Saint Barnabas, Apostle

June 11

Today is the feast day of Saint Barnabas.  Ora pro nobis.

Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement” and was said to be a Levite of Cypriot origin, first appears in the Acts of the Apostles (4:36) when he sold a piece of land he owned and brought the money to the apostles for the common purse. (6)

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

St. Barnabas, upon whom the Holy Church confers the title of Apostle, was born of the tribe of Levi, in the island of Cyprus. His parents, who were very wealthy, sent him to Jerusalem, that he might there be well instructed in the laws, by the celebrated Gamaliel, who had also been the teacher of Saul, afterwards St. Paul. From his youth he endeavored to lead an honest, quiet life; and avoiding idleness and frivolities, he found time and opportunity to acquire a thorough knowledge of the Mosaic law. As at that time all Jerusalem was full of astonishment at our Lord Jesus Christ, who had manifested so incontestibly His divine mission, it was not difficult for Barnabas to recognize in Him the true Messiah, who had been so frequently promised and predicted. Hence he went to Jesus, attended his sermons assiduously, and left him no more. The rich heritage bequeathed to him by his parents he sold, and gave the money to the poor. One acre of land he retained to meet his own necessities, but this he also sold after the ascension of our Lord, and laid the value received for it at the feet of the Apostles, as is related in the Acts, with the addition that he had formerly been called Joseph, but that the Apostles changed his name to Barnabas, which signifies, “Son of consolation.”

So long as Christ lived, Barnabas was one of the seventy-two disciples who accompanied the Lord everywhere, and listened with avidity to His teaching. After the coming of the Holy Ghost, the Apostles made use of him as a zealous co-laborer in preaching the Gospel. When St. Paul, after his miraculous conversion, came to Jerusalem and desired to join the disciples of our Lord, they refused to trust him, fearing that he was not truly a confessor of Christ, as he had so cruelly persecuted the followers of the Gospel. St. Barnabas, who as said above, had studied the law under the same teacher with Paul, went therefore to him, to learn more of him. Being soon entirely convinced of his conversion, he brought him to the Apostles and acquainted them with the event which had thus changed Paul; whereupon they were greatly rejoiced, and no longer hesitated to give him their confidence. After this, the Apostles sent Barnabas, to Antioch, there to plant the seeds of the Christian faith. He found many who had been converted to Christ. These he exhorted to remain constant to the true Church, while he persuaded others, who had obstinately remained in Judaism, to become followers of the Saviour. From Antioch he went to Tarsus to Paul. Accompanied by him he returned to Antioch, where both remained a year preaching the doctrine of Christ with such success, that those who became converted there, were the first who were called Christians, in order to confess openly to what faith they belonged.

As zealous as these new Christians were in confessing the teachings of Christ, so were they charitable to the needy at Jerusalem, to whom they sent liberal contributions by Paul and Barnabas. Both Apostles returned from Jerusalem again to Antioch, and there, by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they were sent by the Apostles to convert the Gentiles. Hence they repaired with another disciple of the Lord, named John Mark, to the City of Seleucia, and thence to the Island of Cyprus, where, on the Sabbath days, they preached in many cities the word of the Lord. Many Jews became converted; many, however, remained obdurate, and these calumniated the Apostles, who therefore said to them: “To you we had first to preach the word of God, but as you will not receive it, and deem yourselves not worthy of everlasting life, we shall turn to the heathens.” They kept their word, and wandering through many heathen cities and places, they preached the Gospel and converted many. They had, however, much to suffer everywhere, as the Jews instigated the heathens against them.

After some years, both returned to Antioch, and as they found there some disturbance among the Christians on account of the belief which several of them entertained that they ought to keep the old laws, particularly that of circumcision, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to receive a decisive answer from the Apostles. Returning, they acquainted the Christians with what had been told to them and exhorted, them to live accordingly. It was in this city that St. Barnabas separated from St. Paul, and chose as his travelling companion, Mark, whom St. Paul would not keep longer with him because he had left him and Barnabas in Pamphilia. St. Paul took one of the most zealous disciples, named Silas, and went with him to Syria and Cilicia, while St. Barnabas, accompanied by Mark, left for Cyprus, and thence went to Rome. He went also to Milan, where he was the first to preach Christianity. There he remained seven years, and governed the newly-founded Church as its first bishop. After this he consecrated one of his disciples as his successor, and repaired to Bergamo and Brixen, where an altar is still shown, at which he said Holy Mass.

At length he returned to Cyprus and gloriously ended his earthly career, as the Jews, who had come thither from Syria, had made a conspiracy to kill him. God revealed to him his approaching death, and the Saint, rejoicing at the tidings, assembled all the Christians, and after having said Mass, he gave them his last instructions, in which he encouraged them to constancy in the Christian faith, and exhorted them to lead an edifying life. After this he went fearlessly into the Synagogue and clearly proved to the Jews that Christ was the promised Messiah. Not able to refute his words, they attacked him with fearful rage, dragged him out of the Synagogue and stoned him. His holy body was buried by his disciple Mark. At his tomb God wrought at first numberless miracles on the possessed and sick, but as it happened that, on account of the persecutions which the Christians had to endure, it became forgotten and neglected, the Saint himself appeared to a bishop in Antioch, and made known where his remains lay buried. The holy body was then raised, with great solemnity. Upon the breast of the Saint was lying the Gospel of St. Matthew, which he had copied with his own hand. Particularly noteworthy in the life of this Saint is the fact, that during many years, he was the travelling companion of St. Paul, and had a share in all the labors, troubles and dangers which this holy Apostle suffered; also, that in Holy Writ he is called, “a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith ” (Acts ii.). (2)

Little is known of the subsequent career of Barnabas. He was still living and labouring as an Apostle in 56 or 57, when Paul wrote I Cor. (ix, 5, 6). from which we learn that he, too, like Paul, earned his own living, though on an equality with other Apostles. The reference indicates also that the friendship between the two was unimpaired. When Paul was a prisoner in Rome (61-63), John Mark was attached to him as a disciple, which is regarded as an indication that Barnabas was no longer living (Col., iv, 10). This seems probable. Various traditions represent him as the first Bishop of Milan, as preaching at Alexandria and at Rome, whose fourth (?) bishop, St. Clement, he is said to have converted, and as having suffered martyrdom in Cyprus. The traditions are all late and untrustworthy. With the exception of St. Paul and certain of the Twelve, Barnabas appears to have been the most esteemed man of the first Christian generation. St. Luke, breaking his habit of reserve, speaks of him with affection, “for he was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of Faith”. His title to glory comes not only from his kindliness of heart, his personal sanctity, and his missionary labours, but also from his readiness to lay aside his Jewish prejudices, in this anticipating certain of the Twelve; from his large-hearted welcome of the Gentiles, and from his early perception of Paul’s worth, to which the Christian Church is indebted, in large part at least, for its great Apostle. His tenderness towards John Mark seems to have had its reward in the valuable services later rendered by him to the Church.  (4)

Image: St Barnabas healing the sick, artist: Paolo Caliari, known as Paolo Veronese


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