The Church Is More Than a ‘University of Religion,’ Pope Insists
‘We are a people who follow Jesus Christ and bear witness,’ the Holy Father said, ‘and sometimes this witness leads to laying down our lives.’
VATICAN CITY — In his daily Mass on May 6, Pope Francis recounted the death of St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, explaining that being a Christian means giving witness to faith.
“You cannot understand a Christian without witness,” the Pope stated in his daily homily, adding that “we are not a university of religion, a ‘religion’ of ideas” or “of pure theology, beautiful things, of commandments.”
“No, we are a people who follow Jesus Christ and bear witness — who want to bear witness to Jesus Christ — and sometimes this witness leads to laying down our lives.”
Addressing those gathered in the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse, the Holy Father reflected on how St. Stephen, whose stoning was recounted in the day’s first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, was killed in a manner similar to that of Jesus.
Like Jesus, Stephen also encountered “the jealousy of the leaders who were trying” to get rid of him and had “false witnesses” and a “rushed judgment” when he warned the people that they were resisting the Holy Spirit, the pontiff noted.
“These people were uneasy, were not at peace in their hearts,” but, rather, had “hatred” in their hearts, he observed, explaining, “This hatred was sown in their hearts by the devil. … This is the devil’s hatred of Christ.”
Highlighting how the “struggle between God and the devil” is clearly shown in the act of martyrdom, Pope Francis said that “to be persecuted, to be a martyr, to give one’s life for Jesus is one of the beatitudes,” which is why “the devil cannot stand seeing the sanctity of a church or the sanctity of a person without trying to do something.”
“Martyrdom is the translation of a Greek word that also means witness,” he continued, “so we can say that, for a Christian, the path follows in the footsteps of this witness, Christ’s footsteps, to bear witness to him; and many times this witness ends up in laying down one’s life.”
“You cannot understand a Christian without witness. We are not a ‘religion’ of ideas, of pure theology, beautiful things … we are a people who follow Jesus Christ and bear witness.”
Recalling how “a severe persecution began against the Church in Jerusalem” after Stephen’s death, the Holy Father observed that these people “felt strong, and the devil provoked them to do this,” so “Christians scattered to the regions of Judea and Samaria.”
Because of this persecution, the people of God went “far and wide,” proclaiming the Gospel and giving testimony to Jesus wherever they went, the Bishop of Rome went on to say, noting that this is how the “mission of the Church” began.
“So many converted on hearing these people,” he reflected, quoting one of the Fathers of the Church, who said: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” With “their witness they preach the faith.”
“Witness, be it in everyday life, in difficulties and even in persecution and death, always bears fruit. The Church is fruitful and a mother when she witnesses to Jesus Christ.”
However, “when the Church closes in on itself, when it thinks of itself as a — so to speak — ‘school of religion,’ with so many great ideas, with many beautiful temples, with many fine museums, with many beautiful things, but does not give witness,” the Pope explained, “it becomes sterile.”
“The Christian is the same. The Christian who does not bear witness, is sterile, without giving the life he has received from Jesus Christ.”
Continuing, Pope Francis observed how “Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit” and that “we cannot bear witness without the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.”
“In difficult times, where we have to choose the right path, where we have to say No to a lot of things that maybe try to seduce us, there is prayer to the Holy Spirit,” he stated, “and he makes us strong enough to take this path of witness.”
Bringing his reflections to a close, the Pope encouraged those present to think “about these two icons — Stephen, who dies, and the people, the Christians, fleeing, scattering far and wide because of the violent persecution.”
“Let us ask: How is my witness? Am I a Christian who witnesses to Jesus or a simple numerary in this sect? Am I fruitful because I bear witness or sterile because [I am] unable to let the Holy Spirit lead me forward in my Christian vocation?”