The ecumenism of the new martyrs
Jubilee 2000 Search


Josef L. Maj

At the end of the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Friday April 1st 1994, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II gave a brief spontaneous speech in which he made particular reference to the saving Mystery of the Cross, to the faith of Christians expressed in martyrdom and to the unity in which Christians are called to bear witness to their faith in the Lord, who died and is risen.

«(...) Here where our ancestors in the faith witnessed, by their martyrdom even to the point of death, to the love with which Christ loved us. Here in this spot of the globe, in ancient Rome, I am thinking especially of the "Hill of Crosses" in Lithuania, to which I made a pastoral visit last September. I was moved by that other Colosseum, not of Roman times, but a Colosseum of our age, of this last century».

And thanking Patriarch Bartholomew I for preparing the meditation for the Via Crucis, which had just ended, the Holy Father added: «I thought of those other Colosseums, so numerous, of those other "Hills of Crosses" that are on the other side, throughout European Russia, throughout Siberia, so many Hills of Crosses so many Colosseums of modern times. Today I would like to say to my Brother from Constantinople and to all our Eastern brothers and sisters: Dearly beloved, we are united in these martyrs from Rome, from the "Hill of Crosses", the Solovietsky Islands and many other extermination camps. We are united against the background of these martyrs, we cannot fail to be united» (Oss. Rom. English edition April 14-6, 1994).

The Holy Father returned to this subject with even deeper insistence in his Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio adveniente . In number 37 he recalls the first millennium in which the Church grew thanks to the «seeds sown by the martyrs and the heritage of sanctity which marked the first Christian generations».

Meditation on the tragic vicissitudes of our century allows us to see that «at the end of the second millennium the Church has once again become the Church of martyrs. The persecutions of believers - priests, Religious and laity - has caused a great sowing of martyrdom in different parts of the world» and to say that «Witness to Christ, borne even to the shedding of blood, has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his homily for the Canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs» (ibid.).

Following on from this thought, the Holy Father continues: «The greatest homage which all the Churches can give to Christ on the threshold of the third millennium will be to manifest the Redeemer's all-powerful presence through the fruits of faith, hope and charity present in men and women of many different tongues and races who have followed Christ in the various forms of the Christian vocation» (TMA 37).

This following of Christ, which expresses faith in Christ and witnesses to him, begins with Baptism and is realised in the Church. «For - affirms the Second Vatican Council, in the dogmatic Constitution on the Church - those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the Word of the living God, not from the flesh, but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as a 'chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people ... You who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God» (cf 1 Pt 2, 9-10). This people is called by Christ to communion of life, charity and truth, and has also been chosen by Him to be an instrument of redemption for all mankind and sent out to the whole world: «God has gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and has established them as the Church, that for each and all she may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity». (LG 9). Through the centuries, this Church of Christ works for salvation and bears fruits of holiness and fidelity to the Lord even to the shedding of blood.

The Church however, according to the Council documents «recognises that in many ways she is linked» (LG 15) with all those who are baptised and being called Christians are united with her by bonds of faith (cfr ibidem). The Decree on Ecumenism clearly explains this reality: «For those who believe in Christ and have been baptised are brought into a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church» (UR 3). After mentioning the many other elements which characterise this partial communion, elements which at the same time are means of sanctification, belonging also to other Christians, the dogmatic Constitution of the Church adds: «Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them also he gives his gifts and graces, and is therefore operative among them with his sanctifying power. Some, indeed he has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood». (LG 15).

By virtue of this certain degree of communion existing among Christians and by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit which surpasses all our imagination also in other Churches and Communions there have been generous witnesses of life to the shedding of blood. All these martyrs are united in the Person of the Redeemer. For this reason, despite the fact that they come from different Christian traditions, because of their faith in Jesus Christ they become the "common heritage" of all Christians. (cfr Ut Unum sint 84). And in this sense the Holy Father was able to affirm: «in a theocentric vision we Christians already have a common martyrology» (ibid).

Furthermore, it will also be important to gather together concrete evidence of those who have shed their blood and witnessed to the faith to the point of giving their life in Europe in this century, in Asia, in Africa and elsewhere. Most important for all the Communities is the Holy Father's proposal to compile a "common Martyrology", or a Register of witnesses to the faith of this century through which the Churches and ecclesial Communions, may together render testimony to the work of salvation brought about by the Lord through these martyrs.

A "common Martyrology", of those who "are the proof of the power of grace", and "are in communion with Christ in glory" will help us to better understand the communion which already exists among those incorporated into Christ through Baptism, to re-discover and revive their vocation to work for the unity which the Lord desires for his own and to give visible testimony of this unity. (cfr Ut Unum sint 84).