However, in the midst of all this joy, the Church also reminds us that Christ’s coming into our lives is not welcomed by everyone. We celebrate today the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. We have heard in the first reading of today that some “could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which [Stephen] spoke”. They opposed his teaching, became furious and murdered him by stoning. Even in the face of death, Stephen prayed and confessed his faith in Christ as the Son of God, seeing “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” He experienced what Christ told his disciples and us in today’s Gospel: being challenged and opposed, even persecuted, is unavoidable as many violently reject his teaching. He, however, encourages us not to lose faith as “the Spirit of your Father” will speak through us and those who endure will be saved. For most of us a commitment to follow Christ does not require the sacrifice of life, such as in the case of Stephen. However, many of us experience severe opposition because they translate Christ’s teaching into guidelines and policies that promote a society modeled after Christ’s teaching.
Bishop Erwin Kraeutler, C.Pp.S., came to my mind. His diocese, the size of France, is on the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. He regularly visits his parishes, listens to the concerns of parishioners and others, reads the Sacred Scriptures and prays with them, and, inspired by the Gospel, together with them identifies ways to alleviate social suffering and its root causes. For years, he has defended indigenous groups in the rainforests whose survival is threatened by dam constructions to produce electricity for aluminum plants as well as by the destruction of the rainforest to create farm land as well as charcoal for the iron industry. He has been an advocate for people as well as the environment, arguing for sustainable development, which respects the needs and aspirations of current and future communities. Christ’s coming into our world and his teaching prompts him to highlight human suffering and marginalization, to critique the tendency to view humans as disposable, and to oppose the short-sighted and profit-driven destruction of the environment.
Influential landowners and powerful representatives of large corporations feel that their profits are threatened and violently oppose his theology and practice; several times he has been threatened with murder and there are rumors that some put a price on his head. One of his priests has been brutally murdered. He himself has been beaten up and requires constant police protection. Even when he celebrates mass, armed police are in the congregation to protect him. When visiting communities, he is often given two bedrooms and no one knows where he sleeps to reduce the risk of being assassinated. He repeatedly said that the fear of suffering the same fate as St. Stephen does not deter him to continue his ministry: “The Gospel does not permit me to keep silent.” He received several recognitions for his ministry, the most prestigious is perhaps the 2010 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the alternative Nobel Prize.
Let us pray for us as individuals and as communities that the joy of Christmas motivates us to translate Christ’s teaching into policies and practices that are in line with Christ’s teachings, promoting a fair and just society that is respectful of the whole creation.
Let us pray for us as individuals and as Church not to be afraid of challenges, to trust in the Spirit of the Father to give us courage continuing our ministries and commitments when Christ’s teaching is challenged and opposed.
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