Thursday, May 11, 2023

The 21 Coptic Martyrs

 An interesting development: In 2015, 21 people were executed by Daesh for refusing to renounce Christianity; 20 of them were Coptic Orthodox. Pope Francis announced today that they would also be included in the Roman Martyrology:

Twenty-one Christian martyrs, including 20 Copts killed by Daech in 2015 in Libya, will be included in the Roman martyrology, Pope Francis announced on May 11, 2023, in front of Patriarch Tawadros II, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who is present in Rome. This is historic: The Catholic Church and the Coptic Church have saints of the first centuries in common, but these will be the first saints recognized by both Churches since the split of the fifth century.

It is worth noting that the last sentence of that paragraph is not strictly true. It is true that the 20 of the 21 who were Coptic will be the first Coptic saints in the Roman Martyrology since the schism. But Copts are Oriental Orthdox, which means that they recognize the saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox, with whom they are in communion. And there is one post-schism Ethiopian Orthodox saint in the Roman Martyrology: St. Kaleb Elesbaan of Axum, who has been in the Roman Martyrology since the sixteenth century (when Pope Sixtus V, I think, had Baronius revise the Martyrology). Coptic Orthodox are also in communion with the Armenian Orthodox, and there is an Armenian Orthodox saint in both the Martyrology (put there under Pope John Paul II) and the General Calendar (put there by Pope Francis): St. Gregory of Narek.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what this means, so a few points:

(1) Is this a canonization? Technically, yes, by definition -- they are being canonically entered on the rolls of martyrs. However, most people when they talk about 'canonization' mean a full, formal canonization for Rome's universal calendar, which is Rome's commendation of saints to the whole Church; this is very different from entry into the Roman Martyrology. The latter is a more informal process. It's also not a universal act; the Roman Martyrology is the roll of saints specifically for the Latin Church. There are many other calendars of saints in the Catholic Church -- namely, the Menologia and equivalent rolls for the Eastern Catholic churches. People have sometimes argued that formal pontifical canonization is an infallible act; nobody thinks entry into the martyrologies and menologies is an infallible act.

(2) There are already several saints in the Roman Martyrology who were not members of churches in communion with Rome; St. Isaac of Nineveh (Church of the East) is a famous example, as is St. Kaleb of Axum. St. Artemius is in the Martyrology despite the fact that he was an Arian (and in fact a persecutor of St. Athanasius and other orthodox saints); he was executed under the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate. There are also quite a few ambiguous cases, in which multiple people might have been confused. For instance, St. Felix II was an antipope, and while our information sketchy, the information we have suggests he may have been an Arian antipope; but 'Felix' was a common name, so there's some evidence that his story may have been muddled up with that of a martyr who was no Arian -- but it's not absolutely certain that St. Felix II was actually an Arian, and it's not certain that he was not (later) martyred for opposition to Arianism, so we don't know. (The many cases like this are one reason why nobody thinks that entry into the Martyrology is infallible. One of the most important points that is made by the Martyrology -- explicitly, it's part of the daily prayers -- is that there are vast numbers of saints about which we know little to nothing, and the Martyrology, unlike the General Calendar, gives a wide benefit of the doubt because of that.) There are, of course, a number of post-schism Orthodox saints in the menologies of Catholic churches of Byzantine rite. There are even a few saints on the General Calendar itself who were members of churches not in communion with Rome. St. Gregory of Narek, of course, is one. St. Hippolytus of Rome was an antipope; according to legend, he may have reconciled before his death but the legends that say this are very late and probably just composed to explain why an antipope was on a calendar. 

(3) I mentioned above that 20 of the 21 were Coptic Orthodox. The 21st is Matthew Ayariga. We know almost nothing about him, although he's thought to have been from Ghana. He may have been Catholic. But he may not have been. He may not have even been Christian. We don't know. The story that's told, with what basis is difficult to determine, is that when the Islamist militants asked what his religion was, he simply replied, "Their God is my God". As some have noted, non-Christians converting at martyrdom is not unheard of. There is in the Roman Martyrology a saint listed as 'Adauctus'. That was not his name; his name is completely unknown; 'adauctus' in Latin means something added on top, and he was given the name by later Christians who wanted to have a name with which to refer to him. According to the legend, St. Felix (yet another one) was a priest who was condemned to death; but his demeanor had so impressed the unknown pagan that the pagan professed Christ and was martyred with him, and 'Saint Adauctus' is the unknown pagan.

In all these things, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that our predecessors in the faith tended to be quite generous in recognizing martyrs.