The edifying story of St. Stephen the Protomartyr is told in Chapters Six and Seven of the Acts of the Apostles. One of the first seven deacons, St. Stephen is a model of evangelical zeal, who sealed this virtue in his own blood, being stoned to death for Our Lord by a mob of angry Jews. Thus he became our first martyr (or protomartyr). Scripture ends its account of the deacon by telling us that “devout men took order for Stephen’s funeral, and made great mourning over him” (Acts 8:2). But who were those “devout men”? And where did they bury the precious remains? The answers to these questions were revealed to the world almost 400 years after the event.
In the year 410, the city of Rome was sacked and plundered by Genseric and his ferocious Goths. It was the first time the proud Empire had been so humiliated, and this in its very heart. The effects of this catastrophe cannot be overstated. For one thing, it was a prelude to the fall of the Western Empire (A.D. 453). More to our point though is the immediate reaction of pagans: They claimed that this misfortune was the fault of the Christians. Since the Roman gods had been so insulted by the Christians refusing them divine honor, they turned their backs on the Empire and allowed the sacking. In order to defend the Church against this calumny, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his great work, The City of God. Such a defense must have been a great consolation to the faithful, but greater still was the heavenly consolation that came in the form of miracles. For at this time began a series of supernatural prodigies which included miraculous findings of the relics of the saints. One of these miraculous findings (or “inventions,” as they are called) was of the relics of St. Stephen.
In 415, a priest by the name of Lucian brought to Bishop John of Jerusalem strange news of a message he had been given for the bishop. “Make haste to open our sepulchre, that by our means God may open to the world the door of His clemency, and may take pity on His people in the universal tribulation.” The message was from St. Stephen and his sepulchral companions: St. Gamaliel, St. Nicodemus, and St. Abibo.
The relics of the four saints were found according to the directions given to Fr. Lucian by St. Gamaliel, who revealed that they had been buried on his own estate in Capergamela, about twenty miles outside of Jerusalem. The Church’s liturgical lesson for August third relates that “at the rumor of what had occurred, a great crowd came together, and many of them who were sick and weak from various ailments went away perfectly cured. The sacred body of St. Stephen was then carried with great honour to the holy church of Sion.”
The miraculous cures continued and the whole prodigy expanded when portions of the relics were sent all over the Catholic world, including North Africa, where St. Augustine built a shrine in honor of St. Stephen. The beloved doctor writes at length in The City of God about the miracles wrought at St. Stephen’s intercession. He apologizes for not writing more, because of “the necessity of finishing the work I have undertaken.”
He continues: “For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by means of this martyr — I mean the most glorious Stephen — they would fill many volumes. For when I saw, in our own times, frequent signs of the presence of divine powers similar to those which had been given of old, I desired that narratives might be written, judging that the multitude should not remain ignorant of these things. It is not yet two years since these relics were first brought to Hippo-regius, and though many of the miracles which have been wrought by it have not, as I have the most certain means of knowing, been recorded, those which have been published amount to almost seventy at the hour at which I write.”
Abbot Guéranger tells us that the “severe critic,” Tillemont, calls the invention of St. Stephen “one of the most celebrated events of the fifth century.” Tillemont concluded this after reviewing the accounts contained in the writings of St. Augustine, Sozomen, and other writers contemporary with the event.
The other saints discovered with St. Stephen are deserving of further comment. St. Gamaliel is none other than the famous Pharisee mentioned in Acts, Chapter Five, who counseled the Sanhedrin not to put St. Peter and his companions to death. (“I say to you, refrain from these men — if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it” Acts 5:38-39.) It is said that, with St. Paul, Gamaliel witnessed the martyrdom of St. Stephen. This would explain in part why the Protomartyr was buried on Gamaliel’s estate. The sanhedrenist was the grandson of the famous Hillel and the Jews regard him, with Hillel, as a great light of the Talmud. The first to merit from them the honorable title Rabban , “our Master,” Gamaliel is still spoken of with great veneration by the Jews. While these latter deny his conversion to Christianity, the scholarly (though heretical) Photius relates that the Apostles St. Peter and St. John baptized Gamaliel together with his son and Nicodemus. Perhaps more reliable is St. John Chrysostom’s reference to an ancient tradition that Gamaliel converted even before St. Paul did.
Sometime after the invention, St. Gamaliel’s relics were translated to Pisa, Italy.
St. Abibo (or Abibas) was the second son of Gamaliel, and is most likely the one mentioned by Photius as having been baptized with his father and Nicodemus. There is a tradition that he escaped the destruction of Jerusalem and lived to the age of eighty.
St. Nicodemus is the sanhedrenist mentioned in John Three, who came to Jesus “by night,” and to whom Our Lord gave the new evangelical teaching on being born again of water and the Holy Ghost. In Chapter Seven of the same Gospel, he defended Our Lord before the Pharisees and chief priests, showing that, without a hearing, He could not be convicted of a crime. Finally, in Chapter 19, he, together with St. Joseph of Arimathea, had the privilege of wrapping Jesus’ precious Body in the Shroud and burying It in the Sepulchre.
In a passage from Lucian’s own account of the discovery in 415, we get a touching picture of the ardent charity of these early Catholics: “The Jews, knowing that Nicodemus was a Christian, removed him from his office and cursed him, and drove him out of the city. Then I, Gamaliel, inasmuch as he had suffered persecution for Christ’s sake, took him to my estate, and fed and clothed him to the end of his life; and when he died I buried him honourably beside the loved Stephen.”
In the Roman Calendar, August third is the “feast of the finding of the body of blessed Stephen, first martyr, and of the Saints Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Abibo.”