How Can Pope Francis Promote Coptic Martyrs As Catholic Saints?

How Can Pope Francis Promote Coptic Martyrs As Catholic Saints? May 17, 2023

Anonymous: St Lucian of Antioch / Wikimedia Commons

The way Pope Francis placed 21 Coptic martyrs into the official Roman Catholic martyrology has left some people confused. How can Catholics recognize non-Catholic martyrs as saints? Even if Catholics can do it unofficially, should not the breach in communion between Rome and Alexandria make it that they are not given official status? Yet, the history of the church shows this is not unknown. We can find many saints whose status of saints can be seen as surprising if we know their history and story, and yet their elevation to sainthood proves that grace and sanctity transcends institutional status (and even theological orthodoxy).

A great example of this can be found with St. Lucian of Antioch. He was known to be a man of great virtue and education; during the time of Maximinus Daza, he was imprisoned and tortured, and eventually, killed, though the exact date and circumstances of his death are a thing of legend more than empirical fact. Theologically, he is known for promoting and engaging a more literal approach to Scriptural interpretation and a Christological understanding that was inclined towards ideas that would later be espoused by Arius (and so considered one of Arius’s inspirations). He did find himself in conflict with the institutional church, leading to him being excommunicated, though he was also able to restore himself in good standing with the church before his martyrdom. Some think that this meant he changed his theological views, though others question whether or not he did because after his death he was remembered for them instead of their recantation. Since he died in 312, before the Arian crisis developed, his theological opinions did not stand in the way of his veneration; he was seen as a member of the church in good standing, perhaps with some heterodox opinions, but none which were officially condemned (making it that whatever opinions he held, he was not a formal heretic).

What is important in relation to St Lucian of Antioch is that someone who is a martyr can be a saint, can indeed, have been a great human person loved by many because of their charitable nature, and yet still have opinions which eventually are found to run contrary to Christian doctrine. Martyrs, to be martyrs, are not expected to be great theologians, though they can be. They certainly are not expected to be belligerent to those around them, for if they were that, they cannot be considered true martyrs, as the cause of their death would be as a result of their personal behavior and not their faith. Suicide by martyrdom is unacceptable, and those who act in such a way are not true martyrs.

Martyrs are expected to be taking a stand, defending religious liberty, especially defending the right of Christians to believe as they want to believe so that if they are forced in a position to either recant the faith or to be killed, they will not denounce their faith. As such they represent a heroic virtue, something which, if others do not have, can still be forgiven if they repent (contra the Novatians). Martyrs are expected to be good citizens in every way possible, but when there is an unavoidable conflict between faith and society, they stand for the faith, even if they were not themselves originally Christians. For it is clear, from the example of St. Aglaius of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, non-Christians who take a stand with Christians and put their lot with them, that is, stand in solidarity with them and even declare themselves to be a Christian for that reason, can become a martyr. For Aglaius was a soldier who saw many of his fellow soldiers being put naked in a frozen lake so they would freeze to death. He was left in charge to watch over them, but instead of doing so, joined in with them, declaring himself to have accepted the Christian faith thanks to their courageous witness. Thus, as with Aglaius, it is clear, someone who is a martyr does not have to have much theological understanding to become a saint. Indeed, they can, hold false opinions as likely Aglaius, not having had basic catechetical training, did. It is grace, not knowledge, which saves, and so correct doctrinal understanding is itself not necessary to be a saint. Christ died for all, not just those who are experts in Christian doctrine. “For, if Christ died only for those who are able to discern these truths with sure understanding, our labor in the Church is almost worthless.” [1]

It has always been held, martyrs hold a special place in the Christian faith. Their images have often been put on pillars in the church to represent the way they helped hold up or preserve the faith in times of trial and tribulation. And this honor is given to them because Christ said that those who take his side and suffer or die for his sake will be rewarded:

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:11-12 RSV),

The one who is honored as a martyr must be honorable; they can’t do  some sort of evil and then claim they are being persecuted for being a Christian when they are being punished for some evil deed they did:

If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker;  yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God (1 Ptr. 4:14-16 RSV).

Thus, to be recognized as a martyr, the martyr doesn’t have to be a theologian, they don’t have to always have good theological opinions, indeed, their understanding of the faith can be very superficial, as the example of St. Aglaius demonstrates. St. Aglaius joined in solidarity with the rest of the martyrs of Sebaste, in part, to defend them and their good name, but also because he became convinced of the veracity of their faith due to their witness and what he knew of them before they were being tortured to death. While he did not have any formal catechetical education concerning Christian doctrine, it is likely he heard enough from the soldiers being executed, that he could agree with the basic presentation of the faith and identify himself as a Christian taking his place next to them. He died to defend Christians but also to join in with the faith of the Christians, to be known as a Christian himself. His martyrdom served as his baptism, and so he truly became a Christian in his death. What this shows, once again, is the flexibility behind the recognition of saints, showing that the background of those who are recognized as martyr-saints can be irregular, that such a saint can be someone with erroneous theological beliefs (like Lucian) or little to no theological understanding (like Aglaius). This is also true with regards irregular ecclesial status, for that status often comes about through temporal ecclesial politics and conflicts than any substantial, willful division from Christ.  This is why St. John Chrysostom, despite some hesitation due to the conflict between him and Theophilus of Alexandria, would later be recognized as a saint by the see of Alexandria.

All of this should help explain why the Catholic Church can and does accept Orthodox (and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox) saints as saints. Though there is an irregular status of communion between the various institutional churches, this does not get in the way of grace and the way that grace can perfect nature and establish holy saints in the world. There are many examples of this which we can list, among which is St. Sergius of Radonezh. But it became even more apparent when Eastern Catholics came into communion with Rome, as they were told they could continue to venerate their saints, giving official recognition to their saints, even those which emerged after the so-called Great Schism. Thus, it should not be surprising that Pope Francis indicated that 21 Coptic martyrs, killed by ISIS in 2015, were saints, though it can be a little surprising – but not without precedent – that Pope Francis said they would also be included in the official Roman Catholic martyrology. For, despite the way the Catholic and Coptic communions are not in full communion with each other, that does not undermine the value of martyrdom and the way it can elevate someone to sainthood. To be sure, not everyone who appears to be a martyr, is, and sometimes one who is a martyr for the sake of a theological error should not be recognized as a martyr, this does not undermine the fact that many martyrs can be seen as saints whom all Christians can and should recognize and honor. This is what happened with the martyrs killed by ISIS. They were killed as Christians. Their theological understanding, like that of Lucian or Aglaius, had no connection to their martyrdom, and so has no connection to our recognition of their sanctity. Each one would have had different understandings, as each person was different, with a different background and theological education. They are rightfully honored and praised. When we do so, we can and should see and learn something else: the greater, transcendent nature of the church. The church of Christ, the church which all who are saved will be a part of, is not to be seen as univocal with institutional representation of it, but is rather the eschatological source and foundation for authentic institutional churches which can and do provide grace to the world, grace which helps bring people together as one in Christ (and not just the institution itself). This is why Vatican II said the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church instead of saying it is the Catholic Church.

[1] St. Augustine, “Letter 169 to Evodius” in Saint Augustine: Letters Volume IV (165 – 203). Trans. Sister Wilfrid Parsons, SND (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1955), 53.


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