Posted by: Fr Chris | December 27, 2022

Saint Stephen: A Wound in the Soul

You can still enter the old city of Jerusalem through the gate of Saint Stephen. Though the city was destroyed by the Romans, when it was rebuilt, the wall was put up again and the gate restored, and it has been known ever since as Saint Stephen’s gate and is more than likely the place where he was martyred.

Like Jesus, witnesses were brought against him. Like Jesus, he was hauled off without a proper trial or defense. It was against the Romans’ law for the Jews to execute anyone, which was why the Sanhedrin had taken Jesus to Pilate. So like Jesus, he was attacked by breakers of the law. And like Jesus, Stephen remained firm in his commitment to the gospel, and like Jesus he forgives those who are killing him. And of course, the final blow, in the eyes of the Jews, was his sudden proclamation that he saw Christ sitting at the right hand of God, declaring that Jesus therefore is God.

Stephen’s day has been kept as a holy day connected to Christmas since the early 300s. Why? He is the first person to knowingly die for Christ, to die because of his Christian faith, and he sets the model for all future martyrs, down to our day, through his imitation of Christ. He does not waver in his faith, and he forgives those killing him. From then down to our own time with the Christians who are routinely killed by Muslim fanatics in Nigeria almost every week, martyrs do those two things.

It is significant that in Chapter 7 Verse 57 we read Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Shortly thereafter, we read in the beginning of Chapter 8 verses 2-3 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Saul of course was known also by his Roman name, Paulus, and becomes Saint Paul, the great evangelizer and theologian. He will go from destroying the Church to building up and expanding the Church through his preaching, writing, and journeys. Stephen would not know that one of the official witnesses of his martyrdom was going to become one of the great pillars of Christianity. We have no idea what seeds we plant through friendships, relationships, and simply holding firm to our beliefs in the face of harassment or persecution. In the end, Stephen’s testimony and prayers surely helped Paul’s conversion since Luke makes such a point of stating that Saul was one of the legal witnesses of the killing.

The great Catholic martyr of Scotland is Saint John Ogilvie, who was put to death for the crimes of being a priest, converting Protestants to the Catholic faith, and offering Mass in Scottish cities. In 1615 he was executed in Glasgow, and this is what happened:

There were many brave Catholics who came to the execution site to support the saint with prayers and with shouts.   They were fearless.  John said on the scaffold “If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have.”   Then something spontaneous happened, by divine intervention and inspiration.   Just before they tied his hands on the scaffold the saint quickly pulled out his rosary and tossed it to the crowd as a token of farewell.   There was a Protestant Baron, John ab Eckersdorf, who happened to be in the crowd and the rosary bounced off his chest.   The man tried to reach down for the beads but was beaten to them by the surrounding faithful anxious to get such a relic. Here is how the event is related, in the words of the Baron: I was on my travels through England and Scotland as it is the custom of our nobility, and I did not have the faith. I happened to be in Glasgow the day Father Ogilvie was led forth to the gallows, and it is impossible for me to describe his lofty bearing in meeting death.   His farewell to the Catholics was his casting into their midst, from the scaffold, his rosary beads just before he met his fate.   That rosary, thrown haphazard, struck me on the breast in such wise that I could have caught
it in the palm of my hand;  but there was such a rush and crush of the Catholics to get hold of it, that unless I wished to run the risk of being trodden down, I had to cast it from me.   Religion was the last thing I was then thinking about : it was not in my mind at all; yet from that moment I had no rest.   Those rosary beads had left a wound in my soul; go where I would I had no peace of mind. Conscience was disturbed, and the thought would haunt me : why did the martyr’s rosary strike me,
and not another?   For years I asked myself this question it followed me about everywhere.    At last conscience won the day    I became a Catholic; I abandoned Calvinism – and this happy change I attribute to the martyr’s beads and to no other
cause those beads which, if I had them now, gold could not tempt me to part with and if gold could purchase them, I should not spare it.”

Those rosary beads left a wound in my soul.

I wonder sometimes if Saul was so ferocious in his persecution because Stephen’s words left a wound in his soul. Surely as Paul, Stephen’s testimony right before he died strengthened him in his own sufferings on behalf of Christ.

We never know how our actions, our words, our constancy in the Catholic faith in the face of challenges and obstacles can affect someone. The smallest action can leave a wound in someone’s soul, a wound that will not heal until that person resolves the crisis by becoming a Catholic, or returning to the practice of the faith. Saint Wenceslaus, the king of Bohemia, famously celebrated the day by setting out an elaborate dinner for a poor man, and 1,300 years later we still sing about that. His act of charity is still remembered; Stephen’s faith is still remembered.  

We should celebrate Stephen’s day with prayers, asking him to intercede for us with God that at this challenging time in western civilization, we will be faithful to Christ, faithful to his Church, and be brave enough to witness about Jesus, in the best way that we can. John Ogilvie led the baron to faith simply by throwing his rosary out; we can throw seeds of faith out in many different ways, if we are brave enough to do so, and thus we may leave a wound in someone’s soul for the sake and love of Jesus Christ.


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