If the 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are “saints for all Christians” — as Pope Francis says — then why not grant permission for their veneration at Catholic altars, and let the chips fall where they may?
On Monday 15 February I had the unmerited privilege to be invited to the webinar hosted by Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic bishop of London, to mark Contemporary Martyrs Day. The day itself fell exactly six years after 20 young Coptic men, and one non-Christian who joined them in confessing Christ in the face of their Daesh persecutors, were slaughtered on a Libyan beach, a horror captured on film to provide demonic propaganda for IS.
Archbishop Angaelos made the telling observation that IS intended to make a spectacle of the 21 Coptic martyrs, but instead they became an icon. Many apart from myself were struck by this event, and so when after Pope Francis publicly acknowledged them as martyrs shared by all Christians, the event seemed to take on a providential significance: why could they not be acknowledged as shared martyrs formally, indeed liturgically?
The various presentations made during the webinar, by such as Coptic Pope Tawadros II, Lord Alton, Archbishop Welby, the Nuncio Archbishop Gugerotti, Neville Kyrke-Smith of Aid to the Church in Need, Fiona Bruce MP and Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, put the phenomenon of persecution in a wider global and historical context. Given particular recognition was the suffering of the Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Burma, victims of government-directed genocide, to call their persecution by its proper name.
Three presentations stood out for me in the context of a major, though insufficiently recognised theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate: the Ecumenism of Blood.
It was a theme that Pope Francis had begun to develop before the Coptic martyrs of 2015, but which took on a new life and urgency in the wake of their martyrdom. It led me to undertake research under Professor Gavin D’Costa at the University of Bristol, to investigate whether the emerging Ecumenism of Blood offered a particular ecumenical possibility with the Coptic Martyrs of Libya. Published in 2018 by Paulist Press as Ecumenism of Blood: Heavenly Hope for Earthly Communion, it reached the conclusion that a concrete ecumenical possibility had indeed emerged.
Pope Francis spoke powerfully, without notes and with real feeling. He noted that the Coptic martyrs had their baptism by water and the spirit brought — using my own words — to an iconic perfection as their blood anointed the sacramental character of their baptism. This insight allowed him to state, yet again and powerfully, that the Coptic martyrs are also “our saints, saints for all Christians, of all denominations and traditions.” They testified to the “greatest gift” allowed to Christians: to witness to Christ with their own blood. He ended his allocution by invoking the heavenly intercession of the Coptic Martyrs.
Martin Mosebach, author of The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs, spoke with passion of a tragedy that had become for the families of the martyrs a glimpse of glory. The martyrs’ family homes, he noted, were not decked for mourning but for celebration, their photos on the walls surmounted with crowns and vested as deacons. He recalled presenting his book at a German parish and hearing the parish priest ask the congregation to pray for the 21 Coptic martyrs. Mr Mosebach saw no choice but to correct him: we are not to pray for them, but to them.
Lastly, Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, offered a rich and accessible survey of the recent emergence into the light of the Ecumenism of Blood, especially noting Paul VI’s term “Ecumenism of the Martyrs” when he canonised the Ugandan martyrs in 1964, acknowledging as he did the witness of the Anglicans who were martyred with them. He identified how persecution, going into the 20th century, became something faced by Christians together, as in Dachau or the Soviet gulags. He quoted John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, which taught that all Christians already have a common martyrology in God’s blessed eternity. He ended by looking forward to the day when non-Catholic martyrs could find a place in the Catholic martyrology.
Together, these three presentations in essence, no doubt unwittingly, accepted the argument I made that it is possible for the Catholic Church to insert the Coptic Martyrs of Libya into her own liturgical calendar.
The burden of my research was to investigate the doctrinal tradition that has been employed to prevent such a step thus far, and to see how the situation today was not envisaged by the doctrinal positions of the early Church, and in fact can be reconciled with the tradition today. New times and circumstances raise new questions with which the Church must interrogate the tradition to answer contemporary needs. It is not a matter of changing settled doctrine (if such were even possible), but of retrieving from the tradition what it already holds, using contemporary questions as tools to locate hidden depths in the tradition.
In fact, the Ecumenism of Blood has been hiding in plain sight in the Catholic tradition this whole time.
That is what my book sets out to prove. In a hostile world, of extremist faiths and secularism, when persecution of Christians has never been greater, the blood of the martyrs offers a strong bond of unity found in the perfect discipleship that is martyrdom for Christ, a discipleship that binds the martyr for Christ to the Body of Christ completely. Our liturgical recognition of the Coptic Martyrs would offer an icon to the world of the heavenly communion that all who have died for Christ now share in Him.
Cardinal Koch looked forward to the day when the martyrs of other churches could find a place in the Catholic martyrology. Surely that day has come. To quote the words of St Paul heard at Mass on Ash Wednesday, the day I am writing this: now is the acceptable time.
Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB
Douai Abbey / St Elizabeth’s, Scarisbrick