An ecumenical “webinar” was organized on February 15, 2021 with the participation of Pope Francis, Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, and Anglican Primate Justin Welby, to commemorate the 21 Coptic “martyrs” brutally murdered by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, on Libyan territory, February 15, 2015.
The media coverage of this massacre aroused general indignation. A week after the execution was broadcast, Patriarch Tawadros II entered the 21 victims in the Coptic Orthodox Church’s book of martyrs.
During the videoconference, Pope Francis notably affirmed: “They are our saints, the saints of all Christians, the saints of all faiths and Christian traditions,” the saints “of the people of God, of the faithful people of God,” Who “washed their lives in the blood of the Lamb.”
He concluded his intervention with these words: “Let us pray together today in this memory of these 21 Coptic martyrs: that they intercede for all of us before the Father. Amen.”
Of course, this is not the first time that a pope has celebrated “martyrs” who do not belong to the Catholic Church. John Paul II wanted to make an “ecumenical commemoration of the witnesses of the faith of the twentieth century.”
On May 7, 2000, the third Sunday of Easter, he delivered a homily to representatives of Orthodox and ancient Eastern Churches—including the Coptic Orthodox. There were also representatives of Protestant communities and ecumenical organizations.
The meeting was held near the Colosseum. John Paul II affirmed in particular that “in our century, the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants” (Tertio millennio adveniente,
A few years later, in 2005, a Universal Martyrology was published, prepared by the Bose community—composed of members of various faiths, founded after the Council by Enzo Bianchi. This martyrology brings together Christians and members of many other religions.
An Impossible Declaration
There is obviously no question of denying the terrible suffering endured by these victims of anti-Christian hatred. Nor to ignore that they preferred death to the denial of their belief. But it is simply not possible for the Catholic Church to declare them “martyrs.” Because a capital dimension is missing for this declaration.
The martyr is in fact one who voluntarily suffered death inflicted in hatred of the Catholic faith. In order to be able to apply this title, therefore, the person must visibly belong to the Catholic Church by profession of faith. Because the Church cannot judge what is inside the soul. But she does judge by the outward signs she sees.
This is why Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758), in his treatise on the canonization of saints, explains that it is not possible to affirm the martyrdom of a person who does not belong to the Church. Does this mean that there can be no martyrs outside the visible limits of the Church? It is possible, continues Benedict XIV, but they are then “martyrs before God and not before the Church” who cannot judge them. They will receive in Heaven the reward intended for the martyrs, but remain unknown to us here below.