Thursday 13th May 2021

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A Beacon Of Light… St. Stephen, The First Martyr

May 4, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. RICHARD D. BRETON JR.

(Editor’s Note: Fr. Richard D. Breton Jr. is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn. He received his BA in religious studies and his MA in dogmatic theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.)

  • + + Continuing our Easter journey, we have found ourselves walking alongside the early Christians in their formation of the Church. Last week we turned our attention to certain figures who played an important role in the development of the Christian faith. St. Peter was the “rock,” the solid foundation on which the new Church would rest. St. Peter became a pivotal collaborator in the Church’s infant years.
    Along with St. Peter, the apostles and many disciples participated in the early days of the Church. As the Church grew it began to receive the recognition of the people. As time went on, the Church began to increase in numbers. Many were drawn to Christianity and began professing the faith of Jesus Christ. This was not without its difficulties. From the many arrests and imprisonments, the Early Church would begin to feel the pangs of persecution.
    None, however, played a more pivotal role in the early persecutions than St. Stephen. Why do I single out St. Stephen? Precisely because he was the first who gave up his life for the emerging Church.
    If we look back at the early moments of the Church, we know that Jesus died around AD 30. It was not too long after that the new Church emerged and began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, was the birthday of the Church and not long after this, the persecutions began.
    Imagine for a moment, the new Church was running on a high from the Holy Spirit, and suddenly, it endured its first persecution that ended in the death of one of its faithful members.
    The Acts of the Apostles records the horrific death of St. Stephen. “When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
    “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:54-58).

A Turning Point

Following the persecution and death of St. Stephen, the Early Church was scattered. The Christians fled Jerusalem and began settling in other parts of the region. This was a turning point for the Church because now she was called to go out and gather those who were scattered and eventually attract others to living the newly founded faith of Jesus Christ.
Today we find ourselves surrounded by persecution every day. Over the last year we have found our faith persecuted by a worldwide pandemic. This kind of persecution has led civil officials to overstep their authority by forcing the closing of our churches, while leaving liquor and package stores open. The last year has opened our eyes to what is really happening in the world. What makes this even more disheartening is that some of our Church hierarchy have succumbed to the pressure of government authorities. We are experiencing a “pandemic of religious persecutions” being thrust upon us by the government.
This “pandemic of religious persecution” has affected living our faith by denying the faithful the essential necessities of the faith, most especially the Eucharist.
The Gospel reading for Friday of the Third Week of Easter, is part of the Bread of Life Discourse. In this Discourse Jesus teaches His disciples, and all of us, that we need the Eucharist in the journey of the faith, but most especially in the persecutions we are facing. In the Gospel reading it says: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink. Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him….This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:52-59).
We need the Eucharistic “Bread come down from Heaven” as a means to assist us in all the persecutions being thrown at us. Not only has this “pandemic of religious persecution” included a mysterious virus, but it has also allowed the faithful to lose track of what journey we are on.
We see this in the immense confusion there is regarding the sanctity of human life. This is compounded by, for example, Cardinal Archbishop Wilton Gregory publicly stating on November 24, 2020 that he would have no problem giving Holy Communion to President Biden. It seems that the “pandemic of religious persecution” is even creeping into the Church.

Blessed Carlo Acutis

As Catholic Christians we are on a journey that ultimately leads us to the heavenly Kingdom. This journey requires nourishment along the way. That nourishment is the Eucharist. Recently, the beatification of Blessed Carlo Acutis, a teenager from Milan, was recognized as a special blessing for the Church in our time. Blessed Carlo had a very special relationship with the Eucharist. On October 10, 2020, the day of the beatification, Agostino Cardinal Vallini, the papal representative for the beatification, said:
“Since he was a child…he had his gaze turned to Jesus. Love for the Eucharist was the foundation that kept alive his relationship with God. He often said, ‘The Eucharist is my highway to heaven’.” During the beatification Mass, Acutis’ parents processed behind a relic of their son’s heart, which was placed near the altar.
An apostolic letter from Pope Francis was read aloud in which the Pope declared that Carlo Acutis’ feast will take place each year on October 12, the anniversary of his death in Milan in 2006. Blessed Carlo Acutis is a model for us all to follow. We need to all have a strong relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
For over 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has endured many persecutions. From the early years of the Church’s foundation, from the martyrdom of many of those in apostolic times, to the persecutions of today, we need strength to endure the present and future situations that arise. The martyrs found their strength in the faith they were so fiercely protecting. They loved the faith.
A question that should be asked of today’s Catholics is: Do you love your faith so much that you would give your life? Sadly, I wonder how many would say yes. I have seen an increase in the faithful living more of a worldly life, versus a life focused on the spiritual journey that leads to Heaven.
How do we change this “pandemic of religious persecution”? We do it best by following the example of Blessed Carlo Acutis by maintaining a strong union with the Eucharist. St. Clare used the Eucharist to protect the convent from violence and destruction, and we can use the Eucharist to protect us from the persecutions we endure in the current moments of our lives and to protect us from whatever the future has in store.
O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine!

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