Today, April 23, is the Feast of Saint George, Martyr, and thus the name day of Pope Francis, christened Jorge ("George") Mario Bergoglio. And today, in the Pauline Chapel, the Holy Father celebrated his name day with all of the cardinals present in Rome.
As has been his custom since his election, Pope Francis delivered a short homily on the scriptures of the Mass—Acts 11:19-26 and John 10:22-30. His words, as reported by Vatican Radio, are likely to surprise many, though they should not, because they simply restate the Church's consistent teaching. But they are also an exercise in what Pope Benedict XVI called the "hermeneutic of continuity," stressing the continuity of tradition in the face of what many wrongly regard as disruptions of Church teaching over the past 50 years.
Beginning with the reading from Acts, which speaks of the persecution in the wake of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the Holy Father stressed the centrality of the Church's missionary activity. Rather than continuing to preach only to the Jews, some reached out to the Greeks, prompted, Pope Francis said, by the Holy Spirit. But the Church in Jerusalem, the Holy Father noted,
became nervous and sent Barnabas on an "apostolic visitation": perhaps, with a little sense of humor we could say that this was the theological beginning of the [Congregation for the] Doctrine of the Faith: this apostolic visit by Barnabas. He saw, and he saw that things were going well.
This visit was important, because what Acts calls "the Church in Jerusalem" was the Church, and so the Church in Jerusalem was responsible for spreading and safeguarding the Gospel. She was a "Mother"; a "Mother who gives us the faith, a Mother who gives us an identity." It is through her that we have our identity as Christians: "Christian identity is belonging to the Church."
And now Pope Francis has arrived at the crux of the matter, the part that will surprise both those who trumpet "the spirit of Vatican II" and those who denounce the council as a departure from tradition. We can only be Christians through the Church,
Because it is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church. The great Paul VI said: "Wanting to live with Jesus without the Church, following Jesus outside of the Church, loving Jesus without the Church is an absurd dichotomy." And the Mother Church that gives us Jesus gives us our identity that is not only a seal, it is a belonging. Identity means belonging. This belonging to the Church is beautiful.
This is why the missionary activity of the Church is so essential: We cannot know Christ outside of the Church. We are called to preach the Gospel to all nations, because that is the only way they can know Christ. Unless the Church is growing, preaching the Gospel and adding new members, we are not doing what we are called to do as Christians:
Think of this Mother Church that grows, grows with new children to whom She gives the identity of the faith, because you cannot believe in Jesus without the Church. Jesus Himself says in the Gospel: "But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep." If we are not "sheep of Jesus," faith does not come to us. It is a rosewater faith, a faith without substance.
"Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3). Yet we can know Christ only through the Church.
The Holy Father's words aren't a message of universal salvation; quite the opposite. Those who do not come into the Church "cannot believe in Jesus," and if they cannot believe in Jesus, then, as Christ Himself tells us, they cannot have eternal life. And that places a tremendous responsibility on our shoulders: We must expand the missionary activity of the Church in our own lives, bringing others to the Church not by "travel[ing] a little along the road of worldliness, negotiating with the world," but by preaching the Gospel in its fullness, despite the very real possibility of persecution by a world that hates Christ as much today as it did at the time of Saint Stephen's martyrdom:
The Church's journey always takes place between the Cross and the Resurrection, amid the persecutions and the consolations of the Lord. And this is the path: those who go down this road are not mistaken.