By Ann Schneible
Today’s martyrs have become “the seed of Christian unity,” Pope Francis said Monday during an audience with the leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and his delegation.
“The ecumenism of the martyrs is a summons to us, here and now, to advance on the path to ever greater unity,” the Pope said at the Feb. 29 meeting at the Vatican with Abune Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox.
“Just as in the early Church the shedding of the blood of martyrs became the seed of new Christians, so today the blood of the many martyrs of all the Churches has become the seed of Christian unity.”
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These Churches reject the 451 Council of Chalcedon, and its followers were historically considered monophysites – those who believe Christ has only one nature – by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.
This meeting was the first between Pope Francis and Abune Mathias. Mathias’ predecessor, Abune Paulos, however, had met with both St. John Paul II in 1993, and Benedict XVI in 2009.
Pope Francis acknowledged the long history of martyrdom within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which today is seeing a “devastating outbreak of violence” against Christians and minorities in the Middle East and parts of Africa. In April 2015, he had sent his condolences to Abune Mathias when the Islamic State released a video showing a mass execution of Ethiopian Christians by its militants in Libya.
“We cannot fail, yet again, to implore those who govern the world’s political and economic life to promote a peaceful coexistence based on reciprocal respect and reconciliation, mutual forgiveness and solidarity,” he said during the meeting.
Quoting St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” the Roman Pontiff noted that “Shared sufferings have enabled Christians, otherwise divided in so many ways, to grow closer to one another.”
“The martyrs and saints of all the ecclesial traditions are already one in Christ. Their names are inscribed in the one martyrologium of the Church of God.”
Pope Francis said the visit to Rome by Abune Mathias “strengthens the fraternal bonds already uniting our Churches.”
“In the early Church, it was common practice that one Church would send representatives to the synods of other Churches,” he said, adding that a Holy See delegation was present at the 2012 funeral of Abune Paulos.
The Roman Pontiff lauded the advance in“theological dialogue spearheaded by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
“We are happy to note the increasing participation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in this dialogue,” he said.
Through the commission, “we have come to see that we have almost everything in common: one faith, one Baptism, one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ,” he continued.
“We are united by virtue of our Baptism, which has made us members of the one Body of Christ. We are also united by the various common elements of our rich monastic traditions and liturgical practices. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“As has often been observed, what unites us is greater than what divides us.”
Pope Francis praised Ethiopia’s advancements in improving “the living conditions of its people” and building “an ever more just society, based on the rule of law and respect for the role of women.”
He also spoke of cooperation between the Churches in serving the common good and protecting the environment.
“I am certain of the readiness of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia to work together with the Orthodox Tewahedo Church over which Your Holiness presides.”
The Pope concluded his address by expressing his “fervent hope that this meeting will mark a new chapter of fraternal friendship between our Churches.”
“We are conscious that history has left us with a burden of painful misunderstandings and mistrust, and for this we seek God’s pardon and healing,” he said.
“Let us pray for one another, invoking the protection of the martyrs and saints upon all the faithful entrusted to our pastoral care.”
“May the Holy Spirit continue to enlighten us and guide our steps towards harmony and peace. May he nourish in us the hope that one day, with God’s help, we will be united around the altar of Christ’s sacrifice in the fullness of Eucharistic communion.”