01/10/2007, 00.00
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Pope: persecution always gives impetus to faith

At the general audience, Benedict XVI evoked the first martyr Stephen whose story teaches that charity is inseparable from proclamation of the Gospel. The memory of the institution of the diaconate is linked to him too.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Charity and “courageous proclamation” always go hand and hand and faith is spread by persecution. These lessons emerge from the story of the first Christian martyr Stephen who was portrayed today by Benedict XVI when he addressed around 8,000 people present in the Paul VI Hall for the general audience. A festive Christmas spirit could still be felt among those present. Before the audience started, Benedict XVI visited an exhibition of cribs displayed in the atrium of the Hall.

 

The figure of Stephen, in the words of the Pope, highlights the “irreplaceable nature of testimony” and “love for the Cross” belonging to the Church but also to the life of each of us.

 

Evoking the story of the first martyr, Benedict XVI first of all drew attention to the fact that he is linked to the institution of the diaconate, “a term however absent in the Acts of the Apostles” that instead speak of the first martyr. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, continued the Pope, the Church of Jerusalem included people coming from Israel who were called Jews and others from the diaspora, especially in Greece, who were known as Hellenists. The latter, especially widows, ran the risk of being neglected and living in hardship. Thus the apostles “decided to appoint seven men of good reputation to assume the task of looking after them”. The first, cited by Luke, was Stephen. The seven chosen men were “presented” by the apostles who “after having prayed, laid their hands on them.” In the Old Testament, the gesture indicated the transmission of an important task, as revealed by the gesture of Moses with Aaron.

 

To underline the importance of the gesture, the pope recalled that Paul had written “not to be in a hurry to lay hands on someone, not to make yourself an accomplice in another’s sins.” The phrase is linked to the explanation of the diaconate, however to Polish ears it could sound like an indirect reference to the episode of Mgr Wieglus.

 

In the case of Stephen and his friends, continued the pope, the laying of hands “is certainly the transmission of a task and the grace to undertake it.” After this gesture, Stephen carried out a work of evangelization among the “Hellenists” apart from works of charity.

 

Stephen was stoned and his killing was followed by local persecution aimed at the disciples of Jesus, the first in the history of the Church. It prompted the disciples to quit Jerusalem and to disperse. But in this way they “became missionaries”. “Persecution became proclamation, mission.” In their journey, the disciples of Jesus went to Antioch, where the Gospel was announced for the first name to pagans, and the name Christians was used.

 

Benedict XVI said the story of Stephen “teaches that one need never make a distinction between charity and the courageous proclamation of faith. Charity and proclamation always go together.”

 

But from this arises also the certainty that “the cross remains ever central to the history of the Church and also to our personal life.” Benedict XVI said: “Persecution will never be lacking,” but it will be “a source of new Christians” and he recalled a phrase from Tertullian: “Blood is the seed of new Christians”.

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