PopeWatch: Saint Stephen



Pope Francis had some interesting observations on the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, this week:

The Christian who does not witness to the faith becomes sterile. This was the focus of  Pope Francis’ homily at morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta. The Pope drew inspiration from the martyrdom of St. Stephen, narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. The Church, he said, is “not  a university of religion”, but the people who follow Jesus.  Only in this way, he added , is the Church both “fruitful and mother”.
Emer McCarthy reports:

In his homily Pope Francis traced the path that led to the death of the first martyr of the Church, a death that was the exact replica of Christ’s. He, too, like Jesus , he said, had encountered “the jealousy of the leaders who were trying” to eliminate him. He too had “false witnesses” , a “rushed judgment”. Stephen warns them that are resisting the Holy Spirit, as Jesus had said , but “these people – said the Pope – were uneasy, were not at peace in their hearts”. These people , he added, had ” hatred ” in their heart . That is why, on hearing Stephen’s words, they were furious . “This hatred – said Pope Francis – was sown in their hearts by the devil”, “this is the devil’s hatred of Christ”.
The devil “who did what he wanted with Jesus Christ in his Passion now does the same” with Stephen. This “struggle between God and the devil” is clearly seen in martyrdom. “On the other hand, Jesus had told his disciples that they had to rejoice to be persecuted in his name: “To be persecuted,  to be a martyr, to gives ones’ life for Jesus is one of the Beatitudes”. That is why, the Pope added , “the devil cannot stand seeing the sanctity of a church or the sanctity of a person, without trying to do something”. This is what he does with Stephen, but “he died like Jesus forgiving”.
“Martyrdom is the translation of a Greek word that also means witness. And so we can say that for a Christian the path follows in the footsteps of this witness, Christ’s footsteps, to bear witness to Him and, many times, this witness ends up in laying down one’s life . You cannot understand a Christian without witness. We are not a ‘ religion’ of ideas, of pure theology, beautiful things, of commandments. No, we are a people who follow Jesus Christ and bear witness – who want to bear witness to Jesus Christ – and sometimes this witness leads to laying down our lives”.

On Stephen’s death, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “a severe persecution began against the Church in Jerusalem”. These people , the Pope observed , “felt strong and the devil provoked them to do this” and so “Christians scattered to the regions of Judea and Samaria”. This persecution, the Pope noted, means that “the people spread far and wide” and wherever they went they explained the Gospel , gave testimony of Jesus , and so “mission of the Church” began. “So many – he recalled – converted, on hearing these people”. One of the Fathers of the Church, explained this by saying : “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”. With “their witness, they preach the faith” :

“Witness, be it in everyday life, in difficulties, and even in persecution and death, always bears fruit. The Church is fruitful and a mother when she witnesses to Jesus Christ. Instead , when the church closes in on itself , when it thinks of itself as a – so to speak – ‘school of religion’, with so many great ideas, with many beautiful temples, with many fine museums, with many beautiful things, but does not give witness, it becomes sterile. The Christian is the same. The Christian who does not bear witness, is sterile, without giving the life he has received from Jesus Christ”.
The Pope continued, “Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit”, and “we cannot bear witness without the presence of the Holy Spirit in us”. Pope Francis advised those present: “In difficult times, where we have to choose the right path, where we have to say ‘no’ to a lot of things that maybe try to seduce us, there is prayer to the Holy Spirit, and He makes us strong enough to take this path of witness”:

“Today thinking about these two icons – Stephen, who dies, and the people, the Christians, fleeing, scattering far and wide because of the violent persecution – let us ask: How is my witness? Am I a Christian who witnesses to Jesus or are a simple numerary in this sect ? Am I fruitful because I bear witness, or sterile because unable to let the Holy Spirit lead me forward in my Christian vocation?” .
PopeWatch has expressed grave reservations about the economic ideas of Pope Francis, and has concerns about where this Pope wishes to lead the Church, but he clearly embraces traditional Catholic piety as expressed in his comments about Saint Stephen.


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  1. “The Church, he said, is “not a university of religion”, but the people who follow Jesus. Only in this way, he added, is the Church both “fruitful and mother”.
    The Church is ” a university of religion” and “the people who follow Jesus”. Only in this way, he added, is the Church both “fruitful” and mother””.

