.- Returning to a catechesis on the Apostles and early Saints of the Church, Pope Benedict focused his Wednesday General Audience on the figure of St. Stephen. The Holy Father told some 7,000 pilgrims gathered in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, that Stephen, who was a Deacon and the first Martyr of the Church, demonstrates that Christians should always act in a socially charitable way, while never shying away from preaching the Gospel.
"St. Stephen," said the Pope, "is the most representative figure of a group of seven companions," who concerned themselves with charitably serving the needs of members of the Christian community, whether of Jewish or of Greek origin.
"Tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of deacons," upon whom the Apostles "laid their hands," a gesture that in the Old Testament "has above all the significance of transmitting an important task," said the Pope.
"That this was an important action, to be undertaken following due discernment, becomes clear from a reading of the First Letter of Paul to Timothy: 'Do not be hasty in laying on of hands, nor participate in another man's sins'."
"Apart from his charitable service," the Pope continued, "Stephen also carried out evangelizing activity among his countrymen, the so-called 'Hellenists'." To them "he reread the Old Testament in the light of the announcement, death and resurrection of Jesus." This rereading "provoked the reaction of the Jews who perceived his words as blasphemy."
Stephen "shows that the mystery of the cross lies at the center of the history of salvation," and that "the cult of the temple is finished" because the Risen Christ "is the new and true 'temple.' It was precisely this 'no' to the temple" that led to his death sentence and martyrdom. After his stoning, the group of Jewish and Hellenic Christians fled Jerusalem "and became itinerant missionaries. ... Persecution and consequent dispersion became mission."
The Holy Father explained how the story of St. Stephen reminds us that "social commitment to charity can never be disassociated from the courageous announcement of the faith." With charity, the first martyr "announced the crucified Christ, even to the point of accepting martyrdom."
"The cross remains central in the life of the Church as well as in our private lives. In the history of the Church, passion and persecution will never be lacking," said Pope Benedict, but, "in the famous phrase of Tertullian, 'we multiply every time we are cut down by you.' The blood of Christians is a seed."
"In our own lives too, the cross, which will never be lacking, becomes a blessing," he concluded. "And accepting the cross, knowing that is it is and becomes a blessing, we learn the joy of being Christian, even in moments of difficulty."