awkward discussions, no more verbal confrontations with family members, no more possibility of being labeled a hypocrite, no more nights spent wondering “Do I have to say something?” As this line of thought goes, people will just see our lives of numinous holiness, and then–rather like students imitating a Tai Chi master exercising in a park at dawn—they will begin to live out the fullness of Christianity after our example. This line of thought is especially seductive to parents: surely our children will just “pick up” the faith by hanging around us. Why bother with the hard work of actually teaching them the Gospel with intentionality?
Although tempting, such a model of “evangelization solely by personal example” is ultimately unrealistic. Paul VI (1975) pointed this out in article 22 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified.” Yet the pontiff’s judgment prompts a further question: Why is that? What is it about “words” that makes them so necessary to evangelization? Why did St. Francis of Assisi spend so much time preaching if he thought personal example was so important? Why does legend have it that St. Anthony of Padua, one of Francis’s spiritual children, once preached a sermon to the fishes of the sea when the people refused to listen? Why aren’t holy actions and a joyful personality simply sufficient for evangelization.
It seems to me that we have ample theological resources to answer that challenge (“and the WORD was made flesh”), but a philosophical response is also possible. Actions are insufficient for evangelization because our actions are primarily images that other people see. Since other persons have no direct access to our interior mental and volitional states, they view our actions from the “outside.” It somewhat akin to viewing a picture or a video of someone. But as the philosopher Robert Sokolowski (2008) wrote in Phenomenology of the Human Person, “Picturing alone does not make the intelligibility of the thing present to us; we need the support of words in picturing” (p. 139). We “need the support” of words because pictures and images are ambiguous. For example, if I see you running across the grocery store parking lot, your action is not self-explanatory. Perhaps you are running from the police. Perhaps you need to find a restroom facility. Perhaps you are exercising. However, your words could assist me in understanding precisely what is going on: “I am late for work!”
Because grace typically builds upon and perfects human nature, the same necessity of conjoining word and image applies to our Christian witness. As Paul VI rightly anticipated, our actions can provoke questions. But only our words can provide answers.