Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his January 2007 audience, focused on St. Stephen the Protomartyr, touched on several points, three of which are of particular interest here. The first is that Stephen was carrying out the “task of evangelization among his compatriots.” He and six other men of “good repute” had been chosen by the apostles to handle daily duties among the people (Acts 6:1-6). St. Luke describes Stephen as a man who was “full of grace and power,” performing “great wonders and signs among the people” whose bold and effective witness eventually led to his arrest. Two thousand years have passed, but the Church still has an evangelistic mission, for it has been entrusted with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The second point is that Stephen, the pope emeritus noted, “presented in Jesus’ name a new interpretation of Moses and of God’s Law itself.” How so? He read and understood the Old Testament in the light of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. “He gave the Old Testament a Christological reinterpretation and provoked reactions from the Jews, who took his words to be blasphemous (see Acts 6:11-14),” and so was condemned to death by stoning. Stephen’s preaching, Pope Emeritus Benedict said, kept with what Jesus had passed on to the apostles — that it was necessary for him to suffer before entering into his glory (Lk 24:25-27).
The heart of preaching is the Cross, the emeritus pope said, for it “stands at the center of the history of salvation as recounted in the Old Testament; it shows that Jesus, crucified and risen, is truly the goal of all this history.” In the words of Christ himself, as heard in the reading in Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
The third point is that God’s plan is not always obvious or immediately understandable, but it is always at work. The persecution against the first Christians and the martyrdom of Stephen led to the Christians moving out beyond Jerusalem. The blood of the first martyrs planted the seeds of faith in Samaria, Phoenicia, Syria and beyond. Luke highlights one man in particular: “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). This same man went on “to become an outstanding apostle of the Gospel,” St. Paul.
No man is an island; in the Church, no one is a saint in isolation. Each of us — whether we are a priest, a husband or wife, a cloistered nun — relies on the witness of others and the graces in the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life … The Church is the goal of all things” (No. 760). This goes hand in hand with the high priestly prayer of Jesus: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one … .” By ascending to the Father, the Son shows that man can dwell in glory — and is called to do so (No. 668-70). The heavens have been opened and God’s plan is being fulfilled, just as Stephen believed and witnessed.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.