Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, is celebrated the day after Christmas. “It reminds us . . . that many believers in various parts of the world are suffering because of their faith,” Pope Benedict XVI said during today’s Angelus in St Peter’s Square, all decorated for the Christmas celebrations, with a big crèche and a huge Christmas tree.
The Pope did not mention any country in particular, but yesterday during the Urbi et Orbi blessing he referred to the difficulties Christians face in the Holy Land, Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Korean peninsula, Congo and Latin America.
In Asia, out of 52 countries, at least 32 limit Christians’ mission in some ways. Muslim countries (from the Middle East to Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia) make it hard for people to convert to Christianity; India and Sri Lanka are increasingly pushing for anti-conversion laws; Central Asian nations (except for Kazakhstan) limit religious freedom; the Communist countries (China, Laos Vietnam and North Korea) stifle or even persecute the Church.
As the Pontiff continued his address, he called on every Christian to entrust their persecuted brothers to the protection of St Stephen. “Let us commit ourselves to support them with our prayers and not fail in our Christian vocation, always placing Jesus Christ at the centre of our life, which these days we contemplate in the simplicity and humility of the crèche.”
However, the celebration of St Stephen’s martyrdom does not remind us only of violence, for he, “like his Master, dies forgiving his persecutors. This makes us understand that the entry of the Son of God into the world gives rise to a new civilisation, a civilisation of love that does not surrender to evil and violence, but breaks down barriers between men, making them brothers in the great family of the sons of God.”
In addition, Stephen was one of the first deacons, who, in handing out help to the poor of Jerusalem, became a “servant of the poor”, the Pope said.
In concluding, the Pope noted, “Stephen’s testimony, like that of [other] Christian martyrs, shows to our contemporaries, who are often distracted and disoriented, on whom we should place our trust in order to give meaning to life. The martyr in fact is the one who dies with the certainty that he is loved by God, and who, putting nothing before the love of Christ, knows that he chose the better side. Basing himself fully on the death of Christ, he is aware that he is the fruitful seed of life that can open paths for peace and hope in the world. Today, by presenting us the deacon St Stephen as a model to follow, the Church is also showing us, in welcoming and loving the poor, one of the privileged ways to live the Gospel and credibly bear witness of the coming Kingdom of God to all men.”