I thought that this homily by the Holy Father would be a good discussion piece.
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I thank His Eminence, the Cardinal Dean, (Cardinal Angelo Sodano) for his words: thank you very much, Your Eminence, thank you.
I also thank all of you who wanted to come today: Thank you. Because I feel welcomed by you. Thank you. I feel good with you, and I like that.
The [first] reading today makes me think that the missionary expansion of the Church began precisely at a time of persecution, and these Christians went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, and proclaimed the Word. They had this apostolic fervor within them, and that is how the faith spread! Some, people of Cyprus and Cyrene — not these, but others who had become Christians — went to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too. It was a further step. And this is how the Church moved forward. Whose was this initiative to speak to the Greeks? This was not clear to anyone but the Jews. But … it was the Holy Spirit, the One who prompted them ever forward … But some in Jerusalem, when they heard this, 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 Doctrine of the Faith: this apostolic visit by Barnabas. He saw, and he saw that things were going well.
And so the Church was a Mother, the Mother of more children, of many children. It became more and more of a Mother. A Mother who gives us the faith, a Mother who gives us an identity. But the Christian identity is not an identity card: Christian identity is belonging to the Church, because all of these belonged to the Church, the Mother 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.
And the third idea comes to my mind — the first was the explosion of missionary activity; the second, the Mother Church — and the third, that when Barnabas saw that crowd — the text says: “And a large number of people was added to the Lord” — when he saw those crowds, he experienced joy. “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced”: his is the joy of the evangelizer. It was, as Paul VI said, “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” And this joy begins with a persecution, with great sadness, and ends with joy. And so the Church goes forward, as one Saint says — I do not remember which one, here — “amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of the Lord.” And thus is the life of the Church. If we want to travel a little along the road of worldliness, negotiating with the world — as did the Maccabees, who were tempted, at that time — we will never have the consolation of the Lord. And if we seek only consolation, it will be a superficial consolation, not that of the Lord: a human consolation. 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.
Let us think today about the missionary activity of the Church: these [people] came out of themselves to go forth. Even those who had the courage to proclaim Jesus to the Greeks, an almost scandalous thing at that time. 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. And let us think of the consolation that Barnabas felt, which is “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” And let us ask the Lord for this parresia, this apostolic fervor that impels us to move forward, as brothers, all of us forward! Forward, bringing the name of Jesus in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, and, as St. Ignatius said, “hierarchical and Catholic.” So be it.
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I think it is a fair statement to say that a good homily contains the entire Faith writ small; it is a synecdoche — a part which contains and exemplifies the whole. So it is with this homily by Pope Francis I. Let us not deny that the man can preach! The same cannot be said of all bishops, as I’m sure none will deny. So the Roman Church is indeed blessed to have this man as its earthly head, for this reason and many others.
I don’t know if all would accept the thesis put forth above — that a good homily is a synecdoche of the Faith. I’m willing to defend it, but it might not be the most fruitful conversation. Whatever the case may be, I do think that the Holy Father’s homily on this occasion — the Feast of St. George — certainly fits the description. With that said, I am not surprised by anything that I read here, and I am not surprised by what I…don’t read. Let me explain.
His Eminence rightly mentions the apostles’ fervor, noting that through it “the faith spread.” He jokes that Barnabas is sent on the first Inquisition, but that it doesn’t turn up anything bad: “He saw, and he saw that things were going well.” Barnabas sees that “a large number were added to the Lord,” and this gives him great joy, “the joy of the evangelizer.” The Holy Father notes that Barnabas rejoiced because God was turning persecution to His good purpose: the Christians whom persecution had driven north of Jerusalem (as far as Antioch) were speaking the Gospel, and many “Hellenists” (the culturally-Greek Jews of Antioch) were coming to faith. God brings the faithful through persecution to “the consolations of the Lord.” I genuinely love this bit: “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.” Amen!
