ROME – Speaking on the feast day of St. Stephen, acknowledged as Christianity’s first martyr, Pope Francis entrusted contemporary Christian victims of religious persecution, of whom he said “there are so many,” to the care of Mary, mother of Jesus.
“May the Virgin Mary, to whom we entrust all those – and, sadly there are so many who, like Stephen, suffer persecution in the name of the faith – orient our prayer to receive and to give forgiveness,” he said on Saturday.
“There are so many martyrs today,” the pope added.
Concern for anti-Christian persecution has been an emerging feature of Francis’ papacy. In his Christmas Urbi et Orbi message on Friday, for instance, the pope referred to victims of religious persecution as “our martyrs of today.”
Francis amplified his message on Saturday by tweeting out the following plea:
Let us pray for Christians suffering persecution, often amid the shameful silence of so many.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) December 26, 2015
The pontiff has also frequently observed that those who target Christians don’t generally make distinctions among the various denominations, arguing that the common experience of suffering unites Christians in an “ecumenism of blood.”
Statistical evidence for the pope’s concern is not hard to find.
In September 2012, the Pew Forum issued a report concluding that Christians faced harassment, either de jure or de facto, in a higher number of countries than the followers of any other religion. At some point between 2006 and 2010, according to the document, Christians had been harassed in 139 nations, more than two-thirds of all the countries on earth.
According to the Christian missionary organization Open Doors, which tracks reports of anti-Christian hostility, there are 100 million Christians around the world today presently facing interrogation, arrest, torture, and death.
More broadly, Francis devoted most of his brief reflection for the feast of St. Stephen to the theme of forgiveness.
Although the pontiff is notoriously dubious about the corporate logic of the bottom line, in a sense he invoked a version of it by arguing that forgiving one’s enemies is not merely an idealistic impulse or a hollow gesture, but also a decision that can produce unexpectedly positive outcomes.
Francis noted that according to the Biblical account in the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen forgave those about to stone him to death.
“But we could ask, what’s the point of forgiving?” the pope said. “Is it just a good act, or does it bring results?”
In response, the pope noted that among those persecutors of Stephen, according to tradition, was a zealous Jewish figure named Saul – who, before long, would undergo a conversion experience and emerge as Paul, the great missionary of early Christianity known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.”
“We can say that Paul is born from the grace of God and the forgiveness of Stephen,” the pope said.
“We, too, are born from the forgiveness of God, [and] not only in baptism,” the pope said. “Every time that that we’re forgiven, our heart is reborn; it’s regenerated. Every step forward in the life of faith carries the impression at the beginning of divine mercy.”
Mercy is a key spiritual concept for Francis, expressed in his papal motto – “choosing through mercy” – and in his decision to call a special jubilee Holy Year of Mercy that runs until Nov. 20, 2016, the feast of Christ the King.
Francis suggested that the effort to forgive is a daily enterprise.
“Every day we have the chance to train ourselves to forgive,” he said. “Like our Heavenly Father, we become merciful ourselves, because it’s through forgiveness that we defeat evil with good, we transform hate into love and render the world cleaner.”
Francis was delivering the annual noontime Angelus message for the feast of St. Stephen, which is a national holiday in Italy created by the Italian state in 1949 to extend the celebration of Christmas – much as happens here on the Monday after Easter, known as “Pasquetta,” meaning “little Easter.”
Saturday’s Angelus marked another public appearance during a busy holiday season for Pope Francis.
On Sunday, the pontiff will celebrate a Mass devoted to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Peter’s Basilica. The theme of the family has been a towering priority for Francis, having devoted two special Synods of Bishops in 2014 and again in 2015 to the subject, and he’s expected shortly to publish a document reflecting on the conclusions of those synods.
On New Year’s Eve, Francis will preside over a vespers service, and on New Year’s Day he’ll celebrate a Mass in honor of Mary in the morning. That afternoon he’ll head across town to Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major to open a holy door for the special jubilee Year of Mercy.
On Jan. 6, Francis will close the traditional holiday season with a Mass for the feast of the Epiphany, marking the revelation of Christ as the Son of God when he was visited by the three magi, or “wise men.”