Vatican City, 25 December 2015 (VIS) – ''Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen,'' said the Pope today at noon from the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace, when he prayed the Angelus with the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square. ''This memorial of the first martyr follows immediately after the Solemnity of Christmas. Yesterday we contemplated the merciful love of God who became man for us. Today we see the consistent response of Jesus’ disciple who gives his life. Yesterday, the Savior was born on earth; now his faithful witness is born in heaven. Yesterday as today, the darkness of the denial of life looms, but the light of love that overcomes hatred and inaugurates a new world shines still stronger.''
''There is a particular aspect in today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles that ties St. Stephen to the Lord. It is the forgiveness he offered before he died from being stoned. Nailed to the cross, Jesus said: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. Likewise, Stephen ‘bent his knees and cried out: ''Lord, do not charge them with this sin''.’ Stephen, therefore, is a martyr, which means witness because he does as Jesus does. In fact, the true witnesses are those who act as does Jesus: those who pray, those who love, those who give, but above all, those who forgive because forgiveness, as the word implies, is the greatest expression of giving.''
''But – we might ask – what is the use of forgiving?'' the pontiff continued. ''Is it just a good deed or does it bring results? We find the answer precisely in Stephen’s martyrdom. Among those for whom he begged forgiveness was a young man named Saul who persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it. Shortly thereafter, Saul became Paul, the great saint, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He had received Stephen’s forgiveness. We can say that Paul was born of God’s grace and Stephen’s forgiveness.''
''We also are born of God’s forgiveness. Not only in Baptism but every time we are forgiven our hearts are reborn, are remade. From the beginning, every step forward in the life of faith is impressed with the seal of divine mercy. Because only when we are loved can we in turn love. It does us good to remind ourselves of this: if we want to move forward in faith, we must first of all receive God’s forgiveness. We must meet the Father who is always ready to forgive everything and who, in forgiving us, heals our hearts and reignites our love. We must never tire of asking God’s forgiveness,'' Pope Francis emphasized, ''because it is only when we are forgiven, when we feel ourselves pardoned, that we can learn to forgive.''
The Holy Father acknowledged that forgiving ''is not easy. It is always very difficult.'' He explained that, in order to imitate Christ and forgive the great and small offenses that we suffer every day, we have to start with prayer like St. Stephen. ''It starts from our hearts. We can deal with the resentment we feel through prayer, entrusting those who have done us wrong to God’s mercy. … Then we discover that this inner struggle to forgive purifies us from evil and that prayer and love set us free from the inner chains of rancor. … Through forgiveness we overcome evil with good, we turn hatred into love, and thus make the world cleaner.''
Before finishing, Pope Francis entrusted to the Virgen Mary all those who, ''like St. Stephen, suffer persecution in the name of the faith, our many martyrs today. Help direct our prayers to receive and to offer forgiveness.''