Modern martyrs exemplify true Christian unity, Pope says

by Elise Harris

In a speech to Catholic and Orthodox leaders, Pope Francis pointed, as he often does, to the example of Christian martyrs from various Churches, saying that in their death, those killed for their faith bear witness not only to Christ, but also the unity he prayed for.

On the path toward full unity, “the martyrs show us the way,” the Pope said Jan. 27. “How many times has the sacrifice of their lives led Christians, otherwise divided in so many things, to unity!”

Those who have given their lives in fidelity to Christ, no matter their rite or tradition, are already united, he said, adding that “their names are written in the one common martyrology of God’s Church.”

“Just as in the early Church the blood of the martyrs was the seed of new Christians, so in our own day may the blood of so many martyrs be a seed of unity between believers, a sign and instrument of a future of communion and peace,” he said.

Francis spoke to members of the International Mixed Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches, established in 2003, during their annual meeting in Rome.

While last year’s discussion centered on the nature of the sacraments, specifically baptism, this year participants focused on the historical, theological and ecclesiological aspects of the Eucharist.

In his speech, Pope Francis noted that many of the attendees belong to Churches that suffer “the spread of violence and acts of brutality” inspired by fundamentalist extremism on a daily basis.

Such tragic suffering, he said, is often rooted in the poverty, injustice and social exclusion generated by “an instability created by partisan interests, often from elsewhere, and by earlier conflicts that have led to situations of dire need.”

The result is that “cultural and spiritual deserts” are created “where it becomes easy to manipulate and incite people to hatred,” the Pope said, insisting that those on the ground are called “to sow concord and to work patiently to restore hope” by offering the peace that can only come from God.

Pointing to the passage in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that says “if one member suffers, all suffer together,” Francis assured the Orthodox leaders present that “your sufferings are our sufferings.”

He drew specific attention to those who have suffered due to violence, saying “my heart goes out” in a special way to the bishops, priests and laity, particularly children and elderly, who have been “cruelly abducted, taken hostage or enslaved.”

Kidnappings and ransoms have in the past two years become a norm for extremist groups such as ISIS, who frequently take hostages to instill fear and to use them in order to raise money to fund their destructive projects.

While many of hostages have been freed once a ransom is paid, there are several still missing and who have been for years, including Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who disappeared in Syria July 29, 2013.

Also still missing are Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazig, who were abducted while on the way to negotiate the release of two other kidnapped priests, Fr Michel Kayal and Greek Orthodox Fr Maher Mahfouz, both of whom were taken captive Feb. 9, 2013.

None of the clerics have been heard from since their disappearances. Pope Francis has appealed for their release on other occasions, asking during his July 26, 2015, Angelus address for the release of Dall’Oglio and the two archbishops, asking faithful to “to remember them in our prayers.”

In his speech to the Commission, the Pope prayed that all Christian communities would be “sustained by the intercession and example of our many martyrs and saints who bore courageous witness to Christ.”

The martyrs, he said, “show us the heart of our faith, which does not consist in a generic message of peace and reconciliation but in Jesus himself, crucified and risen. He is our peace and our reconciliation.”

As Jesus’ disciples, all Christians are called to bear witness to his humble and reconciling love, he said, adding that “wherever violence begets more violence and sows death, there our response must be the pure leaven of the Gospel.”

Doing this, he said, eschews “strategies of power” and “allows fruits of life to emerge from arid ground and hope to dawn after nights of terror.”

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