In his catechesis on the Acts of the Apostles at the weekly General Audience, Pope Francis reflects on how the Apostles create the first batch of Deacons, and how one of them, Saint Stephen, became the Church’s first martyr.
Pope Francis began his catechesis, explaining that there have always been problems in the Church, including in the early Christian community, as St. Luke points out in the Acts of the Apostles. This first community made up of faithful from various cultural backgrounds and faiths created “fragile and precarious balances”. Hence “weeds” arise, and the worst weed that destroys a community, the Pope said, is slander. The Greeks grumbled that the community was neglecting their widows.
Balancing preaching and service
The Apostles create Deacons to bring about harmony between service to the Word and service to charity, which is the leaven that makes the ecclesial body grow.
They find a way out of this difficulty by distributing the various tasks for a serene growth of the entire ecclesial body, without neglecting the preaching of the Gospel and caring for the poorest members.
They establish a nucleus of “seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom”, called Deacons, who will take care of the community’s service and charity. The Pope said that Deacons are not priests but are the guardians of service in the Church.
Stephen – victim of slander
Among the seven Deacons, Stephen and Philip stand out in a particular way. Stephen evangelizes with force and ‘parresia’, but his word meets the most stubborn resistance. His adversaries find a vile means to destroy him through slander or false witness.
Describing slander as a “diabolic cancer” that kills, the Holy Father said it is born of the desire to destroy a person’s reputation. Slander, he said, also attacks the rest of the ecclesial body and seriously damages it when, out of petty interests or to cover up one’s own defaults, it joins forces with others to smear someone.
Stephen is produced before the Sanhedrin and accused falsely by slanderers, just as they had done with Jesus and would do to all the martyrs. As his self-defence, Stephen proclaims a reinterpretation of sacred history centered on Christ. The Easter of the dead and risen Jesus is the key to the whole history of the covenant. Faced with this superabundance of divine gift, Stephen courageously denounces the hypocrisy with which the prophets and Christ himself were treated. Without mincing words, he boldly exposes them as traitors and killers.
This provokes the violent reaction of his listeners and Stephen is condemned to death by stoning. He manifests the true “stuff” of the disciple of Christ and does not seek loopholes or appeals to personalities who can save him. While putting his life back in the hands of the Lord, Stephen also forgives his killers, as Jesus did.
Drawing attention to Stephen’s words, Pope Francis said martyrs “teach us that it is not beautiful speeches that reveal our identity as children of God, but only the abandonment of our lives in the hands of the Father, and forgiving those who offend us. This, he said, make us see the quality of our faith.
“The Church today is rich in martyrs,” the Pope continued. “Today there are more martyrs than at the time of the beginning of the Church, and martyrs are everywhere; the Church is irrigated by their blood which is ‘the seed of new Christians’ and ensures growth and fruitfulness to the People of God.”
The Pope pointed out that martyrs are not “holy men”, but men and women in flesh and blood who, as the Book of Revelation says, “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
Pope Francis concluded his catechesis urging Christians to pray that the martyrs may inspire them to live a full life, welcoming the martyrdom of daily fidelity to the Gospel and of conforming ourselves to Christ.