Unfortunately, this is where it stops being a good homily, in my opinion, more on account of what is not said than anything else. Why? Because the Church always needs to be reminded of what “the consolations of the Lord” are. What’s so consoling about the Lord? We need to know the answer to this question. Every time we hear a sermon. We actually need the consolation of the Lord, not just a description of its needfulness and importance. The pope’s sermon fails in precisely the same way that most Protestant sermons fail: it is not a preaching of the Word of God; it’s a preaching about the Word of God. In this instance, it’s even more anemic — it’s preaching about the preaching of the Word of God. It’s very meta. Very modern. By the end of the sermon the consolation is still unpreached — undescribed, even.
If we double back to the previous paragraph, we find the closest approximation to consolation that the Holy Father’s sermon makes: we are part of Mother Church. Now, don’t get me wrong — I find being part of Mother Church to be immensely consoling. But I do draw a bit more consolation from the knowledge that the Church is the Body of Christ and that I am a member of His Body, as this is a more scriptural and Christological, indeed, a more complete summation of who we are as Christians. And this is no niggling critique of style and rhetoric: the way that His Eminence speaks of Christ and the Church seems to imply a separation between the two — indeed, it seems to imply that the Church, rather than being Christ Himself, is rather an intermediary between us Christians and Our Lord. While it is not untrue to say that “the Church gives us Jesus” it is more true to say that Christ gives Himself — to and for His Church. Moreover, this is the truth that we need to hear: that the Holy Spirit is the one who is calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying the whole Church on earth and keeping it in the Faith. The Church errs if she thinks that she maintains herself, or that she gives the faith of her own accord. She is but the handmaiden of the Lord.
And outside of this Church, there is no salvation. Frankly, I’m very comfortable with this formulation, though I expect that I would differ from the Holy Father on the definition of the Church. But more importantly, I’m comfortable with — and really, I should say consoled by, the obverse formulation, which I think Rome fails to preach: inside the Church, there is nothing but salvation. If you’re in the Church, you’re saved. If you believe and are baptized, then you will be saved, because Christ has taken your sins and given you His righteousness. He has joined you to Himself, and you stand before the Father not having a righteousness of your own, but having Christ Himself who is your righteousness. Nothing can harm you, for you have passed through death to life. He says so, so it’s true. This is why “this belonging to the Church is beautiful,” and it needs to be stated. All of the time. Because we poor sinners forget that this is the case. We forget that this is the promise that has been made to us and that we are to believe, and we start to think of “the Faith” as mere a set of propositions or credenda “once passed down to the saints.” We start to think that this is what it means for the Church to “give us the Faith.” We forget that faith trusts in the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and that if it doesn’t do that, nothing it does matters. And if “the Faith” that the Church gives to us isn’t this, i.e., isn’t trust in God’s mercy, then it isn’t faith, and it isn’t the Church that’s giving it to us. Sadly, there is nothing about this in the Holy Father’s homily — nothing, that is, about that simple pedestrian truth which is the beating heart of Christianity: the remissionem peccatorum, the forgiveness of sins.
For this reason I am left wanting at the end of the Holy Father’s homily. In his last paragraph, he enjoins us to think about the apostles who were “proclaiming Jesus,” of “Mother Church that grows,” of “the identity of faith,” of “consolation,” “apostolic fervor,” and “moving forward.” And I don’t know what any of it means. Who is this Jesus? Why is His Gospel “good news”? Fervor for what? Where are we going? It sounds little different than the fare of Willow Creek.
I also want to note that the ending soundbite from Ignatius seemed like a gratuitous aggrandizement of the institution of the Church rather than a commendation of the Church qua Body of Christ. I confess one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Such are the essential attributes of the Church: it is one, it is holy, is universal, it is built on the foundation of the apostles, all of whom were equals (cf. Matt 18:1-5; Luke 9:46-48). I do not confess a hierarchical Church. Obviously I know that Rome differs on this matter, holding its ecclesiastical hierarchy to be divinely ordained. Yet it seems an odd place in which to confess such a thing.