Father Steven Lape, pastor of St. Jerome Parish in East Rochester, said he often wonders if he has the same passion as St. Stephen, the deacon and first follower of Christ to be martyred.
"He was willing to speak up when his views were unpopular, and to take it to the death," Father Lape said.
St. Stephen, whose feast day is Dec. 26, was one of seven original deacons chosen to minister to Greek-speaking Jewish widows. He is described in Acts of the Apostles as a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit. In Greek, his name means "crown"; he and subsequent martyrs are depicted in religious art with crowns to signify their martyrdom.
According to Acts 7:54, St. Stephen was stoned after preaching to the Sanhedrin — the highest Jewish authority of the time — his reinterpretation of the Old Testament in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The description of St. Stephen’s trial and martyrdom in Acts contains parallels with Jesus’ trial and death. According to the accounts in the Gospels and Acts, the Sanhedrin condemned both St. Stephen and Jesus for blasphemy, and both men called on the Lord to receive their spirits and asked forgiveness for their persecutors.
Speaking about St. Stephen during a Jan 10, 2007, general audience, Pope Benedict XVI noted that Saul — the future St. Paul — witnessed Stephen’s stoning, and presumably had absorbed Stephen’s Christological reinterpretation of the Old Testament, which St. Paul would later deepen and complete.
"St. Stephen’s vision was brought about in St. Paul’s mission," Pope Benedict said during the audience, the text of which is available at www.vatican.va.
St. Stephen continues to provide a model of faith for several diocesan groups. St. Stephen Church, which is part of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva, bears his name. So do the many Stephen Ministries at area parishes whose members help those who are hurting or in need. According to a national Stephen Ministry fact sheet, the ministry takes its name from St. Stephen because he was the first lay person commissioned by the Apostles to provide caring ministry to those in need.
The association of deacons in the diocese is named after St. Stephen because of the saint’s dedication to carrying out the mission of Christ, even though it meant his death, noted Deacon David Palma, director of the diocesan office of deacon personnel.
"He’s very important to the deacons of Rochester," Deacon Palma said. "They’ve chosen him as a model that provides a vision of diaconal service in that he preached the word and was killed for preaching the word."
Father Lape noted that many people may read the stories of the lives of saints with admiration, but he said that St. Stephen’s story calls us to be martyrs for our faith, if necessary.
"I have always wondered, would I be able to take such abuse from people, not only verbally, but also the stones thrown at him?" Father Lape asked rhetorically.