The massacre inflicted in Egypt by Daesh on our Coptic brethren at worship in their churches on Palm Sunday is still fairly fresh in our minds. The first bombing was inside a church at Tanta, on the Nile delta, during the Palm Sunday liturgy, killing 27 and injuring or crippling 78 people. Soon after was a blast at the Coptic pope’s cathedral in Alexandria, again during the liturgy but at the entrance to the church as the bomber had been stopped by police. 17 people were killed, including three police officers, and 48 injured. Pope Tawadros was not injured.
High up among the list of the most vulnerable and persecuted churches in the world at present are two Oriental Orthodox churches, the Coptic and the Syriac. Both have suffered grievously at the hands of the demonic fanatics of Daesh (the self-styled ISIS). Still fresh in the memory of some is the massacre of the 20 Copts (and one Muslim convert, who converted in the face of death) on a Libyan beach a little over two years ago prompted Pope Francis to call them, informally, martyrs and to speak of an ecumenism forged in blood. Pope Francis was articulating in an unsystematic and brief way the prevailing Christian consensus at the time.
Of course some Catholics were quick to dismiss out of hand and with no discussion the possibility that we could recognise Copts as martyrs since they were at best (and apart from the small uniate churches) schismatics and, for most of these critics, heretics as well. In the wake of the latest slaughter these same opinions are being espoused in the name of Catholic truth and integrity, and for some, as a stick with which to beat Pope Francis.
One would recommend to such hardcore Catholics the path of caution. If they read Catholic canon law they will see that the term heretic is reserved for those who have been baptised into communion with Rome and later repudiate one or other of its doctrines and hold to one or other doctrine that the Church has determined to be in error. There is to be a clear element of what canonists call contumacy, a deliberate, conscious and free obstinacy in the rejection of Catholic teaching. It is most unlikely that many, if any, of the Coptic laity are contumacious and certainly, having been born and baptised outside our communion, they cannot fall under the censure of heretic.
Moreover, recent doctrinal discussions have produced common statements on Christology that have seen both the Catholic and Coptic churches recognise that they hold a common understanding of the nature of Christ, that is the fully human nature of Christ in his one divine person. There are still some issues to be ironed out, minor in comparison to the Christological doctrines that first caused the schism with the Monophysite Oriental Orthodox churches in the fourth century. The scope of probable material heresy is now much reduced, perhaps to the point of insignificance.
However these Oriental churches are still in schism from the Catholic Church. However that issue is not insuperable either, at least with regard to recognising Oriental martyrs as being in communion with our Church. Last year I wrote a modest thesis which sought to determine if and how the Catholic Church could formally recognise the Coptic Martyrs of Libya, and by extension other martyrs such as last Sunday’s. While they obviously satisfy the fundamental requirement of martyrdom—being murdered in hatred of Christ, in odio Christi—the historical issue of heresy and the live issue of schism had both to be faced. It is my contention that within what Pope Francis calls the ecumenism of blood is a principle that allows for the schism to be remedied. Just as the blood of a non-Christian murdered in hatred of Christ has been seen since the earliest days of Christianity as baptising him (or her!), why cannot the blood of a non-contumaciously schismatic Christian murdered in hatred of Christ act to reconcile him to the Church’s full communion. It is proposed in analogy to the relationship between sacramental baptism and absolution.
Next Spring Paulist Press will publish an edited version of the thesis, so you will be able to see how I have addressed the doctrinal issues and uncovered the resolution of the difficulties already to be found in the Tradition prior to Pope Francis. Likewise the thesis contends that there is a mechanism already in place that would enable the Catholic communion to celebrate liturgically the Coptic martyrs (and by extension many other non-Catholic martyrs). It would be a wonderful gesture of Christian solidarity to be able to celebrate liturgically their martyrs with the Copts.
Practical Solidarity Now
In the meantime, there are at least two ways we (and certainly I) would be able to show some solidarity with our Coptic brethren this Triduum.
After the bombings on Palm Sunday, hundreds of Copts were filmed outside a church chanting together in defiant faith and mutual support and encouragement. What were they singing? A modern hymn? An ancient Coptic hymn perhaps? No. They were chanting, in Arabic, the Creed.
Still, often, and even very recently, I have heard of priests omitting the creed at Sunday Mass, even Palm Sunday Masses. Usually it is a matter of the length of the liturgy (that extra minute will so much difference!) rather than doctrinal antagonism (though it is for a few). Something has to go, or the liturgy will be too long for the poor congregation. I find this usually means it will be too long, rather, for the priest. So it will not be his homily (and some preach an extra homilette at the beginning of Mass to add a real burden to the people). Some priests are far too fond of the sound of their own voice. The reasons for the necessary inclusion of the creed at Mass are several and detailed, and not for here. Google them. Suffice it to say, the creed is the expression of the essential faith that unites the congregation of the faithful in the Sunday liturgy. Why on earth would someone with any spiritual sensitivity and insight want to omit it? Far better, Fathers, to omit your homily. It ranks far lower than the creed.
In light of the marvellous faith of the Copts, we might say our creed this Easter (or the profession of faith in the baptismal rites if your church is receiving catechumens) with renewed and more intense attention and devotion. People have died, and are dying, for the faith that this creed expresses. Beleaguered Copts are singing the creed in the streets to encourage each other in persevering in faith, hope and charity, and to reveal the meaning of their sufferings.
Moreover, you might ask your priest if your parish or community could, at least occasionally, sing the creed (if it does not do so already). While we mostly sing our creed in Latin according to a Gregorian tone, in Advent and Lent we sing the Apostles Creed like a hymn, easy to learn and to sing. Singing the creed confers the profession of faith the weight and emphasis it deserves.
Also in the wake of the bombings the Coptic diocese of Minya in southern Egypt announced yesterday that this Easter, in honour of the Palm Sunday martyrs, its liturgies will be reduced to the barest minimum, stripped of the joyful pomp and colourful enthusiasm that should normally attend this most holy day, and confined solely to the “liturgical prayers”.
It is not proposed here that we should try to minimise our own Paschal liturgies. However what we might do is curtail our online sharing of photos and videos of our liturgies. It is a blessing that there are still so many places at which the sacred liturgies are still celebrated with solemnity, beauty and fidelity. Yet, sometimes the often extravagant sharing of liturgical pics and vids borders on obsessive, a sort of liturgical p*rn almost. Since such sharing is divorced from the immediate context of the liturgical event, it can sometimes appear as a mere glorying in externals. The externals make the most sense, and give the most joy, in the live action itself of the liturgy.
So perhaps this Easter, this Triduum indeed, we might put away our cameras (monks included), and give over our whole attention to the action of the sacred liturgies of the Triduum, and so so in conscious and prayerful solidarity with the Coptic Christians, both Oriental and Catholic, in Egypt, and indeed with all our persecuted brethren in Middle East, Africa and beyond. Let us seek also to recognise more deeply that our persecuted brethren are living far more literally and more fully the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Saviour; and that their continued suffering, as we and the world with seeming helplessness look on, legitimately mutes and tempers our Paschal joy.
May the holy Coptic martyrs of Egypt and Libya pray for us all, and may we all savour to the full the mystery and the blessing of this sacred season.