Today, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen. The memory of the first martyr follows immediately after the Solemnity of Christmas. Yesterday, we contemplated the merciful love of God Who became flesh for us; Today, we see the coherent response of the disciple of Jesus, that gives life. Yesterday, the Savior was born on earth; now, His faithful witness is born to heaven. Yesterday like today, the darkness of refusing life appears, but the light of love that overcomes hatred and inaugurates a new world still shines stronger.
There is a particular aspect, in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which the story of St. Stephen is similar to that of the Lord. It is regarding his forgiveness before he was stoned to death. Nailed to the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34); similarly St. Stephen fell to his knees and cried out: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ “(Acts 7:60). Stephen is therefore a martyr, which means witness, because he does as Jesus; It is in fact true witness, those who behave like Him: those who pray, those who love, those who give, but especially those who forgive, because forgiveness, as the word implies, is the highest expression of giving.
But – we might ask – what is the point of forgiving? It’s just a good deed or opens the way to results? Right in the martyrdom of Stephen, we find an answer. Among those from whom he begged forgiveness was a young man named Saul; he persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it (cf. Acts 8.3). Shortly after, Saul became Paul, the great saint, the Apostle of the Gentiles. He had been forgiven by St. Stephen. We can say that Paul was born by God’s grace and by the forgiveness of Stephen.
Also, we are born from God’s forgiveness. Not only in baptism, but every time we are forgiven our heart is reborn, it is regenerated. Each step forward in the life of faith is impressed with the early sign of Divine Mercy. Because only when we are loved, we can love ourselves. Remember, we will do well if we want to move forward in faith, but first of all we must receive God’s forgiveness; [We must] meet the Father, Who is ready to forgive everything and always, and whose forgiving alone heals the heart and revives love. We must never tire of asking God’s forgiveness, because only when we are forgiven, when we feel forgiven, we learn to forgive.
Forgiving, however, is not easy. It is always very difficult. How can we imitate Jesus? Where do we begin excusing the small or large wrongdoings we suffer every day? First of all, [we can do so] by prayer, as Stephen did. It starts from your heart: with prayer, we can deal with the resentment we feel, by entrusting those who have done evil to us to the mercy of God: “Lord, I ask you for him, I ask you for her…” Then it turns out that this inner struggle to forgive purifies from any evil and prayer and love set us free from the chains of the inner resentment. It is terrible to live in resentment! Every day we have the opportunity to train ourselves to forgive, to live this gesture which so greatly brings man closer to God. As our Heavenly Father, we too become merciful. Through forgiveness, we overcome evil with good, we transform hate into love and so we make the world cleaner.
To the Virgin Mary, we entrust those, unfortunately, many martyrs today, who are suffering persecution, like St. Stephen did, in the name of faith. We direct our prayer to her to receive and give forgiveness. To receive and give forgiveness.
After the Angelus:
Dear brothers and sisters,
I greet all pilgrims here, those of you from Italy and from different countries. I renew to you all the hope that contemplating the Child Jesus, standing next to Mary and Joseph, may inspire an attitude of mercy and love for one another in families, parish and religious communities, movements and associations, and to all the faithful in people of good will.
In recent weeks, I have received many greetings from Rome and elsewhere. I cannot answer each one. Therefore, today I express to you and to all my heartfelt thanks, especially for the gift of prayer.
Happy Feast of St. Stephen, and please do not forget to pray for me. Good lunch and goodbye!