The Greatest Act of the Protomartyr St. Stephen

by Elizabeth Turello –

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, by Italian painter, Bernardo Cavallino (1616-1656)

As a kid, I remember always lingering on St. Stephen’s page in my book about the lives of the saints. In part, it had to do with the brutal means of his death; my little mind had a hard time comprehending the notion of being stoned. He was also the protomartyr, an immeasurable gift from God, which I spent (and still do) a lot of time reflecting on. I used to think about how afraid St. Stephen was, being the first to die for the Savior, with no model to follow. Or how his heart must have broke for his killers, so in denial that the Son of Man had come that they allowed violence and hatred to twist them. But there was more to it.

Younger me might not have fully understood, but the true reason I kept returning to his page was forgiveness – “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). It’s a line of Scripture that has stayed with me all these years. The older I get, the more aware I am of the immense grace St. Stephen’s act of mercy required. How many people have wronged me, nowhere near as severe as the cruel death of St. Stephen, that I have not forgiven because it is easier to hold onto anger? Where is my mercy, something I desire to receive from the Lord, but do not always grant others?

St. Stephen’s remark in Acts 7:60 calls to mind the words of Jesus in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Scripture tells us that moments before his death, St. Stephen looked up to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. It is a beautiful reminder that we are never alone; our Creator is with us, both in life and death. When we remember this, forgiveness, an act of love, becomes the only thing our hearts desire. The wickedness of resentment dissolves in the presence of the Savior who died for us, the greatest act of forgiveness there is.

We are not all St. Stephen, though. We have not looked up to see the heavens opening and we were not granted the gift of being the first martyr. What we were graciously given is a model of forgiveness and faith. Remember how I mentioned I used to dwell on the fear St. Stephen must have felt by being the first? He wasn’t – he had the example of Christ to follow. How could he have felt anything but love knowing he was about to enter eternal life? The Bible tells us that “he fell asleep.” St. Stephen did not ‘die’ but merely left this world behind defending his faith, his last act of tenderness akin to that of the Savior’s.

It is our duty as Catholics to imitate Christ, especially when we are treated unjustly. St. Stephen’s final moments and death serve to remind us of this. It can be difficult to remember our purpose when the world is beating us down or tempting us to sin. But when we turn to saints like Stephen, we are reminded that no matter how tough the circumstances, God is with us. And, even in the most extreme cases, we are called to forgive.

This Christmas season, let us ask St. Stephen to help empty our hearts of the grudges we cling to and instead fill them with warmth and joy.

Elizabeth Turello is the Communications Associate for the World Apostolate of Fatima USA/Blue Army Shrine.

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