The saint whom we celebrate each year on the day immediately following the feast of Christ’s Nativity is a defining saint for Christians in several ways. St. Stephen was the first deacon, the first martyr, and one of the first to dedicate his life to the poor. He is at the front of a line that many other saints queue up in, including Mother Seton.
In a strange but very Christian kind of honor, St. Stephen’s example is so powerful that the best known hymn for his feast day is not about him, but about someone who behaved like him: Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907-935).
The hymn about the Christian nobleman begins: “Good King Wenceslaus looked out / On the feast of Stephen / When a poor man came in sight / Gathering winter fuel.”
In the song, Wenceslaus asks his page boy to bring meat, wine, and firewood, that they might visit the poor man’s home to bless him in his need. After recounting the miracle that occurred on the way, the song instructs us all, “Therefore, Christian men, be sure …. Ye, who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.”
Like both St. Stephen and King Wenceslaus, Christians — whether poor or well off — sacrifice their comfort to serve the less fortunate. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint who follows the “type” of St Stephen, sometimes in ways reminiscent of the Good King Wenceslaus of song.
She wrote in 1820 about having had “continual sickness…all the Winter,” and yet keeping up her service to those in need. She said of her religious congregation, “We are now twelve, and as many again are waiting for admission. I have a very very large school to superintend every day, and the entire charge of the religious instruction of all the country round. All happy to the Sisters of Charity who are night and day devoted to the sick and ignorant.”
That is like St. Stephen in another way in that he was one of the very first consecrated people.
The early Church faced a problem: the first believers were following the Lord’s final instructions to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But they also had the Lord’s insistence that service to those in need is absolutely necessary.
So the book of Acts tells the tale of the early Church’s solution for doing both. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables,” the apostles say. “Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
They chose Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and then six more disciples. These became the first deacons and also inspired the consecrated life, in which people set themselves aside to do a special work.
That’s not to say Stephen wasn’t also an intellectual saint — he was a forefather of Elizabeth in another way: He saw the deeper truth at the heart of his own religious experience, and it caused him to reject his old way of life to embrace Jesus Christ in his Church.
The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is made up almost entirely of Stephen’s speech to the Hellenist Jews who were angry at the Christians. It shows that Stephen was not just a do-gooder, but a man deeply immersed in Scripture and theology. He goes through salvation history and ends with a denunciation of those “who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
St. Stephen knew his faith better than other Jews, and it opened him to Christ. In the same way, Elizabeth knew her faith better than other Episcopalians and it opened her to the Catholic Church. St. Stephen ended his speech by forgiving his persecutors, and St. Elizabeth Ann also answered her persecutors with forgiveness.
Both were following the lead of Jesus.
“[To h]ow many rebukes and contradictions did he submit without complaining?” Elizabeth asked. His apostles often “contended and disputed together and he made peace among them by his mediation.” She examined herself on how like Jesus she was.
“Have I learned to bear the weakness of others? Often they must bear with mine and how can I require indulgence from them if I am unwilling to allow it in return? Their faults should perfect and purify my charity, rather than lessen it, for if I only exercised it on the faultless it would be no charity at all, for there are no persons without faults. If I communicated only with angels, a mild and gentle conduct would not be requisite.”
The final way saints in all times have followed St. Stephen’s example is in his death.
He was famously stoned to death, the first martyr, while Saul of Tarsus (who would become St. Paul) assisted. But in dying, he left an image that would fuel the hope of Christians for years to come, saying: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”
This is in fact the one aspect of St. Stephen’s life that Elizabeth describes in her collected letters. She mentioned in a letter to Father Simon Bruté that she was writing on “this day of St. Stephen, who saw heaven open.”
The promise of heaven fueled her life. She would tell her children, “Peace and Love My Soul’s Darling, look up at the blue heavens and love him. He is so good to us!”
And she would speak to her new daughters in Christ, the sisters of her congregation, the same way, at one point listing in their number, “Sister Adele, who took her leave of us a few months since for her true home, Heaven.”
It is there, in heaven, that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton waits today, hoping and praying that you and I will queue up in that long line that began forming two millennia ago behind St. Stephen.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.