By Devin Watkins
Pope Francis prayed the Angelus on Wednesday with pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
As the Church celebrates the feast of the first Christian martyr, the Holy Father reflected on St. Stephen’s example of trust in God and forgiveness.
“Forgiveness,” he said, “broadens the heart, generates sharing, and gives serenity and peace.”
Joy and martyrdom
Speaking on the day after Christmas, Pope Francis said the contrast between the joyful birth of the little Child and the cruel drama of St. Stephen’s martyrdom “may seem strange”.
“In reality this is not the case, because the Child Jesus is the Son of God made man, who will save humanity by dying on the cross.”
St. Stephen, said Pope Francis, was the first person to follow in Jesus’ footsteps through martyrdom. He died like Jesus, “entrusting his life to God and forgiving his persecutors.”
Trust in God
In the day’s First Reading (Acts 6:8-10; 7:54-59), the deacon Stephen is dragged before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem on false charges of blasphemy. He speaks at length to them, but they are enraged by his words. They throw him out of the city and stone him to death.
Pope Francis said Stephen displayed an attitude of faithful acceptance of whatever life brings, be it positive or negative. “Trust in God helps us to welcome difficult moments and to live them as an opportunity for growth in faith and for building new relationships with our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Stephen, the Pope said, also imitated Jesus with an attitude of forgiveness, praying for his persecutors.
“We are called to learn from his example to forgive, to forgive always.”
Stephen’s example is a way to live our relationships with other people: in the family, at school or work, and in parish life. “The logic of forgiveness and mercy always prevails and opens up horizons of hope.”
Forgiveness, said Pope Francis, is cultivated through prayer, “which allows us to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus.”
He said Stephen was able to forgive his killers because, “full of the Holy Spirit, he looked up intensely to heaven and his eyes were opened by God.”
“Prayer gave him the strength to suffer martyrdom.”
We too, the Pope concluded, need to pray insistently to the Holy Spirit for “the gift of strength that heals our fears, our weaknesses, and our small-mindedness.”