Earlier today, Pope Francis declared that 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians, who were beheaded by Islamic militants in Libya in 2015, would be added to the Roman Martyrology. Francis made the announcement during an audience with Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The “21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya,” as they are called, were martyred on February 15, 2015. Less than a week later, they were declared saints in the Coptic Orthodox Church by Pope Tawadros. The Copts celebrate their feast on the anniversary of their death, February 15, and it appears that this will also be their feast day on the Roman calendar.
The world was shocked in February 2015, when a 5-minute video was uploaded to the internet by ISIS militants. The video showed the 21 kidnapped men in orange jumpsuits being beheaded on a beach near the Libyan city of Sirte. 20 of these martyrs were Egyptian Copts who had gone to Libya to do construction work. The last member of the group, Matthew Ayariga, was a fellow worker from Ghana. It is said that he told the executioners, “Their God is my God. I will go with them.” There has been some question over whether he was already Christian or whether the witness of his 20 coworkers led to his conversion, but nevertheless, his Christian witness and solidarity are inspiring. It was reported that as they died, they chanted hymns and prayed aloud.
The deaths of these men as Christian martyrs is undeniable. The extraordinary photos of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Catholic priest who was executed by the Mexican government in 1927 during the Cristero War — taken just moments before the he was shot by the firing squad — are perhaps the only other photographic images recording a Christian martyrdom as it happened. And yet the recognition of the 21 martyrs as Catholic saints is unprecedented for several reasons.
The primary reason, of course, is that the Coptic Orthodox Church is not in full communion with Rome. The Copts are Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox), because they split from the other Christian churches in the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon due to differences over the nature of Christ. They are also referred to as “Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.” This means that they recognize the first three ecumenical councils, whereas the Eastern Orthodox recognize seven, and the Catholic Church recognizes 21 ecumenical councils.
After more than 15 centuries, our hope of reunion may seem remote. After all these years, the two Churches have independently developed their own traditions, theologies, forms of worship, and prayers. Yet some things have remained the same. Both Churches have maintained apostolic succession and the sacraments: Pope Francis is the successor of St. Peter and Pope Tawadros is the successor of St. Mark. In recent decades, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church has become closer. For example, in 2017, Popes Francis and Tawadros made a joint statement indicating mutual acceptance of the validity of baptism in both Churches.
Pope Francis has praised the Martyrs of Libya many times, and today he recalled our shared baptism, as well as the blood of martyrs that enriches the Church. He said, “These martyrs were baptized not only in the water and Spirit, but also in blood, a blood that is the seed of unity for all of Christ’s followers.” In the past, the pope has discussed how we must realize that we, the baptized, have much more in common than what divides us. This shared recognition of sainthood between the two Churches is a significant step towards Christian unity.
This sets a new precedent. In 1964, when the Ugandan Martyrs were canonized by Pope Paul VI, St. Charles Lwanga and the other 21 Catholics among his companions were declared saints. The 23 Anglicans who were martyred alongside them were mentioned briefly in the pope’s homily, when he said, “And we do not wish to forget, the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, met death for the name of Christ.”
Another reason why today’s announcement is unique was that Pope Francis did this by an official act. The Roman Martyrology is the official list of saints officially recognized by the Latin Church. Many Eastern Catholic Churches have their own processes for canonizing saints according to their traditions. Historically, when groups of Eastern Catholics have come into full communion with Rome, they will bring along their saints and prayers and traditions. Many of these saints aren’t officially canonized by Rome, and they are usually only venerated in their own tradition. By inscribing the names of these martyrs in the Roman Martyrology, Pope Francis has made it clear that these martyrs are to be venerated by Roman Catholics as saints.
Finally, in declaring them saints today, Pope Francis sidestepped the typical canonization process. They are saints, without having passed through the usual stages of Servant of God, Venerable, and Blessed. This “skipping” of steps is commonly referred to as “equipollent canonization.” Essentially, when a pope declares someone a saint by an official act, that person is recognized as a saint in the Church. This is not the first time Francis has moved a case along in this way. For example, when he canonized Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014, he waived the requirement of a second miracle for John XXIII so that the two popes would be canonized on the same day. In 2013, he elevated the Jesuit Peter Faber, whose status had lingered at “Blessed” since 1872.
Perhaps the most interesting case is that of St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian monk venerated as a saint in the Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Unexpectedly, Pope Francis named him the 36th Doctor of the Church in 2015. Living from in the mid-10th century through the early 11th, St. Gregory lived at a time when the Armenian Church was not in communion with Rome. After several failed attempts at reunion, the Armenian Catholic Church was officially recognized as an Eastern Catholic Church in 1742. Interestingly, the Armenian Catholic eparchy of Buenos Aires (established in 1989 by Pope John Paul II) is called the Eparchy of Saint Gregory of Narek. Perhaps this is how Pope Francis became familiar with the saint.
We Christians are blessed with a wide variety of saints from all sorts of backgrounds. They help make up the beautiful tapestry of the people of God — praying for us, interceding for us, and inspiring us. This is something worth celebrating.
21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, Pray for Us!
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.