The men who put St. Stephen to death were known as members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen. And, in a way, we cannot blame them for killing Stephen. We must look at who they were, and at what prompted them.
Th Roman Empire had tricks that enabled them to endure for five hundred years. One of their tricks had them taking young Jewish hostages from every Jewish settlement on the Mediterranean. They treated these boys well in Rome as long as their families back home obeyed Rome in everything.
In their home ports those boys might not have been very devout Jews, but since they were kept captive for their Jewishness, when they were released, instead of going home, they formed their own conservative synagogue in Jerusalem. They then turned against Stephen because he and Jesus had taken meals with Gentiles whom conservative Jews saw as unclean.
In a way, their insistence on keeping their religious rules to the letter is like the insistence of devout people that Catholics who are not married by priests and Catholics who use contracepti[TS1] ves stay away from Communion.
Pope Francis, in his Exhortation last Friday, said the situation is not always so cut and dried. He urged pastors around the world to examine each case. He said,
“Factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.”
Catholics generally have been disappointed with the Pope’s exhortation in that he did not use his authority to issue new guidelines for Catholics everywhere. But he might have been doing us a big favor in asking pastors everywhere to take a hand in deciding.
We grew up in a Roman Catholic Church that was ninety-five percent Roman, and only five percent catholic. Let me mention two matters in which I have seen us hurt by Rome’s reserving all decisions to itself.
In St. Louis where I come from we had an Archbishop Peter Kenrick who in 1852 got in trouble at the First Council of Baltimore by insisting that all dispensations should not be reserved to Rome. Then, in 1870, when he walked away from the First Vatican Council rather than vote for papal infallibility he was removed from his office.
There is another case with which I am familiar. In the sixteen hundreds the Emperor of China invited the Jesuit Matteo Ricci to come tutor his son. And Ricci, at the capitol, often took part in the yearly feasts by which each family honored their ancestors. But, when other missionaries who didn’t know the Chinese language witnessed those feasts a century later, they got Rome to ban them as pagan forms of worship.
The Korean Catholics with whom I worked with for twelve years thought it would be good to take part in those same yearly feasts. But Rome’s ban on them was still on the books.