    This is why our school is called “alma mater” and students “matriculate”.

  2. The practice of celebrating mass at the tombs of the martyrs dates from the first ages and is commemoratedin the fact that ever altar stone in the Latin rite and every antimension (Ἀντιμήνσιον) in the Eastern rites contains the relics of martyrs.

    Their invocation and the veneration of their relics and images is a very good example of the sensus fidelium in action: it was practised from the Apostolic age for seven centuries, before being formally defined by the Magisterium at the Second Council of Nicea (the last council of the undivided Church) in 787.

  3. I also reacted to the “not a university” statement, Mary. If you look at chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles you see that what Stephen was doing was teaching the people- “edumacating” them with a long history 50 verses as to their own history and thus the legitmacy of the Christian argument. Our first martyr was teaching not only by deeds but also with words history and logic.
    they covered their ears and refused to hear.

  4. Mary de Voe

    I always thought “matriculate” meant to enroll, from Latin “matrix” = a register.

  5. I think that the “university” comment was a bit unfortunate, but for a different reason.

    I agree with the Pope’s apparent intent. The Church is not an ivory tower. It is not a place where we should seek temporal refuge. It is a place of refuge only in the spirit.

    But there are many Christians who are not strong or brave enough for martyrdom, not in the sense that Stephen was. I know I’m not. I can understand why such Christians would want to seek physical refuge in an ivory tower while serving the Church. My hope is that all such people hear the Pope’s words as encouragement to go farther and not approbation.

    My thoughts also go out to the Pope Emeritus. Now there is a man who loves the ivory tower, and who would have loved to have stayed in it all his life. Yet he answered the call of the Spirit and left it, and two or three times (once being his election as Pope, the others before then) he answered the call again and did not return to it when we so desired. I hope he found encouragement in these words also.

  6. Michael Paterson-Seymour: “I always thought “matriculate” meant to enroll, from Latin “matrix” = a register.
    I always thought “matriculate ” meant to embrace a profession at university, a vocation, to a certain profession. Everybody enrolls, not everybody matriculates. In the Church, everybody “matriculates”, through Him, with HIm and in Him.

  7. Tom, you said “…Pope Emeritus. Now there is a man who loves the ivory tower, and who would have loved to have stayed in it all his life.”
    The profession of university teacher is not being in an ivory tower isolated from life, but it is an active call, an active ministry, which requires self sacrifice. Think of Jesus role as Teacher He announced His mission beginning in a synagogue and spent the next three years teaching.
    I have no idea if he, Benedict XVI, finds encouragement in the words of Francis or not.

  8. There seems to be a kind of reverse snobbery about intellectuals and the so called “ivory tower”. Where would the Church be without the Scholastics? There also seems to be a kind of snobbery about how we serve Christ. Should everyone ladle soup or work at food pantries? People are offering their lives in many different ways… some praying at abortion centers, some leading “Courage” groups, some teaching Catholic doctrine. All good,

  9. Anzlyne you wrote “The profession of university teacher is not being in an ivory tower isolated from life, but it is an active call, an active ministry, which requires self sacrifice”.
    Yes, the university teacher’s profession is an active call and an active ministry requiring self sacrifice. No doubt. There is no doubt that Fr. Joseph Ratzinger ably answered that call as well as the call to leave it behind. However, many writers have commented on the facts that he was an introspective and largely shy man. It is documented that he twice asked Pope St John Paul II to release him so he could return to the university. He may even have attempted to sabotage his election to the papacy when he delivered an unusually blunt eulogy at Pope St John Paul II’s funeral Mass.
    The university life is an ivory tower compared to life at the center of the Vatican, and there is little doubt that Ratzinger preferred the university life of intellectual pursuits and student interchanges. The man sacrificed everything that he loved in his academic life for the sake of the Church that he loved. Holiness surely came from such sacrifice.

    Your “reverse snobbery” comment is very accurate. In some ways the university should be an ivory tower, and it should have men such as Fr. Joseph Ratzinger in it. The Church certainly needs universities. On the other hand, Pope Francis is still correct: the Church is not a university.

