Recognizing Coptic Martyrs as Saints

On 11 May, the successor of St. Mark the Evangelist as pope and patriarch of Alexandria for Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Tawadros II, paid an official visit to Francis, bishop of Rome and pontiff of the Catholic Church. While I suspect most Latin-rite Catholics were surprised at the thought of two popes being together, the word pope means “father” and has been the title used by the Coptic and Greek Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria for well over 1,500 years.

However, far more significant was the fact that Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in 2015 as saints for the entire Catholic Church. Francis stated at their meeting that “with the consent of Your Holiness, these 21 martyrs will be inserted into the ‘Roman Martyrology’ as a sign of the spiritual communion uniting our two churches.”

While the Catholic Church on rare occasions has recognized the sainthood of a person not in full communion with the Catholic Church — such as declaring the Armenian mystic Gregory of Narek a doctor of the church — there are some unique aspects to this most recent action that allows for the public veneration of these martyrs as saints by Catholics.

These martyrs were Orthodox Christians who belonged to a church that, while engaged in an active and fruitful ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, does not share full communion with it. Recognizing this, Pope Francis’ gesture was graciously ecumenical and theologically significant; he did not act unilaterally, but with the consent of the Coptic pope.

There is an ancient double principle, lex credendi lex orandi, and its mirror version, lex orandi lex credendi. My personal free translation of these is: “How you believe is how you pray” and “how you pray is how you believe.” These principles are especially important. Our prayer as Christians is deeply impacted by how we believe, and how we pray deeply impacts — and with time transforms and deepens — how we believe.

While these principles are always at work, they are, for any number of reasons, not always “in sync.” Sometimes the faith is ahead of the prayer and sometimes the prayer is ahead of the officially articulated faith.

“Unitatis Redintegratio,” the decree on ecumenism (21 November 1964) of Vatican II, declares among other things:

  • Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.”
  • “Some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments, which together go to build up and give life to the church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.”

These official statements of the Catholic Church were made almost 60 years ago. While this and other gestures of fraternity made during Pope Tawadros II’s visit are truly gracious and marvelously ecumenical, they are not new, nor do they indicate any change of direction in Catholicism. If one can see in the lex credendi lex orandi a certain analogy to “theory and practice,” we note that Pope Francis has taken the theoretical and given it a practical application. I suspect, therefore, that the wonderful events that took place during the Coptic pope’s visit to Rome are also a type of example of the lex orandi catching up with the lex credendi — the ideal synchronizing with the actual.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D., is special assistant to the president of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission.

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