The pews were full at 10 a.m. for the principal liturgy on Sunday, May 16. The celebrant was Fr. Ronald Franco, CSP, the church’s associate pastor and vice postulator for Fr. Hecker’s canonization cause. In his homily, Fr. Franco chose to reflect on the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, which recounted the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The Church, said Fr. Franco, has always emphasized the importance of the martyrs; but in the pages of the martyrology, St. Stephen stands out for his perfect imitation of Christ. Fr. Franco pointed out the parallel between Christ’s last words, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and St. Stephen’s, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Practicing forgiveness, Fr. Franco continued, is essential for the Christian trying to imitate Christ, and it is a distinctively Christian virtue. Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude all can be found in classical Greek ethics, but forgiveness is a virtue ushered in by Christ. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle mentions that the “good tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances” and errs on the side of “deficiency” of anger, but this is a far cry from the now trite saying that “to forgive is divine.” St. Stephen’s place of honor was earned not merely by his being the first martyr, but also for his understanding and his example to all Christians that to identify with Jesus, we have to forgive.
Forgiveness certainly doesn’t feel natural to us, and, Fr. Franco speculated, it is possible it did not come naturally to St. Stephen. (Perhaps he had in mind Stephen’s rebuke to the council, in Acts 7:51: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.”) Today, however, in our culture of victimhood and litigiousness, it is accepting forgiveness that may prove more difficult. Fr. Franco pointed to the recent congressional hearing on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as an example of people’s inability to accept blame.
Fr. Franco concluded his homily by reflecting on the grace that flows from forgiveness. It is not simply a matter of psychological healing, a way for the trespassed against to move on. The grace of forgiveness is for the trespasser. Fr. Franco drew again on the example of St. Stephen and quoted the sixth-century bishop St. Fulgensius of Ruspe: “Whither Stephen went before slain by the stones of Paul, thither Paul followed after helped by the prayers of Stephen.”
At this Mass, the choir was a visiting one, from Mifflinsburg, Pennsylvania. The eighty or so high school students sang beautifully; particularly memorable was their unaccompanied arrangement of the hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing,” which they sang after communion. Many choirs are tempted to use the time after communion to showcase their talent, and the music becomes a distraction rather than an aid to prayer. This simple melody, sung well, was no distraction, and the words could act as a prompt to prayer for any communicant:
What tho’ my joys and comfort die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
. . .
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?
After the dismissal, most of the congregation remained for a May crowning and a prayer of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
City: New York
Address: Columbus Avenue at 60th Street
Main Service: Sunday, 10 a.m.
Pastor/Chief Liturgist: Fr. Gil Martinez, CSP; at this service, Fr. Ronald Franco, CSP, associate pastor