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Pope Francis recognises Coptic martyrs: Is there a precedent?

On May 11, 2023, Pope Francis added 21 Coptic Orthodox martyrs to the Roman Martyrology, during a visit of the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II to Rome. This was described by Pope Francis as a “sign of the spiritual communion uniting” the two churches.

These 21 martyrs were captured and beheaded in 2015 by terrorists of the so-called Islamic State. One week after the event, Pope Tawadros canonized these martyrs, adding their names to the Coptic Synaxarium, the Oriental Church’s equivalent to the Roman Martyrology.

Some traditionalist commentators have criticized Pope Francis, by quoting the Council of Florence and other magisterial pronouncements declaring that “heretics, schismatics” and those “outside of obedience of the Pope of Rome” could not be saved, even if they had “shed their blood in the name of Christ.”

However, even if Pope Francis’ decision was described as “a bolt out of the blue,” it has also been noted to not be “entirely without precedent.”

It is important to emphasize that Francis has not formally canonized the 21 Coptic martyrs. However, by inserting them into the Roman Martyrology, he is recognizing Pope Tawadros’ 2015 canonization.

Is there precedent for this kind of recognition in the Catholic Church? Here, we provide a non-exhaustive list of saints who were not in formal communion with the bishop of Rome at the time of their deaths.

St. Gregory of Narek

Gregory was born in the 10th century in what was then Armenia. At 25 years of age, he was ordained and became a monk in a monastery in Narek, current-day Turkey. He is considered one of the most important Armenian theologians, having composed many prayers that are now in the Armenian Divine Liturgy. He also produced a commentary on the Song of Songs and the Book of Lamentations. It is also said that he anticipated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

However, the Armenian Church at the time of Gregory was not in full communion with the Pope of Rome. Just like the Copts, the Armenian Apostolic Church rejects some of the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD.

 Nevertheless, both the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church possess apostolic succession. Although Gregory belonged to a church that rejected an ecumenical council, Gregory of Narek’s writings were orthodox, even from a Catholic perspective.

Though the exact date of his canonization is unknown, “by 1173 Gregory was already recognized as a saint of the Armenian Church.” Given his theological and spiritual importance, Gregory has been traditionally venerated even by Armenian Catholics in communion with Rome.

For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church also recognized the validity of Gregory’s sainthood. Pope John Paul II referred to Gregory of Narek as a “saint” in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater #31.

In a letter commemorating the 1,700th anniversary of the baptism of the Armenian people, the same pope wrote that Gregory “certainly shines with glory among the Armenian saints who praised the Mother of God.”

Also, in the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II, we can read: “But in the Ave Maria, the theotokia, the hymns of St. Ephrem or St. Gregory of Narek, the tradition of prayer is basically the same.” (Catechism, 2678).

Later, in a message remembering the centennial of the Armenian genocide, Pope Francis proclaimed Gregory of Narek as a doctor of the Church, the first to not be in perfect communion with the bishop of Rome.

St. Gregory Palamas

Another saintly Gregory was born in Constantinople in the 13th century, after the East-West Schism of 1054. He became a monk and entered a monastery at Mt. Athos in current-day Greece. Though he would enter theological disputes about the practice of hesychasm (a system of mysticism defended by the monks of Mt. Athos), he would later be consecrated bishop of Thessaloniki.

Gregory Palamas died in 1359. Nine years later, the Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople declared him a saint.

Though Gregory Palamas wrote polemically about the Catholic-held belief of the filioque, and although his theology was traditionally viewed as suspect because of its alleged irreconcilability with Thomist-scholastic theology, he is widely recognized and liturgically commemorated by Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine rite.

In a 1979 homily, Pope John Paul II referred to Gregory Palamas as a saint.

St. Sergius Radonezh

Born from a wealthy family in the 14th century in Russia, after the East-West schism, Sergius became a hermit and later an abbot of the hermitage he founded. The fame of his wisdom and holiness was so great, he was often consulted both by civil and religious authorities.

Sergius would be canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1449, becoming the patron saint of Russia. Naturally, his veneration expanded also to Russian Catholics.

The great 20th century theologian Yves Congar recounts that, in 1941, the Sacred Oriental Congregation, commissioned by Pope Pius XI to publish liturgical books for Russian Catholics, approved an edition of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which retained several post-schism Russian saints, including Sergius of Radonezh. Later, St. Sergius would also be included in the Roman Martyrology

St. Abraham of Smolensk

Abraham was also born in Russia after the East-West schism, during the 12th century. Just like Sergius, he hailed from a wealthy family and became an abbot in a monastery in Russia. Persecuted by the religious authorities, he would be later reinstated when his prayers helped end a terrible drought.

Though a Russian Orthodox Christian, Abraham of Smolensk was canonized by Pope Paul III in 1549, having become one of the only two saints canonized by this active anti-Reformation pontiff.

Bld. Pierre of Luxemburg

Contrary to the other saints mentioned before, Pierre was Catholic. However, he lived and died during the so-called Great Western schism, when there were 2 or 3 claimants to the papacy.

Born in the 14th century as the son of a Luxembourgian count, he was raised in France and would later become bishop of Metz. In 1386, he was created cardinal by the Avignon claimant to the papacy, Clement VII.

Nowadays, the Catholic Church recognizes the Roman claimant Urban VI as the legitimate pope, and Clement VII as an antipope.

Though one cannot say that Pierre was in formal schism—since at the time it might be unclear who the real pope was—the truth is that Pierre raised arms against the legitimate successor of Peter and cannot, therefore, be said to have been in full communion with the Pope of Rome.

Weary of the controversies surrounding the schism, Pierre eventually renounced his bishopric and retired to a monastery. He died in 1387, three decades before the Council of Constance, which would end the Great Western schism.

However, even if chose the wrong side of the dispute, his personal holiness was recognized by both sides of the conflict. Pierre would be beatified by a legitimate pope, ironically also named Clement VII as the antipope Pierre had followed during his lifetime.