The figure of the missionary proposed by the documents of the Church today has much in common with what Francis of Assisi suggested in his missionary service, and its essential manifestation is witness with one’s life.
Jesus Christ proclaimed “the kingdom of the Father” not only through the preaching of the word, but also through the witness of his life (cf. Lumen Gentium35), and “the witness of the Christian life and good works done with a supernatural spirit have the power to attract men to faith and to God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2044). The fact that Christians have the duty to show God “the new man with the example of their life and with the testimony of their word” (Ad Gentes11), also says Pope St. Paul VI, noting that bearing witness is the first and necessary means of evangelization, since “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are of witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi41).
Undoubtedly, St. Francis was a witness for his time and still is for ours, because even today he announces to the world the “message of Christ” through his friars. Thomas of Celano called him the “new evangelist” who, before going to the others, submitted himself to the action of the Gospel, allowing his heart to be transformed. Under the cross of San Damiano he asked to illuminate the darkness of his heart and, before acting, he implored discernment. The Poverello, not knowing his own path, asked for the light of a God full of glory and goodness. First he himself was preached the Good News, which he embraced, and only then did he begin to share what was revealed to him by the Lord. Francis was so fixated on Jesus that, despite his predisposition to live a hidden life, he decided to become a missionary following the example of the Master, who was sent by the Father to bring salvation to men. However, he discovered that being a missionary does not consist above all in preaching, but in immersing oneself in the mission of Christ in order to “live according to the form of the holy Gospel” (Will, 14; FF 116).
Today’s missionary spirituality also indicates interior adherence to Christ as something essential, since “one cannot understand and live the mission without referring to Christ as the one sent to evangelize” (Redemptoris Missio88).
In sharing the Gospel with others, Francis did not just use the word of proclamation as the only means of contributing to the conversion of others. A great role was played by the example of life. When he asked to give this example, he didn’t do it without foundation. He tried to show with his own life what the Rule proposed, and the Rule reminded the friars that they had to preach above all with their actions and with their own lives. This recommendation should especially be implemented when other people speak and live badly. In this case the Friars Minor must have the praise of God on their lips and do good works, “do not make quarrels or disputes, but be subject to every human creature for the love of God and confess that they are Christians” (Rule not stamped XVI, 6; FF 43). And only then, when they deem it right and “when they see that it pleases the Lord, they proclaim the word of God…” (Rule not stamped XVI, 7; FF 43). Undoubtedly the first Franciscans, living according to the recommendations of the Rule, attracted attention quite easily, not only by their fraternal attitude towards one another, but, by opting for the least and living in poverty, they were a sort contrast with the world at that time, even with the religious world, and “those who saw them marveled and shouted: «We have never seen religious dressed like this»”.
This attitude has lost none of its relevance even today, because “the evangelical testimony to which the world is most sensitive is that of attention to people and charity towards the poor and the little ones, towards those who suffer” (Redemptoris Missio, 42). This Franciscan approach to the question of evangelization is very much in line with what the papal encyclicals currently propose. In the first place, the missionary testifies with his life (cf. ibid., 42), and thus opens the way for the work of evangelization to carry it out “through the gift not only of the word proclaimed, but also of the word lived” (Veritatis Splendor, 107). Witness, on the other hand, is at the service of faith, because faith grows and is strengthened by giving it (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 2). In other words, for the transmission of the faith to be effective, prayer and action must be intertwined, especially where evangelizing through the witness of one’s life “is in many cases the only possible way to be a missionary” (Redemptoris Missio42).