Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Ut Unum Sint: An Ecumenism of Blood


Something curious took place in the Catholic world earlier this year. On Thursday, the fifteenth of February, the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the twenty-one Coptic martyrs killed by ISIS in 2015. The image of their martyrdom should be familiar to most people; they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and beheaded by masked men on a beach and video footage of this massacre uploaded by ISIS. The Coptic church declared them martyrs within a week, and the Catholic church recognised this status in 2023.

What is curious about this feast is that the Catholic Church is notorious for taking ages to add persons to the Roman martyrology, the official list of the saints. The elevation of persons to the altar involves investigations, deliberations and can be an exhausting process. Furthermore, the Coptic Church is not even in communion with the See of Rome!

This recognition, and celebration, of their martyrdom was made possible thanks to the development of an interesting, and valuable, concept known as the “ecumenism of blood.” To appreciate this concept one could do no better than turn to the words of Pope Francis himself in his address to the participants in the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, the international ecumenical association that meets annually in October. Before this, however, a brief excursus would be in order. The term ecumenism derives from the Greek word “oikoumene,” meaning “the whole inhabited world,” and refers to the promotion of cooperation and unity among Christians. The ecumenical movement takes inspiration from recognition of the fact that while there are many churches that are not in communion with each other, in fact, Christ founded but one Church and in His passion prayed that “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). This phrase is, and most certainly not coincidentally, also the episcopal motto of our Archbishop, Cardinal Patriarch Filipe Neri Ferrão.

Returning to the words of the Holy Father, speaking to the participants in the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, Pope Francis indicated that:

‘[T]here is another form of ecumenism that typifies our age: that of blood. “When terrorists or world powers persecute Christian minorities or Christians”, he observed, “they do not ask: ‘Are you Lutheran? Are you Orthodox? Are you Catholic? Are you Reformed? Are you Pentecostal?’ No. ‘You are Christian’. They recognise one only: the Christian. The enemy is not wrong: he recognises where to find Jesus. And this is the ecumenism of blood. Nowadays we are witnesses to this, and I think of the Orthodox brethren beheaded on the beaches of Libya, for example: they are our brothers. They gave witness to Jesus and they died saying, ‘Jesus, help me!’. With His name: they confessed the name of Jesus”.’

The Catholic celebration of the martyrs of Libia is a concrete manifestation in the belief of the unity of those who died in odio Christi. Another concrete recognition of this belief is available on the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London. The abbey, which is currently an Anglican church, started its life as a Catholic establishment and was still Catholic when the plans for the West Door were drawn up. The Abbey took a couple of centuries to complete, and, as many would know, is in the Gothic style. This design sensibility is marked by a profusion of carving, with numerous niches for statues of the saints. The Reformation and the rise of Puritanism (unfortunately) intervened, however, and the Catholic tradition of the celebration of saints, especially through the erection of statues in their honour, and for the imitation of the faithful, fell out of favour. As a result, the ten niches in the façade of this West Door lay unutilised ever since its completion in the fifteenth century.  It was only when this façade was renovated in 1995 that it was decided it was now time to fill these niches. Recognising the twentieth century as the century of Christian martyrdom (a somewhat hasty assumption in my opinion, given that the twenty-first promises to offer a richer harvest of martyrs), the decision was taken to use the niches to commemorate Christian martyrs from across the various churches and continents. The ten martyrs who were commemorated include the Catholic St Maximilian Kolbe from Poland, Manche Masemola from South Africa who was martyred for her desire to be baptised, the Anglican Janani Luwum from Uganda martyred by General Idi Amin (a name well known to Goans), the Orthodox Grand Duchess Elizabeth from Russia, the famous Dr Martin Luther King Jr, St Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, the German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed by the Nazis, the Anglican Lucian Tapiedi from Papua New Guinea,  and Wang Zhiming, a  Miao pastor killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Of all these names, it was that of Esther John from Pakistan which appealed to me, perhaps for the obvious reason of being from the same subcontinent as myself. Born Qamar Zia in pre-Partition British India she moved with her family to Pakistan after which, as a young adult, she converted to Christianity from Islam. An enthusiastic evangelizer working among the labouring women in the Punjab, she was found murdered in February 1960.

Reading about her, I could not help but think of Graham Staines, another Christian missionary who met his death, this time on the other side of the subcontinent. The story of Graham Staines is well known, an Australian citizen, he worked among lepers in Orissa until, along with his sons aged ten and six, he was burned to death by members of the Bajrang Dal.

For the longest time I wondered what ought to be the relation of myself – a Catholic – to this Evangelical missionary. The celebration of the feast of the Twenty-one Coptic martyrs of Libya offered a direction. His is a life of example to be venerated. He may not (yet) be recognised by the Catholic Church in Her martyrology, but this does not prevent me from venerating the memory of one who died for Christ. Further, it also offers another lesson to Christians in the subcontinent. While we may disagree on doctrine – and these disagreements are important and should not be dismissed – we ought not to attack one another. Rather, we need to recognise that we work for, and in these trying times may well have to suffer for, the one name. We must be kind to one another.

(A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo dated 13 March 2024.

With thanks to Rev. Thomas Hiney and Rev. Lister Tonge for their inspiration.)

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