The Seed of the Church: John Paul II on the Martyrs
Pope John Paul II on the Martyrs and Ecumenism
Tertio Millennio Adveniente
In his Apostolic Letter of 1994, Pope John Paul called for conversion and repentance as the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ approached, recalling how people on all sides through our shared history had wounded the Church’s unity, inflicted violence and death, but how, nevertheless, the martyrs’ faithfulness and holiness endures as a sign of unity:
Among the sins which require a greater commitment to repentance and conversion should certainly be counted those which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for his People. In the course of the thousand years now drawing to a close, even more than in the first millennium, ecclesial communion has been painfully wounded, a fact "for which, at times, men of both sides were to blame". Such wounds openly contradict the will of Christ and are a cause of scandal to the world. These sins of the past unfortunately still burden us and remain ever present temptations. It is necessary to make amends for them, and earnestly to beseech Christ's forgiveness. (TMA 34.1)
Another painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth.
… the consideration of mitigating factors does not exonerate the Church from the obligation to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied her face, preventing her from fully mirroring the image of her crucified Lord, the supreme witness of patient love and of humble meekness. From these painful moments of the past a lesson can be drawn for the future, leading all Christians to adhere fully to the sublime principle stated by the Council: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power".(TMA 35.1-2)
He also observed:
Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us. (TMA 37.3)
Ut Unum Sint
In his 1995 Encyclical on Commitment to Ecumenism, Pope John Paul drew out the theological significance of the martyrdoms on all sides of the Church in its separations, and the fundamental unity they have come to serve, together with the path towards the salvation of the whole of humanity which they mark. He asks people to look at them from God’s perspective:
We Christians already have a common Martyrology … it shows how, at a profound level, God preserves communion among the baptised in the supreme demand of faith, manifested in the sacrifice of life itself. The fact that one can die for the faith shows that other demands of the faith can also be met. I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who were once far off (Ephesians 2.13). (UUS 84.1)
He points out that the true path to unity is not so much organisational as an encounter with that complete union with Christ known to the saints and martyrs. Indeed he refers elsewhere to the martyrs and holy Christians of other ecclesial communities, even though not Roman catholic while they were alive in this world, as 'saints'.
When we speak of a common heritage, we must acknowledge as part of it not only the institutions, rites, means of salvation and the traditions which all the communities have preserved and by which they have been shaped, but first and foremost this reality of holiness. (UUS 84.3)