And so are we Catholics, but for a different reason.
Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the Deacon – the first martyr of Jesus Christ. I’ve always found it fascinating that his feast day immediately follows Christmas. It is as if Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom and through the liturgical calendar, is giving us a sober reminder after the great Feast that there is a cost to Christianity, to being a believer in Christ. It will cost you everything, even your very life – one way or another. No less an authority than Christ himself affirmed it: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. It can meen a dramatic martyrdom like Stephen’s. But for most of us it will mean the hidden martyrdom of everyday death to self in order to stay alive in Christ.
But there is a far greater cost to not being a Catholic Christian. For rejecting Christ comes with a cost that one truly cannot afford to pay. It means a life lived apart from the Author of life, disconnected from ultimate Reality, devoid of the forgiveness of sins, and, if the situation persists, an eternity in which one will never, ever see God’s face.
Because he remained faithful to the end, Stephen did see God, and beholds that Beatific Vision now, and forevermore: “Look! I see heaven opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”. If we are faithful to the end, so will we.
Postscript: Recognize who’s in the background of the painting above? Acts tells us that those who killed Stephen “laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul”. Saul, persecutor of the early Church, was there, an accessory to Stephen’s martyrdom. As Stephen prayed for his executioners, just as his Master did, one must think that that prayer was especially efficacious. As the Church has always taught: if it were not for Stephen’s prayer, Saul would have never become Saint Paul. In this Pauline year, let us always remember that no one is beyond God’s saving grace – that everyone can (and should) become a saint.