  10. I don’t think so Tom. To me the Church is all those things.
    The pope’s ecclesiology as I read it, grows out of modernism and has a very “this world” or secular flavor. He seems to see the mission of the Church as social justice. His model of the Church–is causing my little brain so much strain because he seems to present a hermeneutic of discontinuity I guess between the Church has we have known it and the Church as he sees it.
    He talks about the joy of the gospel -the good news, but he says proselyting (teaching or sharing the good news) is solemn nonsense. I guess I’m ok you’re ok.
    The things he mentions in this sermon- the university, ideas or intellectual development, beauty, reverence for history (museums) are all very much expressions of the Church. NONE of these things are sterile. These are all part and parcel of the the very message. Beauty IS the message. Sharing knowledge of God IS loving our neighbor. People witnessing at abortion centers ARE witnesses and their witness is not sterile. People working to protect other people from the liberal sexual agenda ARE witnesses. May their work be fruitful! People who teach philosophy and theology and ecclesiology are to fulfill the mission of the Lord. That is Church.

  11. I don’t see Francis’ preoccupation in this martyrs’ homily with “witness” as having much to do with social justice. St. Stephen didn’t lay down his life for a just society, and Pope Francis doesn’t even imply it.

    I think that there are certain similarities in his language here with language he as used in other topics (social justice among others), and that is what you are homing in on. A “hermeneutic of discontinuity” could be one way to phrase it. I do recall Pope Benedict using similar language but with less emotional content.

    I think that one issue is that Pope Francis is obviously a romantic, and he romanticizes the Apostolic Era. This is an Era in which there were no Christian universities, almost no Christian institutions, definitely no Christian infrastructure, and great faith and witness. Francis seems very drawn to recapturing this spirit. I can recall Pope Benedict saying the same thing, about “removing the encrustations” that impede the growth of faith, but again his language was less emotional. Is this romanticism without risk? No, it isn’t. The entire Reformation was based on a conceit that Christianity could in toto be turned back to an imagined Apostolic Era (with an imagination that, I might add, is defective). Yet it seems to me that appeals to Christians of all denominations that they remember their roots in the Apostolic Era can and should be a source of strength to us. I can’t fault Francis if that is his motive.

  12. BTW, I also don’t see Pope Francis’ comments on sterility as much different than St. Paul’s famous writing in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Everything on Paul’s list are good things too.

  13. TomD wrote, “The entire Reformation was based on a conceit that Christianity could in toto be turned back to an imagined Apostolic Era (with an imagination that, I might add, is defective).

    There is much truth in that, but a return to our roots lies at the heart of « Ressourcement théologie » in such writers as Cardinal Jean Daniélou, Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Claude Mondésert SJ.

    We find an earlier example in the writings of Bl John Henry Newman, who quotes Greek Fathers over Latin ones in a ratio of three to one and seldom a writer later than St John Damascene, who died in 749. At a time when many people saw the 13th century as the Golden Age of Catholicism, Newman looked to the 4th.

    As for the “Ivory Tower,” Newman notes that the greatest theologians of the ante-Nicean Church, St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, St. Cyprian, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Dionysius of Alexandria, and St. Methodius were all bishops, as were all but one of the great Doctors of his beloved 4th century: saints Athanasius, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine (St Jerome is the odd man out).

  14. “he romanticizes the Apostolic Era. This is an Era in which there were no Christian universities
    Remember that early Christian effort was to both the Jews and the Greeks! those who seek signs and those known for their intellectual quest

  15. Beautifully put, Michael Paterson-Seymour. I should add that the intellectual life of the Church also began in the Apostolic Era, with St. John the Evangelist. Another point: we know that St. John suffered small martyrdoms at the hands of the Romans (though not to the death), and perhaps by comparison Patmos might be seen as an ‘ivory tower’ of a kind. Again, by comparison only to what the other Apostles suffered.

  16. St Stephen did not suffer his martyrdom because of his work feeding and tending tables. No one objects to that. They objected to his teaching.
    His martyrdom, his witness came from his teaching. Jesus crucifixion was not because of his feeding people or encouraging love, but because of his theology.
    Jesus proclaimed truth. Pilate indicated the difficulty of knowing what truth is, but Jesus answered the question. He did not hedge or dodge difficult teachings. Neither did Stephen, hence his martyrdom. I am glad the pope is looking to Stephen for inspiration,

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