Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The "age of martyrs is not yet over, even today we can say, in truth, that the Church has more martyrs now than during the first centuries. The Church has many men and women who are maligned through calumny, who are persecuted, who are killed in hatred of Jesus, in hatred of the faith. Some are killed because they teach the catechism; others are killed because they wear the cross . . . Today, in many countries, they are maligned, they are persecuted . . . they are our brothers and sisters who are suffering today, in this age of martyrs."
For a second consecutive day, Pope Francis turned his thoughts to the martyrs of our age, to the many Christians who suffer persecution in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the pope's words were inspired by the passage in the Acts of the Apostles that mentions the violence suffered by the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Today, he spoke again about the Acts, talking about the story of Stephen, underscoring the evil of calumny.
As he usually does, Francis celebrated Mass in the chapel of St Martha. During the service, he spoke about the first martyr, who was a victim of calumny, Vatican Radio reported. "Calumny," he said, "is worse than sin; it is the direct expression of Satan".
The Acts of the Apostles presents Stephen, one of the deacons appointed by the disciples, dragged before the Sanhedrin because of his witness to the Gospel, which came with extraordinary signs.
As the text says, "false witnesses" come before the Sanhedrin to accuse Stephen. This was not a "fair fight, a fight between good men", Pope Francis noted, because Stephen's enemies chose the path of a dirty fight, "the path of calumny".
"We are all sinners; all of us. We all commit sins. But calumny is something else. It is of course a sin, too, but it is something more. Calumny aims to destroy God's work. Calumny comes from a very evil thing; it is born of hatred. And hate is Satan's work. Calumny destroys God's work in people, in their souls. Calumny uses lies to get ahead. And let us be in no doubt, eh? Where there is calumny, there is Satan himself. "
By contrast, Stephen did not respond to falsehood with falsehood. "He did not want to go that way to save himself. He looked to the Lord and obeyed the law", in the peace and truth of Christ. This "is what happens in the history of the Church", because from the first martyr until today there have been numerous examples of those who have born witness to the Gospel with great courage. Indeed, the time of the martyrs is not over.
Ours "is an age with more martyrs than that of the first centuries," an age of "much spiritual turmoil". To illustrate it, the pope evoked the image of a centuries-old Russian icon that shows Our Lady covering the people of God with her mantle.
"We pray to Our Lady to protect us, and in times of spiritual turmoil the safest place is under Our Lady's mantle. She is the mother who takes care of the Church. And, in this age of martyrs, she is the protagonist, the protagonist of protection. She is the Mother. [. . .] Let us say it with faith: 'The Church, Mother, is under your protection. Take care of the Church'!"