History of the Catholic Church – Saint Stephen the Deacon

[Saint Stephen the Martyr]Article

These events took place toward the end of the year 32. “The Sanhedrin evidently assumed the right to condemn the accused to be flogged; it seems that they wished to bring a capital charge against the Apostles. Subsequently Saint Stephen was put to death without any protest from the Roman authorities, and Saul was sent on a mission with letters patent from the Sanhedrin. All these facts show that Tiberius, already ill and completely addicted to the shameful passions of a lustful old man and hateful tyrant, had permitted the prevalence at a distance of a more liberal policy with regard to the provinces subject to the Empire. Pilate was still at Jerusalem; but he was preoccupied with the agitation that was beginning to brew in Samaria, a disturbance that he soon after stifled ill blood by horrible massacres.”

Profiting by this political tranquility, the religious activity of the Christian community took on a new enthusiasm. The twelve Apostles, overburdened by the works of charity which the growing number of the faithful rendered more and more absorbing, “calling together the multitude of the disciples,” asked them to designate assistants “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom,” who would be able to act in their place. The entire assembly accepted this proposal. Seven helpers were chosen, at their head Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.” This was the institution of a new order of ministers, the diaconate.

If the passage where the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the institution of the diaconate is compared with other passages of the holy books where it is mentioned, notably the Epistles of Saint Paul, it would seem that there is question, not of a transitory ministry established by a purely human will, but of a higher institution possessing a definitive character and prompted by the Holy Ghost. The great importance which the Apostles attached to the choice of the first seven deacons, their evident concern to indicate the conditions to be fulfilled by those chosen, the solemnity with which they surrounded the new institution, the enumeration of the rare qualities which Saint Paul required of deacons, and the close association between them and the bishops, is to be explained only by this lofty idea of the diaconate. Even from a purely historical point of view everything leads us to believe that the Apostles, by imposing hands on the newly chosen, were conferring on them a sacramental grace that would aid them to fulfill their important duties worthily.

Scripture mentions three of these duties: the “serving of tables,” that is, the daily distribution to the poor, especially the widows, of food supplied by the resources of the rich, the administration of Baptism, and preaching.

In this last duty no one acquitted himself more brilliantly and zealously than the deacon Stephen. His ministry was exercised particularly among the Hellenist Jews, to whom the Apostles probably had less ready access. The power of his word and the gift of miracles which accompanied it, brought him great success with the populace, who gathered about him. His enemies began to dispute with him, but “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit that spoke” through him.

“Then they suborned men to say they had heard him speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people and the ancients and the scribes; and running together, they took him and brought him to the council. And they set up false witnesses, who said: ‘This man ceaseth not to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us.’ And all that sat in the council, looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel. Then the high priest said: ‘Are these things so?’ … Stephen said: ‘You stiff-necked and uncircumcized in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.’

“Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.’ And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.”

Thus died the first Christian martyr. Like his Master, with his last breath he delivered his soul into the hands of the heavenly Father and prayed for his executioners.

MLA Citation

  • Father Fernand Mourret. “Saint Stephen the Deacon”. History of the Catholic Church, 1931. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 May 2014. Web. 13 November 2018. <>