REGISTER SUMMARY More than 7,000 pilgrims met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience on January 10. The Holy Father resumed his series of teachings on prominent figures from the New Testament. He focused on St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The Holy Father said that Stephen’s example shows us that faith and charity are inseparable and reminds us that even persecution can become an opportunity for spreading the Gospel.
Dear brothers and sisters,
After the holiday season, we now return to our catecheses. I have meditated with you on the Twelve Apostles and on St. Paul. We then began to reflect on some other figures of the early Church. Today we will reflect on St. Stephen, whose feast day the Church celebrates on the day after Christmas.
St. Stephen is the most representative of a group of seven companions. According to tradition, this group was the seed for the future ministry of deacons, although it is worth noting that this name is not found in the Acts of the Apostles. In any case, Stephen’s importance is clear from the fact that, in this important book of his, Luke dedicates two whole chapters to him.
Service to the Poor
Luke’s account begins by showing a division had occurred within the early Church in Jerusalem. Although it was made up entirely of Christians of Jewish origin, some were natives of the land of Israel and were called “Hebrews,” while others, though of the Old Testament Jewish faith, came from the Greek-speaking diaspora and were called “Hellenists.”
But a problem began to emerge: The neediest people among the Hellenists, especially widows who lacked any social support, were in danger of being overlooked as regards assistance with their daily sustenance. In order to provide a remedy to this problem, the apostles, reserving for themselves prayer and the ministry of the word as their main task, decided to appoint “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” for this task, namely, charitable social service (Acts 6:2-4).
With this objective in mind and at the invitation of the apostles, Luke writes, the disciples elected seven men. Moreover, we know their names. They are “Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6:5-6).
The gesture of the laying on of hands can have various meanings. In the Old Testament, the gesture signified, above all, the passing on of an important duty, such as Moses did with Joshua in order to designate him as his successor (see Numbers 27:18-23). Along the same lines, the Church in Antioch also made use of this gesture in order to send Paul and Barnabas on a mission to the peoples of the world (see Acts 13:3). The two letters that St. Paul addresses to Timothy make reference to a similar laying on of hands upon Timothy in order to appoint him to an official duty (see 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).
We can gather from all we read in the First Letter to Timothy that it referred to an important act that was carried out after a process of discernment: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another’s sins” (1 Timothy 5:22).
Thus, we see that this gesture of the laying on of hands developed along the lines of a sacramental sign. In the case of Stephen and his companions, it certainly indicates the official transmission by the part of the apostles of a task, as well as a prayer for the grace to exercise it.
The most important thing to note is that, in additional to his charitable service, Stephen also carried out the task of evangelizing his fellow countrymen, the so-called “Hellenists.” In fact, Luke stresses the fact that, “filled with grace and power” (Acts 6:8) and in Jesus’ name, Stephen presents a new interpretation of Moses and God’s Law itself, interpreting the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This new interpretation of the Old Testament, a Christ-centered interpretation, provokes a strong reaction among the Jews who perceive his words as an act of blasphemy (see Acts 6:11-14). For this reason, he is sentenced to death by stoning.
St. Luke transmits to us the saint’s last discourse, a synthesis of his preaching. Just as Jesus showed the disciples on the way to Emmaus that the entire Old Testament speaks about him, his cross and his resurrection, Stephen, following Jesus’ teaching, reads the entire Old Testament in a Christ-centered light. He shows that the mystery of the cross is at the center of salvation history as recounted in the Old Testament, and he shows that Jesus, who was crucified and who rose from the dead, is the arrival point of the entire history of salvation. And he also shows that therefore Temple worship is over and that the risen Jesus is really the new and true “Temple.”
It was precisely this No to the Temple and its cult of worship that provoked Stephen’s condemnation, who, at that moment, as St. Luke tells us, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at his right hand. Looking up to heaven, to God and to Jesus, St. Stephen said: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). It was followed by his martyrdom, which, in fact, was modeled after the passion of Jesus himself insofar as he offers up his own spirit to the “Lord Jesus” and prays that the sin of his killers not be held against them (see Acts 7:59-60).
The site of Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem has traditionally been identified as just beyond the Damascus Gate, to the north, where the Church of St. Stephen is now located, near the famous École Biblique of the Dominican Fathers. The murder of Stephen, Christ’s first martyr, was followed by a local persecution of Jesus’ disciples (see Acts 8:1), the first persecution that took place in the history of the Church. It was this concrete act that drove the group of Jewish-Hellenist Christians to flee Jerusalem and to scatter.
Driven from Jerusalem, they became itinerant missionaries: “Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). The persecution and the dispersion that followed became mission. In this way, the Gospel was propagated throughout Samaria, Phoenicia and Syria, until it reached the great city of Antioch where, according to Luke, it was proclaimed for the first time to the pagans (see Acts 11:19-20) and where the name “Christians” was heard for the first time (Acts 11:26).
Luke particularly makes note of the fact that those who stoned Stephen “laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58), the same person who, at first a persecutor, would become a famous apostle for the Gospel. This means that the young man Saul must have heard Stephen’s preaching and must have been aware of its main content. Moreover, St. Paul was probably among those who, following and listening to this discourse, “were infuriated” and “ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).
At this point, we can see the wonders of divine providence. After his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul, a relentless adversary of Stephen’s vision, takes this first martyr’s Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament and deepens and completes it, thereby becoming the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” The Law is fulfilled, he teaches, in the cross of Christ and faith in Christ — communion with the love of Christ — is the true fulfillment of the entire Law. This is the content of Paul’s preaching.
Thus, he shows that the God of Abraham becomes the God of all. All believers in Christ Jesus, as sons of Abraham, partake of his promises. Stephen’s vision is fulfilled in St. Paul’s mission.
Stephen’s story tells us many things. For example, it teaches us that we must never disassociate the social commitment of charity from the courageous proclamation of the faith. He was one of the seven entrusted, first of all, with works of charity. But it was not possible to disassociate charity from proclamation. Thus, in charity, he proclaims Christ crucified, to the point of also accepting martyrdom. This is the first lesson that we can learn from St. Stephen: Charity and proclamation always go together.
St. Stephen speaks to us, above all, about Christ — about the crucified and risen Christ as the center of history and of our life. We can understand that the cross always occupies a central place in the life of the Church and also in our personal lives. There will never be a lack of suffering and persecution in the history of the Church. Indeed, according to Tertullian’s famous phrase, persecution becomes the source of mission for the new Christians. I quote his words: “We multiply every time we are harvested by you. The blood of Christians is a seed” (Apologetico 50,13: “Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis christianorum”).
However, in our lives, too, the cross, which will never be lacking, becomes a blessing. By accepting the cross and knowing that it becomes and is a blessing, we learn the joy of the Christian even in times of difficulty. The value of witness is irreplaceable because the Gospel leads to this and the Church is nourished on this.
St. Stephen teaches us to treasure these lessons and he teaches us to love the cross because it is the road on which Jesus always comes once again in our midst.
of the Jan. 10 catechesis.