Without St Stephen, Christianity as we know it would be radically different.
Without St Stephen, we wouldn’t have Boxing Day because it was originally a holiday because it was the holy day of St Stephen. Neither would we have that fantastic carol about one Good King Wenceslas. These, obviously, would be tragic losses.
Without St Stephen, we also wouldn’t have St Paul.
When St Stephen was about to stoned for proclaiming Christ Jesus, “the Righteous One” foretold by Moses and the prophets, Saul — the future St Paul — was there leading the whole show.
[Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:55-60)
Whenever I read this passage, I imagine a mini-conversation between St Stephen and our Lord.
Christ stands at the right hand of God, welcoming St Stephen into His kingdom with the crown of martyrdom. He says to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have suffered with me and for me, now you will be glorified with me. Ask anything you wish, and it will be given.”
Aloud, St Stephen responds “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And to Jesus alone he says, “and Lord, I want that one, the one who is persecuting me, the young man Saul. Make him who is our greatest persecutor into your greatest evangelist. He will be my crown and my reward.”
Of course, I don’t know that’s how it happened but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. St Augustine said,
“If St Stephen had not prayed, the Church would never have had St Paul.”1
What more perfectly explains the particular power of St Paul’s preaching than the prayers of St Stephen the Protomartyr, the first Christian who died for that same gospel? In the supernatural unity of the Body of Christ, the prayers and good works of one member can help other members — just like a body works together for the good of the whole. This is what Catholics call the treasury of merits.
I like to think that St Stephen’s preaching — cut off by his martyrdom — continued even more powerfully in heaven, through the witness and preaching of the man who stoned him, St Paul.
St Stephen the Protomartyr, pray for us.
Alban Butler, Conversion of St Paul in The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, 1833 ↩