ADDRESS OF HIS EMINENCE CARDINAL KURT KOCH
on the occasion of the "Contemporary Martyrs Day: Marking the deaths of the Libyan Martyrs and those who have lost their lives as a result of religious persecution"
15 February 2021
Your Holiness, Your Grace, Your Eminence, Your Excellencies,
I would like first of all to convey the greetings of His Holiness Pope Francis, who has asked me to communicate his regret that he is unable to be present in this webinar, but who nonetheless expresses his spiritual and personal closeness. On my own behalf I express my heartfelt sentiment in commemorating with you today this “Contemporary Martyrs Day”.
As stated Pope Francis in his message today, the horrific image of these martyrs has become a symbol of the persecution that so many Christians suffer in the Middle East and in the world. Through this image, Christians have understood that martyrs are not only people of the early Church represented on some ancient icons, but their very own contemporaries.
Certainly, the persecution of Christians has existed since the origins of Christianity. We can even say that persecution is in some way intrinsic to Christianity. A deep reflection on this topic was proposed by the great philosopher René Girard, who showed how Christianity, in its denunciation of violence, attracts violence on itself.
However, the awareness of the ecumenical dimension of martyrdom is only recent. Indeed, restrictive confessional visions had prevented at length the recognition of martyrdom in other Churches. It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church officially recognised the wider reality of martyrdom (Lumen Gentium 15). A first example was the recognition of the shared martyrdom of young Catholics and Anglicans from Uganda, who in the 1880s shed together their blood for Christ. It was in relation to them that Pope Paul VI first used the expression “ecumenism of the martyrs”.
But it is primarily in the twentieth century that Christians have faced persecution together. In Nazi Germany, one of the most moving examples is the White Rose Group, which gathered Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox students, who were executed together. The Dachau camp, which compounded thousands of clerics of different Christian traditions, can also be considered as one of the birthplaces of modern ecumenism. In the Soviet Union, too, there emerged the so-called “ecumenism of the Gulag”.
Statues of some of these martyrs of the twentieth century, from different Christian traditions, were recently placed on the façade of Westminster Abbey. This is a powerful and inspiring illustration of the “ecumenism of the martyrs”.
Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to declare in Ut unum sint that, “In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common Martyrology” (84). Pope Francis, convinced that sharing suffering is the seed of unity, has made the expression “ecumenism of the blood” one of the major themes of his pontificate.
Undoubtedly, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). Christians are persecuted not because they are Coptic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant or Catholic, but because they are Christians. Somehow, persecutors of Christians often have a better ecumenical vision than the Christians themselves: they know that we Christians are, profoundly, one.
I would like to conclude with an undoubtedly audacious aspiration. The hope that martyrs of other Churches, like the 21 commemorated today, may also be included one day in the martyrology of the Catholic Church. If we already have a common martyrology in the Holy Spirit, why not give visibility to this reality? Such a gesture would be a powerful sign on the path to the unity for which Christ prayed.