June 11: Saint Barnabas the Apostle—Memorial
Early First Century–c. 61
Patron Saint of Cyprus, Antioch, and peacekeeping missions
Invoked against hailstorms
Liturgical Color: Red
The news about them reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch.When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. ~Acts 11:22–26
Saint Barnabas, originally named Joseph, was born on the isle of Cyprus and was a Jew of the tribe of Levi (see Acts 4:36). Nothing else is known about his early life. During Jesus’ public ministry, Joseph became His fervent follower and might have been one of the seventy-two disciples whom Jesus sent out on a mission (see Luke 10:1–24). After Pentecost, as the Church in Jerusalem began to grow, the Apostles changed Joseph’s name to Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” His name change might have occurred because Barnabas supported the Church when he “sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles” (Acts 4:37). This is the first mention of Barnabas in the New Testament.
Three years later, after Saint Paul had undergone his conversion to the Christian faith and spent three years fasting and praying in Arabia, he traveled to Jerusalem to consult with the Apostles. The Apostles and the Christian community were at first hesitant to receive him, for they were aware of the persecutions he had issued against the Church. Barnabas, however, “brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). After spending a short period of time in Jerusalem, Saint Paul returned to his hometown of Tarsus to avoid persecution. He remained in Tarsus for the next several years.
During that time, some of the Christians who left Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen traveled north to Antioch in Syria, where many Greek Gentiles lived. In Antioch, the Greek-speaking Christians began to preach the Word of God to the Gentiles. As a result, many of the Gentiles converted and accepted the faith. When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Barnabas to minister to these new converts. Barnabas was so impressed that he went to find Saint Paul in Tarsus and brought him back to Antioch to help share the Good News. It was there, in Antioch, that the word “Christian” was first used, perhaps because the new converts were Gentiles who converted not to the Jewish faith, but directly to Christ.
After a year in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem on a relief mission to assist those suffering from a famine. They brought with them money that was raised among the Christians in Antioch. After returning to Antioch, the Holy Spirit revealed to the Christian community that Paul and Barnabas were to be “set apart” for a special mission. The two were then ordained as bishops and sent forth on a mission, bringing with them Barnabas’ relative, John Mark, the Gospel writer. Over the next year, they traveled to Seleucia, Cyprus, Salamis, Paphos, Perga of Pamphylia, Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and back to Antioch, Syria. During this journey, they won many converts; some Greeks even tried to worship the two as gods. They also encountered opposition, including an unsuccessful attempt to kill Paul by stoning. The two later returned to Jerusalem to help settle disputes about Gentile converts before being sent off on another mission. Before the second journey, Barnabas and Paul disagreed about John Mark’s involvement in the mission, since John Mark had previously abandoned them for an unknown reason while in Pamphylia. The disagreement was so severe that Paul and Barnabas parted ways. Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus, and Paul took Silas with him to Syria and Cilicia.
Nothing else is known for certain about Barnabas’ missionary activity with John Mark in Cyprus. Based on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to the Colossians, the disagreement the two had over John Mark did not have any lasting effect on their friendship. Even John Mark is later affectionately mentioned by Paul.
The only source we have that details Barnabas’ martyrdom comes from the fifth century, which makes its historicity uncertain. According to that tradition, Barnabas was preaching the Gospel around the year 61 and was arrested, dragged out of the city, and either burned to death or stoned. One tradition states that John Mark found his remains and buried them.
Another legend holds that in the year 478, Saint Barnabas appeared to the Archbishop of Cyprus and revealed the location of his burial to him. Archbishop Anthemios then found Saint Barnabas’ body incorrupt, holding the Gospel of Matthew. The Roman emperor then erected a church at the site and buried Saint Barnabas there. Though the church was later lost to history, excavations of the site have found a tomb believed to be that of Saint Barnabas. Saint Barnabas is the patron saint of Cyprus because he was the first missionary bishop on that island.
As we honor this great apostolic bishop, ponder the impact his ministry has had over time. Although the number of converts during his lifetime might have only been in the hundreds or thousands, the effect those converts had on subsequent generations multiplied over and over again. Saint Barnabas traveled, preached, baptized, celebrated the sacraments, and founded many Christian communities. He endured rejection, hardship, violence, and martyrdom, but he pressed on. His fervor stemmed from knowing his Lord not only through his firsthand witness of Jesus’ ministry, but also through his life of prayer and his reception of the Holy Spirit. Try to see his mission as one similar to yours. You, too, are called to zealously preach the Gospel to others. Do not hesitate to do so, no matter the cost. Pray that God uses you as He wills, and offer yourself to His service in imitation of this holy apostle.
Saint Barnabas, you listened to the Gospel from the mouth of Christ Himself, witnessed His miracles, and allowed His saving message to transform your life. As a result, you spent the rest of your life preaching the Good News and saving many souls. Please pray for me, that I will follow your example and dedicate my life to the mission to which I am called. Saint Barnabas, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.