Saint Stephen Martyr

Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Pietro da Cortona
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington in 2008, members of Saint Stephen Martyr Parish stood outside their church on Pennsylvania Avenue, nine blocks from the White House, and waved to the Holy Father as the “popemobile” passed by.

How fitting it was that parishioners of Saint Stephen Martyr would be among those welcoming the vicar of Christ, following in the footsteps of their patron saint who welcomed Jesus into his own heart and gave his life for sharing that gift of faith with others.

Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The story of this great saint’s life, death and salvation unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles in Chapters 6 through 8.  In the days following Jesus’ Ascension to heaven, the Christian community continued to grow and the Apostles needed help distributing food to the poor, including widows.  The Apostles selected the first seven deacons to help them carry out this ministry of charity, including Saint Stephen, “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 6:5)

The Apostles prayed over those first deacons and imposed hands on them, ordaining them.  With their help, “the word of God continued to spread,” and the numbers of disciples “enormously increased.”  Saint Stephen proved to be one of the most inspiring evangelizers of that early Christian community: “Stephen, filled with grace and power, worked great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:7-8)

He was brought before the Sanhedrin and false charges were brought against him, but he remained steadfast in proclaiming the Gospel.  Stephen looked up and saw a vision of the sky opening and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Then as an angry mobbed dragged him away and stoned him, this first martyr could be heard praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Crying out in a loud voice, he forgave his attackers as he died, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60)

In a 2012 audience, Pope Benedict XVI praised the witness of Saint Stephen, saying the saint’s faith and his close relationship with God gave him strength to face his martyrdom.  “Our prayer, too, must be nourished by listening to the word of God in communion with Jesus and his Church,” the Holy Father said.

This past spring Pope Francis also reflected on the example of Saint Stephen, praising the witness of 800 Italian martyrs slain in 1480 after refusing to convert to Islam because their faith, like that of the Church’s first martyr, helped them envision the promise of heaven.  Faith, Pope Francis said, “allows us to see beyond the limits of our human eyes, beyond the boundaries of earthly life, to contemplate the ‘heavens opened,’ as Saint Stephen said.”

The witness of this saint’s life and death can be seen in new wooden doors with bronze panels dedicated in 2011 at Saint Stephen Martyr Church here in Washington. Passers-by on the sidewalk along one of the world’s most famous streets can look at the church’s front door and see bronze panels depicting the ordination of Saint Stephen as a deacon as well as scenes of  him distributing food to the poor, preaching the Word of God, and receiving his vision of Jesus as he is being martyred.

The legacy of one of our Church’s first deacons can also be seen in the lives of the 15,000 active permanent deacons in the United States and the nearly 150 active permanent deacons in our own Archdiocese of Washington.  Like Saint Stephen, they preach the word of Christ and carry out works of charity. This past summer, as I ordained the archdiocese’s 25 new permanent deacons, I told them that their lives are now configured to Christ the servant.

Like Saint Stephen, today’s Catholics are called to be witnesses of Jesus, to live and share our faith boldly, so that we too might someday see heaven.