For Pope Francis, the path forward from Christmas can be found in the martyrdom of St. Stephen, especially in his transforming forgiveness of his persecutors.
“If we want to move forward in faith, first of all we must receive the forgiveness of God. We must meet the Father, who is ready to forgive everything and always,” Pope Francis told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square before the Angelus prayers Saturday.
Forgiveness “heals the heart and revives love,” he added. “We must never tire of asking God’s forgiveness, because only when we are forgiven--when we feel forgiven--we learn to forgive.”
The Pope’s Dec. 26 remarks reflected on the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on the day after Christmas.
“Yesterday we contemplated the merciful love of God who became flesh for us. Today we see the consistent response of the disciple of Jesus, who gives his life,” Pope Francis said. “Yesterday the Savior was born on earth. Today his faithful witness is born to heaven. Yesterday, as today, the darkness of the denial of life appears. But shining still stronger is the light of love that overcomes hatred and inaugurates a new world.”
The Pope cited Stephen’s forgiveness before he was killed by stoning. Stephen, one of the first Christians, asked God not to charge his murderers with their sin. St. Stephen acts like Jesus: he loves, he gives, and he especially forgives. Forgiveness is “the highest expression” of giving, the Pope said.
St. Stephen’s death shows the power of forgiveness: the anti-Christian persecutor Saul was at the martyrdom. Saul soon became Paul, the great Christian apostle to the gentiles.
“We can say that Paul was born by the grace of God and the forgiveness of Stephen,” the Pope said. “We too are born from God’s forgiveness. Not only in baptism, but every time we are forgiven our heart is reborn, it is regenerated.”
“Only when we are loved can we love ourselves,” he added.
He said that praying like St. Stephen is a way to imitate Jesus and to begin to forgive the small or great wrongs that each person suffers each day.
“It starts from your heart: With prayer, we can face the resentment that we feel by entrusting those who have done evil to the mercy of God,” Pope Francis said.
Prayer and love “set us free from the chains of inner resentment,” he continued. “It’s so bad to live in resentment! Every day we have the opportunity to train ourselves to forgive, to live this act that brings man closer to God. Like our Heavenly Father, we too become merciful, because through forgiveness we overcome evil with good, we transform hate into love and so we make the world more pure.”
After the Angelus Pope Francis voiced his hope that the contemplation of the Christ Child, with Mary and Joseph, may inspire “an attitude of mercy and love for one another” in all areas of life.
He voiced his “heartfelt thanks” for the many greetings he had received, especially giving thanks for “the gift of prayer.”