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.).
St. Barnabas rejoiced when God revealed his approaching death to him. The same sentiments are found in the lives of many other Saints. They desired death, sighed after it, and when they saw it coming, they manifested great joy. There are also in our day persons who long for death, who desire it. But the cause of this is generally anger, impatience, trouble about work, long sickness, or great affliction. But these wishes, in such cases, are neither agreeable to God nor useful or wholesome to men; but are on the contrary detrimental. Quite different were the reasons for which the Saints longed for death and rejoiced at it; first, because God made men subject to the law of death, as a just punishment, to which we ought willingly to submit; secondly, because death frees man from numberless miseries of this life and brings him, if he is worthy, to his last end; thirdly, because death saves him from many dangers and occasions of sin, which might cause him to die in God's disgrace and consequently go into eternal punishment; fourthly, because only by death can we go into heaven, see God, and love and glorify Him much more perfectly than we are able to do in this world. Consider all this thoroughly, and if it does not lead you to long for death after the examples of the Saints, it will at least help you to conquer your inordinate fear of death and make you willing to depart when your hour has come.
St. Barnabas was buried, according to his desire, with the Gospel lying on his breast, as a sign that he had loved and revered the precepts which it contains. Whoever loves and reveres Christ with his whole heart, must also love and revere the Gospel, because it contains the life and teachings of Christ. Whoever loves and reveres the Gospel must love to read it, or hear it read and expounded, as is done in sermons. "We listen to the Gospel in the same manner," says St. Augustine, "as if Christ stood before us and spoke to us." The benefit that is derived from reading or hearing the word of God, St. Chrysostom explains in the following words: "Satan cannot easily find entrance into those who frequently read or hear the Gospel explained." How is it with you? Do you also duly love and esteem the Gospel and the teachings of Christ which it contains? Why do you not read it more frequently? Why are you not present more assiduously at the expounding of it? Do you expect to derive more benefit from the reading of those frivolous, unwholesome or sinful books which are so often seen in your hands? Do you think Satan will not easily find entrance into your heart on account of these books? Just the contrary: for, by reading licentious books, we open our heart to Satan and invite him to take possession of it, or at least to disturb it with all manner of dangerous thoughts. Acknowledge your fault while it is time. Keep the Gospel carefully and thoroughly, go frequently to hear explanations of it, as well as sermons, and then endeavor to form your life according to its precepts. "Our lives must harmonize with the Gospel," says St. Chrysostom. Read, therefore, the Gospel, listen to the explanation of it, and consider what is commanded you by Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lawgiver. In this manner alone will the Gospel benefit you; not otherwise.