St. Stephen, the First Martyr
1. Among the original seven deacons nominated by the Apostles there was one named Stephen who was outstanding for his sanctity and extraordinary spiritual gifts. Being enlightened by God, this young man dared to rebuke the Jews in public for their hardness of heart and openly defended the doctrine of Christ, whom he proclaimed to be the Saviour and Redeemer of the world. One day when he was threatened by his foes, Stephen raised his eyes trustfully towards Heaven and said: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The Jews could no longer restrain their fury and proceeded to drag the young man outside the city. There they left their garments in the care of a youth named Saul while they savagely stoned Stephen to death. Stricken to his knees by the force of the missiles, the saintly young disciple continued to look towards Heaven. “Lord Jesus,” he cried, “receive my spirit.” Before he breathed his last, he forgave his enemies in the manner of his divine Master. “Lord,” he prayed, “do not lay this sin against them.” And with these words he fell asleep. (Cf. Acts 7:51-60; 8:1-2)
Let us admire and imitate the courage of this martyr. We may never be called on to endure a martyrdom of blood on behalf of our faith, but we shall almost certainly be obliged to undergo the martyrdom of the assault of the passions on our purity of soul, or of severe physical or mental suffering… If we accept these trials from God with perfect resignation and love, they will certainly prove as valuable to us as real martyrdom. If we endure them with the courage and fortitude of St. Stephen, we shall be rewarded as He was by seeing Jesus standing at the right hand of God and offering us the palm of victory.
2. Saul was a member of the band which led Stephen to his death. He did not actually take part in the stoning of the saintly deacon, but be cooperated with the executioners. It is possible that, as he lay dying, Stephen looked up at Saul and uttered his last prayer for this sincere and honest young Jew who had been led astray by the prejudice and passion of the mob. In God's plan the martyrdom of Stephen was in some way connected with the conversion of St. Paul, who was soon afterwards dramatically won over by the grace of God on the road to Damascus.
3. Let us endeavour also to suffer, pray and work for the conversion of our fellow-men, so many of whom are wandering in the darkness of error or struggling in the clutches of vice. Let us try by our sufferings, prayers and good example to draw down God's grace on our unhappy brothers. If we succeed, we shall share in the merits of their good actions, and we shall have ensured our own everlasting salvation.