Pope Francis gives the homily during a prayer service in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
"Where can we encounter him?" asked Francis. "We encounter him in the church. It is the church which says today: 'Behold the Lamb of God;' it is the Church, which proclaims him; it is in the Church that Jesus continues to accomplish his acts of grace which are the sacraments."
"No manifestation of Christ, even the most mystical, can ever be detached from the flesh and blood of the Church, from the historical concreteness of the Body of Christ," Francis continued.
"Without the Church, Jesus Christ ends up as an idea, a moral teaching, a feeling," said the pontiff. "Without the Church, our relationship with Christ would be at the mercy of our imagination, our interpretations, our moods."
Francis was celebrating Mass at the start of the year for the World Day of Peace and the Catholic feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, both celebrated by the church Jan. 1.
Before speaking on the role of the church in sharing Jesus, the pontiff meditated on Mary's place in loving and raising him, saying: "Christ and his mother are inseparable."
"Mary is so closely united to Jesus because she received from him the knowledge of the heart, the knowledge of faith, nourished by her experience as a mother and by her close relationship with her Son," said Francis.
"The Blessed Virgin is the woman of faith who made room for God in her heart and in her plans; she is the believer capable of perceiving in the gift of her Son the coming of that 'fullness of time' in which God, by choosing the humble path of human existence, entered personally into the history of salvation," he said.
"That is why Jesus cannot be understood without his Mother," said Francis. "Likewise inseparable are Christ and the Church; the salvation accomplished by Jesus cannot be understood without appreciating the motherhood of the Church."
Quoting from Pope Paul VI's 1975 encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, Francis said "to separate Jesus from the Church would introduce an 'absurd dichotomy.'"
After the Mass Thursday, Francis saluted pilgrims who had come to a frosty St. Peter's Square to say the noontime Angelus prayer.
The pontiff said the start of a new year is a good time to remember your baptism, to "rediscover the gift received in that sacrament that has regenerated a new life: the divine life."
Going off his text, he repeated a question he has asked before, querying the crowd: "How many of you remember the date of your baptisms?"
Seeing that many did not raise their hands, the pontiff told them that they had "homework" -- to ask their parents and grandparents about the day and how it was celebrated.
Mentioning the annual New Year's celebration of the World Day of Peace, Francis also said three times during his Angelus remarks that "peace is always possible."
"We must search for it," he said. "Remember well: peace is possible and the roots of peace are prayer. Pray for peace!"
The church has celebrated Jan. 1 as the World Day of Peace since 1967. Each year since 1968, the pope has released a peace message to the world on that day.
Francis' message this year takes the theme "No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters," and makes a forceful and personal plea for the end of modern-day slavery -- calling on governments, communities and individuals globally "not to become accomplices" to human trafficking and exploitation in their myriad forms.
The pontiff also addressed the issue of slavery while closing out 2014, saying in a vesper's service in St. Peter's Basilica Dec. 31 that God sent Jesus to ransom sinners from slavery.
"Do we live as children [of God] or as slaves?" asked Francis during his homily at the service.
"Do we live as people baptized in Christ, anointed by the Spirit, ransomed and free?" he asked. "Or do we live according to worldly logic: corrupt, doing what the devil wants us to believe is in our best interest?"
Pope Francis told those gathered in the basilica that all people, even Christians, have "a tendency to resist freedom; we fear freedom and, paradoxically, we prefer slavery" although often people are not aware that that is what they are doing.
"Freedom frightens us because it places time before us and, with it, the responsibility to live it well," he said. "A nostalgia for slavery nests in our hearts because it appears more reassuring than freedom, which is much riskier."
Saying the New Year is a time for people to examine their consciences, Francis called especially for people to evaluate how they helped and served the poor.
Christians, he said, must have "the courage to proclaim in our city that the poor must be defended and that we do not need to defend ourselves from the poor, that the weak must be served and not used."
Joshua McElwee; National Catholic Reporter; 1 January 2015