The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs each year from 18-25 January , beginning with the traditional Feast of the Chair of St. Peter and running through First Vespers of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. The Servant of God, Fr. Paul Wattson — convert and founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement — first proposed the dates as a fitting time in which to call all Christians to ecumenical fellowship.
The theme of this year’s recurrence, “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit,” is taken from the Holy Gospel according to St. John (15:5-9).
On several occasions, publicly though not systematically, Pope Francis has spoken of the “ecumenism of blood.” He has done so in response to alarming reports of Christians – Catholic and non-Catholic – being killed for their Christianity, especially in the Middle East. His use of the term grew more emphatic after the 2015 murder of Coptic Christians in Libya, though he had first used it more than a year before their deaths.
In December 2013, responding to a question regarding the priority of ecumenism from Andrea Tornielli, who was then the Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, Pope Francis said:
Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill [us,] we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come.
“Unity,” Pope Francis went on to say, “is a gift for which we must ask.” Then, he told the story of a parish priest in Hamburg, Germany, who was involved in the cause of a Catholic priest murdered by Nazis for teaching catechism to children. Also on the list of Christians condemned to die with that Catholic priest was a Lutheran pastor. Francis explained that he met the same fate for the same reason.
“Their blood was mixed,” Pope Francis said. “The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: ‘I will continue to deal with the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest’s.’ This is what ecumenism of blood is,” said Francis. “It still exists today – you just need to read the newspapers.”
Using an image that many readers of these pages may find quite powerfully striking, Pope Francis went on to say: “Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in.”
“We need to take these facts into consideration,” he said.
Pope Francis recognized the contemporary situation in which Christians of all denominations are being persecuted without reference to their denomination but only to their profession of faith in Christ. This represents for him a kind of unity – not a formal unity for which the “necessary steps” have yet to be taken – but a material unity in blood.
Pope Francis has refocused the ecumenical initiative away from the formal, institutional unity being laboriously investigated by theologians, to an informal, grassroots, and immediate unity in the martyr-blood of ordinary Christians.
Several months later, Francis invoked the ecumenism of blood without explicitly employing the term. In an address to the Armenian Catholicos, Karekin II, he spoke this time of an “ecumenism of suffering”:
Your Holiness, dear Brothers, the sufferings endured by Christians in these last decades have made a unique and invaluable contribution to the unity of Christ’s disciples. As in the ancient Church, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of new Christians. So too in our time the blood of innumerable Christians has become a seed of unity. The ecumenism of suffering and of the martyrdom of blood are a powerful summons to walk the long path of reconciliation between the Churches, by courageously and decisively abandoning ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit. We feel the duty to follow this fraternal path also out of the debt of gratitude we owe to the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, which is salvific because it is united to the Passion of Christ.
Martyrdom is again cast as a pan-Christian phenomenon, one that is to be understood as “a seed of unity” and a “powerful summons” to pursue “reconciliation between the Churches.” This is a consistent, if undeveloped, theme in his presentation of the ecumenism of blood.
Persecutors attack Christians without distinction, and their indiscriminate bloodlust effects a real – albeit an inchoate – ecumenical unity.
This essay is adapted from The Ecumenism of Blood: Heavenly Hope for Earthly Communion, by Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB (Paulist Press, 2018. New York / Mahwah, NJ)