Martyrdom is a call to Church unity, Pope Francis observed to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, signalling his preference for a means of ecumenism favored by his representative for Christian unity.
Cardinal Kurt Koch became president of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in February 2013, taking over from Cardinal Walter Kasper. In line with Pope Francis, he has returned to a focus on “ecumenism of blood,” whereas Cardinal Kasper had preferred a “spiritual ecumenism.”
“The sufferings endured by Christians in these last decades have made a unique and invaluable contribution to the unity of Christ’s disciples,” Pope Francis said May 8 at an audience with Karekin II, Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“So too in our time the blood of innumerable Christians has become a seed of unity.”
The Armenian Apostolic Church is an Oriental Orthodox Church; these Churches reject the 451 Council of Chalcedon, and have been considered monophysites by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
Pope Francis began their meeting by praising Christ because “in recent years relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Church of Rome have been strengthened,” noting Karekin’s meetings with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and his presence at his own inauguration as Bishop of Rome.
He then began discussing the ecumenism of martyrdom, saying that “the number of disciples who shed their blood for Christ during the tragic events of the last century is certainly greater than that of the martyrs of the first centuries, and in this martyrology the children of the Armenian nation have a place of honour.”
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire began a genocide against the Armenian people, in which some 1 million were killed.
“The mystery of the Cross,” Pope Francis said, “has been lived as a direct participation in the chalice of the Passion by so many of your people.”
He said 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 so many of our brothers and sisters, which is salvific because it is united to the Passion of Christ.”
Pope Francis thanked Karekin for his work for ecumenical dialogue, and exhorted that they might prayer for each other: “may the Holy Spirit enlighten us and lead us to that day, so greatly desired, in which we can share the Eucharistic table.”
This ecumenism of suffering and of martyrdom is seemingly the way Pope Francis wishes to tread the path of ecumenical dialogue.
He had already discussed it in his December interview with Italian daily La Stampa.
Pope Francis said that “ecumenism is a priority” of his, and that “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.”
St. John Paul II had also discussed this ecumenism of martyrdom. At the Way of the Cross held at the Colosseum April 1, 1994 – preached by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople – he mentioned “the other ‘Hills of Crosses’, so numerous, throughout European Russia, throughout Siberia, many ‘Hills of Crosses’, many Colosseums of modern times.”
“Today I would like to say to my Brother from Constantinople and to all our Eastern brethren: dear ones, we are united in these martyrs of Rome, of the "Hill of Crosses” and the Solovietsky Islands and many other extermination camps. We are united against the background of these martyrs; we cannot fail to be united.”
Later that same year, in the apostolic letter “Tertio millennio adveniente,” St. John Paul II wrote that the commemoration of martyrs “cannot fail to have an ecumenical character and expression. Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us.”
In contrast, Cardinal Kasper – whom St. John Paul II appointed head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2001 – chose “spiritual ecumenism” as the “watchword” for ecumenical dialogue, instead of martyrdom.
At a reflection for the Week of Christian Unity in 2008, he discussed spiritual ecumenism as a challenge “to become ever more aware of the scandal of division,” and focused more on the eschatological dimension of ecumenism and an “invisible monastery” rather than the achievement of Church unity in the here and now.
Despite all this, Cardinal Kasper’s “spiritual ecumenism” did not exclude the ecumenism of martyrdom.
However, when he replaced Kasper in 2013, Cardinal Koch returned the discussion’s emphasis to martyrdom.
He had already called for a new ecumenism of martyrs in March 2011 at an annual ecumenical and interreligious summit sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Munich.
"Since today all churches and Christian ecclesiastical communities have their martyrs, we are dealing with a true ecumenism of martyrs,” he said.
“While we, as Christians and as churches, live on this earth in an as yet imperfect communion, the martyrs in their celestial glory find themselves in full and perfect communion.”