Undoubtedly one of the happiest decisions of the Second Vatican Council was the restoration of the diaconate to favorable status within Catholic parish life. The Diocese of Providence recently accepted 8 new deacon candidates into an English speaking program and 8 new candidates into a Spanish speaking course. Over four years these aspirants will receive thorough instruction in theological studies and pastoral practices. Once ordained these men will be authorized chiefly to administer the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, to read and preach the Gospel message, and to assist liturgically at the altar. But, equally so, a deacon can bring the secular into the sacred through their personal lives as spouses and parents, professional people and business men. Along with the support of all the baptized, the full scope of the ordained priesthood – bishop, priest and deacon – can certainly enhance and hasten the work of the Church.
The martyrdom of St. Stephen, a member of the very first deaconate ordination class, testifies not only to the personal holiness of this dedicated young man but also powerfully affirms the universality of the Gospel message. Wisely does this Sunday’s liturgy link Stephen’s tragic end with some powerful words from the Gospel according to St. John on the universal nature of the Christian message: “Jesus prayed saying:“Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you…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…” St. John was earnestly concerned that the infant Church of his day was experiencing some Jewish/Greek tension and his prayer was for a speedy resolution of this nationalistic bent. It was, of course, this Jewish/Greek tension that first led to the institution of the deaconate.
Greek widows were being neglected within Jerusalem’s early Christian community so seven Greek speaking men were recruited to ease the situation. The Book of Acts testifies to the good work of charity and preaching achieved by these men. St. Luke wisely saw the martyrdom of St. Stephen, a member of the Greek speaking community, as a providential opportunity to stress that the Greek speaking community was just as near to the heart of God as the Jewish community. As the first to die for the Christian message, St. Stephen displayed the worth of the Greek community in his own blood.
To underline the dignity of the Greek-speaking Christian population, St. Luke, in chapter VII of his Acts, carefully documents the similarities between the final events of Jesus’ life and the closing moments of Stephen’s life. Both Christ and Stephen are led “out of the city” to die. They both shared the disgrace of evection from their beloved Jerusalem. St. Luke further writes, “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” The reader will certainly recall that Jesus in his desperation also cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A magnanimous Stephen exclaimed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In a number of Lucan manuscripts, Jesus also begged, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Toward his final moments, Stephen fell to his knees and “cried out in a loud voice.” Jesus too, when the end was near, “cried out in a loud voice.” After this final outcry, Jesus expired: “…when he had said this he breathed his last.” Stephen similarly passed from this life: “…when he said this, he fell asleep.”
In the Book of Acts, St. Luke does graphically what St. John would later do literally in his writings. St. Luke records every detail that would rank the meaning of the death of Stephen as near as possible to the significance of the death of Christ. Luke’s message is clear: St. Stephen was truly doing the work of Christ within the Greek-speaking community. St. John in his ponderings would arrive at the same conclusion: “…I have given them the glory you gave me…” The work of the Father that Jesus did so admirably in his public life was now passed on to Stephen and to the whole believing community. The Church in succeeding generations would carry this same message to the ends of the earth.
The martyrdom of St. Stephen is a milestone in the Church’s ministry of evangelization. His final moments celebrate the continuity of the Gospel message and foresee the universality of the Gospel message. All ranks of the Church — hierarchy, clergy, laity, religious, vowed — all share in the same commission to live and share the Good News of salvation.
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