On May 11, 2023, Pope Francis announced that twenty-one men who died as martyrs in Libya will be recognized as saints by the Catholic Church. That news would not be news if it weren’t for the fact that none of those twenty-one martyrs were Catholics.
Why should the pope add non-Catholic saints to the Catholic Church’s calendar of saints, the Roman Martyrology? Although this certainly sounds like an odd decision for a pope, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a pope has tried a unique approach to try to bring an end to the thousand-year-long division between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
Of course, disagreements between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the East go back further than 1054, the famous date of the Great Schism, when a series of controversies led to mutual excommunications. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I annulled the anathemas that both sides hurled at one another back in 1054, but Christ’s Body remains divided.
The history of the Great Schism is complex. But one could say that theological differences, arguments over pastoral decisions, questions about the jurisdictional responsibilities of the pope and patriarchs, and even geographical distances have caused disagreements among Christians since the earliest days of the Church.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Schisms are easily made; they are enormously difficult to heal.” Catholic and Orthodox leaders have participated in numerous meetings and councils over the centuries to try to bring an end to this schism. Pope Gregory X, for example, sent two heavy-hitter theologians to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 in hopes of a reconciliation. Saint Bonaventure was a pivotal figure in this council; Saint Thomas Aquinas was also ordered to attend but died on the way. The council was successful, and reunion was achieved—but unfortunately only for a short time. However, dialogue continues between Orthodox and Catholic bishops even today.
Seen in the light of the Catholic Church’s desire for unity, it’s not altogether surprising that Pope Francis decided to honor these twenty-one recent martyrs as saints. They had already been acclaimed as martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the pope was careful to say he took this step out of a desire for Christian unity, not as a way of showing his primacy over another Church’s decisions.
This is also not the first attempt by Pope Francis to seek agreement with the Orthodox Churches through the saints. For example, he declared Gregory Narek (c. 950-c. 1011), a saintly monk from the Armenian Apostolic Church, to be a Doctor of the Church in 2015. The pope also declared Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130-c. 202) to be a Doctor of the Church in 2022. Saint Irenaeus had long been respected as a Father of the Church. Honoring him with the title of Doctor was widely seen as a friendly gesture to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, who have a strong tradition of respect for Saint Irenaeus.
Other recent popes have tried to find ways to restore Church unity. Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Turkey in 2006, soon after his election, and made a joint statement with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, restating many positions held in common by both Catholic and Orthodox believers. After Benedict resigned as pope, Bartholomew publicly thanked Benedict for his efforts to try to bring unity to the Churches of East and West.
In 1995, Pope Saint John Paul II released Ut Unum Sint, a papal encyclical dedicated to ecumenism. In this masterful document, John Paul expressed his personal desire and the desire of the Catholic Church for improved relationships between the Churches. He also asked all Christians to pray for unity. After all, how can unbelievers accept that the Church is the Body of Christ when it is visibly divided into so many Churches and denominations? The unity and charity that were shown by the early Church attracted unbelievers.1 How can the divisions that exist today do anything other than deter unbelievers today from seeking our Lord and trusting His Church?
But the question remains: what is so compelling about these twenty-one saints that they would inspire a formal papal decision?
On February 15, 2015, a video was released by the Islamic State. Twenty-one kidnapped men wearing orange jumpsuits were shown kneeling on a beach in Libya, with masked soldiers standing behind them. The men had been told to renounce Jesus Christ or they would be executed.
Twenty of the men were members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The other man, when asked if he would save his life by rejecting Christ, replied, “Their God is my God.” It is still not clear whether this man had ever been baptized, but he willingly died with them. All twenty-one were beheaded.
The Coptic Orthodox Church recognized these men as martyrs soon afterward. By acknowledging them as martyrs in the Catholic Church now, Pope Francis showed that the Catholic Church recognizes the martyrs’ welcome into heaven for their heroic faith in Christ.
But the Martyrs of Libya, as they are now called, also remind us of a group of martyrs who died about a thousand miles away and almost seventeen centuries earlier.
On March 9, around the year 320, Roman soldiers were stationed at Sebaste (modern Sivas, Turkey).2 The Roman emperor Licinius sent orders for all his soldiers to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, but forty men refused. They were all Christians. According to tradition, the forty men were stripped of their clothes and forced to lie on a frozen lake, with a warm bath placed nearby as an enticement to apostatize. After undergoing this brutal torture for some time, one man did give in. But when he jumped in the hot water, the temperature difference killed him. Another soldier, inspired by the witness and bravery of the Christians, took off his clothes, joined them on the ice, and took the place of the one who had apostatized. All forty are considered saints and martyrs.
Perhaps the Martyrs of Libya are so inspirational to us today because we are moved by the immediacy of their brutal, videotaped deaths. Or perhaps we are moved by the example of that twenty-first martyr, who died for a God that he had perhaps only met through the personal witness and unity of twenty men who were willing to die, as one body, for Jesus Christ.
1 See Acts 2:43-47.
2 These martyrs are variously called the Martyrs of Sebaste, the Martyrs of Armenia, or the Forty Martyrs of Sebastea.
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Remembering that in our Catholic creed we profess: “We believe in the Communion of faith”
Perhaps ironically today is the annivery of the genocide of the Greeks of Pontus, the Black Sea region, by the Ottoman Turks as part of the campaign of genocide against Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek citizens in which roughly two million perished because of their faith. The 1.5 Armenian victims are now recognized as martyrs by the Armenian Apostolic (Oriental Orthodox) Church. May His Holiness also see fit to recognize their martyrdom as well.
My thought. Theee is one church,no3twithstandkng the foolishness of man. Yeshua said it: I AM the vine. You are the branches. I think he saw a splintering.(Oh and I am NOT European-heritaged, so stand off to the side of any East West controversy). No such thing as a Catholic heaven, or a Coptic heaven (Saint-friend of God: We know these people to have made it declaration).
Pax Christi, Pax Vobiscum.
Saints, holy women, and holy men – did ordinary things with extraordinary dedication, zeal, fervor, and humility. May their tribe increase.