ROME – Celebrating the Catholic Church’s first martyr, Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death for preaching the faith, Pope Francis said Saturday he’s an example of how small, everyday acts of goodness can have a major, yet often unseen, impact of the world.
The pontiff also noted that martyrdom is very much a contemporary phenomenon too, noting of today’s victims of religious hatred, “They are many, unfortunately.”
Calling Saint Stephen someone “who shines in the darkness,” the pope in his Dec. 26 Angelus address noted that although Stephen was accused of blasphemy and eventually stoned to death, “he allowed the light of Jesus to shine: he prayed for his murderers and forgave them.”
“He is the first martyr, or witness, the first of a host of brothers and sisters who continue to bring the light into the darkness – people who respond to evil with good, who do not succumb to violence and lies, but break the cycle of hatred with meekness and love. In the world’s nights, these witnesses bring God’s dawn,” he said.
Stephen, the pope said, was a model example of how to imitate Jesus through service to others. Noting that Stephen was a deacon, Francis said he “tried to imitate the Lord every day and he did it even to the end: like Jesus, he was captured, condemned and killed outside of the city, and like Jesus he prayed and forgave.”
Francis questioned what purpose examples such as the one set by Stephen serve in a world consumed with so much darkness and hatred, saying the question of “what good it does” to pray and forgive in these circumstances is normal.
However, “there’s a lot more” to the story, he said, pointing to one detail of Gospel account of Stephen’s death, which is that, according to the text, one of the people for whom Stephen prayed and who he forgave was “a young man named Saul,” who participated in Stephen’s death, but who would later convert and become Saint Paul.
“By God’s grace,” the pope said, Paul converted and became “the greatest missionary in history.”
“Paul was born by God’s grace, but through Stephen’s forgiveness. That was the seed of his conversion,” Francis said, calling this episode proof “that loving actions change history: even the ones that are small, hidden, everyday.”
God guides humanity through “the humble courage of those who pray, love and forgive,” he said, insisting that “small acts of love change history.”
God, he said, wants faithful “to make our lives masterpieces through the ordinary, everyday things we do.”
As Christians, “We are called to bear witness to Jesus right where we live, in our families, at work, everywhere, even just by giving the light of a smile and fleeing the shadow of gossip and telling tattle-tales,” he said.
When something happens that is wrong, instead of “criticizing, badmouthing and complaining,” Pope Francis urged Christians to pray for the person who made the mistake, and for any difficulties that arose because of it.
If an argument erupts at home, “instead of trying to win it, let us try to diffuse it; and start over again each time, forgiving the one who has offended us,” he said, noting that while Saint Stephen was being hit by stones of hatred, he “reciprocated with words of forgiveness.”
“He thus changed history,” he said, adding, “We too can change evil into good each time just as a beautiful proverb proposes which says: ‘Be like the palm tree: they throw stones at it and it drops down dates.’”
Francis closed his audience praying for all those persecuted because of their faith in Jesus.
“Let us entrust these brothers and sisters to the Virgin Mary,” he said, “that they might respond with meekness to oppression and that, as true witnesses to Jesus, they might conquer evil with good.”
Usually given from a window looking down onto the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis’s address was instead livestreamed from the library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace due to Italy’s strict holiday lockdown.
Next up on the pope’s holiday schedule is a private Vespers ceremony Dec. 31, and a Jan. 1 Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God to inaugurate the New Year.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen