Saint Stephen I
Pope and martyr
Saint Stephen was by birth a Roman. After being promoted to Holy Orders, he was made Archdeacon of Rome under the holy Popes Saint Cornelius and Saint Lucius. When these had both suffered martyrdom, Saint Stephen was elected Head of the Church in the year 254.
Controversy concerning the rebaptizing of heretics gave Saint Stephen much trouble. The heretics themselves were rebaptizing Catholics who left the orthodox faith to join them; certain oriental bishops decided then to rebaptize those who returned to it from their errors, and some African bishops joined them in this practice. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church, however, that baptism given with natural water and in the name of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity is valid, even if conferred by those in error. Saint Stephen suffered patiently when accused of favoring heresy by ratifying such baptisms; he did not doubt that the great men in whom a mistaken zeal seemed to obscure the truth would, when the heat of the dispute had subsided, calmly open their eyes to the truth. Thus by his zeal he preserved the integrity of the Faith, and by his toleration and forbearance saved many souls.
When the persecutions grew violent, he assembled the faithful in the underground tombs of the martyrs, going from one catacomb to another to baptize neophytes, celebrate Mass and exhort them to remain true to Christ. After twelve members of his clergy were martyred, he himself was arrested; but he was set free when a violent storm so frightened the soldiers and executioners sent to put him to death, that they fled. Nonetheless, he was followed to a catacomb by the emperor’s satellites, and on August 2, 257, while seated in his pontifical chair, he was beheaded. The chair, stained with his blood, was placed with his relics in the Church which he had built and is still shown in the same church, today Saint Sylvester in capite.
Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 9; Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894).