VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Homilies should not be theological conferences but should bring the word of God to people’s hearts, said Pope Francis.

“One of the things that concerns me a lot is the functional proclamation of the word of God in homilies,” the pope said in an audience at the Vatican with members of the Catholic Biblical Federation.

“Please, do everything to help your brothers — deacons, priests and bishops — to give the word of God in homilies, so that it reaches the heart,” he told the biblical scholars June 19.

“The word of God is a sacramental,” he said. “Discourses are not sacramental.”

Representatives of bishops’ conferences and some 200 Catholic biblical institutions traveled to the Vatican for the audience during the federation’s plenary assembly June 18-23 in Nemi, outside Rome.

Saying the introductory remarks by the new federation president, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, changed what he wanted to say, Pope Francis set aside his prepared text and spoke extemporaneously.

“These are the surprises of God, which help us to realize that all our plans … crumble” in the face of the living word of God, he said.

The pope went on to remark that a church which “closes in on itself and forgets it has been sent … to proclaim the Gospel, to move hearts … gets old.”

Noting that Cardinal Tagle spoke of a weakening church, the pope also spoke of a church that “gets sick and dies.”

A church can die in two ways, he said, “by being closed in on itself or … by giving life through witness.”

“A church that has the courage … to carry forward the word of God and is not ashamed is on the road to martyrdom,” he said.

The pope spoke of “the model” of St. Paul, who entrusted local established churches to others so that he could move onto other cities, as well as the need for a pastoral and outbound church, one that “goes to the streets.”

“What happens is what could happen to any person who goes to the streets: an accident,” he said. “But I prefer a church that has been injured in an accident than a sick church, closed in on itself.”

Reflecting on how Scripture can change one’s life, he said living the word of God sincerely does not make a person’s life easy and can cause difficulty, many times even “embarrassment.”

Federation members received a copy of the pope’s prepared text, in which he noted the importance of Scripture.

In his written message, the pope said a lack of enthusiasm for Scripture weakens well-established churches and stunts the missionary verve of newfound Christian communities.

Therefore, he said, there must be a pastoral commitment to make Scripture central to church life and to facilitate an “encounter with Jesus” through Scripture in all the activities of religious communities, parishes and movements.

“Servants of the word,” including bishops, priests, religious or laypeople, he said, must promote this encounter with Christ, which inspires faith and transforms lives.

Places exist where the Gospel has not yet been proclaimed, where it has not been “welcomed as the word of salvation,” or where it has been “emptied of its authority,” he wrote.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” he said, citing St. Jerome.

To proclaim the word, people must have experienced it first: “listened to it, contemplated it, almost touched it with their hands,” he said.

Christians, he added, must “venerate, read, listen, proclaim, preach, study and diffuse the word of God.”