The Ecumenism of the Martyrs?

In his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II drew our attention to the “ecumenism of the martyrs”:

The courageous witness of so many martyrs of our century, including members of Churches and Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, gives new vigour to the Council’s call and reminds us of our duty to listen to and put into practice its exhortation. These brothers and sisters of ours, united in the selfless offering of their lives for the Kingdom of God, are the most powerful proof that every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel… [B]elievers in Christ, united in following in the footsteps of the martyrs, cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the Mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the same truth about the Cross.(1)


All Christian Communities know that, thanks to the power given by the Spirit, obeying that will and overcoming those obstacles are not beyond their reach. All of them in fact have martyrs for the Christian faith. Despite the tragedy of our divisions, these brothers and sisters have preserved an attachment to Christ and to the Father so radical and absolute as to lead even to the shedding of blood… In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common Martyrology. This also includes the martyrs of our own century, more numerous than one might think, and it shows how, at a profound level, God preserves communion among the baptized 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 once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).

Why all this? Because a little problem has arisen, according to the Huffington Post, with the plans to beatify three Catholic priests (Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange, and Eduard Mueller) who, together with a Lutheran pastor (Karl Friedrich Stellbrink), were martyrs under Nazism in the town of Lubeck in Germany. The Lutheran pastor was no mere bystander caught up in the martyrdom of the priests – by all accounts, the three priests were martyred because they joined themselves to Pastor Stellbrink’s initial action of defiance. Is it not divisive, the Protestants of Lubeck are asking, for the Catholic Church to beatify the three who were Catholic, and not the one who was Lutheran?

It is a good question, but perhaps not well expressed by one Pastor Heinze Russman, who is reported in the article to have written in an editorial in a local newspaper:

Many Christians, including me, are disappointed that the current pope seems to be doing little for the ecumenical solidarity of churches, especially regarding Lutherans.. All four should be beatified. When that doesn’t go, then none!

As I have also pointed out on this blog before, the Catholic Church has never, to this date, beatified or canonised anyone who was not in communion with the Catholic Church. From one point of view, to do so could itself be viewed as an “anti-ecumenical” act – the attempt to co-opt for ourselves someone who belonged to another Christian community. From another point of view, the reason for not doing so can be understood as a witness to the fact that the Catholic Church has always seen communion within the Church as at least a basic requirement of that sine qua non for sainthood of perfect communion with God.

But Pope John Paul’s statements in Ut Unum Sint would seem to open up that latter question. He does seem to suggest that the act of the ultimate sacrifice for the name of Jesus is itself an indication of that perfect communion with God that we see as fundamental for sainthood. Was it not for this very reason that the Church invented the term “baptism of blood”?, ie. to cover the case where someone who was not yet a full initiate of the Catholic Church (eg. a catechumen) and who yet made the ultimate sacrifice could be included in the Church’s canon of saints?

This current instance of the Lubeck martyrs is not in fact the first time this situation has arisen. Famously, in his homily for the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs, Pope Paul VI did not ignore the fact that among them were not only Catholic Christians, but also Anglicans. He said:

And the others are worthy of mention also, who, professing the Anglican religious customs, were afflicted with death for the name of Christ

There is no easy answer to this problem. It is not unrelated to the wider ecumenical problem of the recognition of one another’s “saints” – at some points in history, saints have been recognised by some Christian jurisdictions precisely because they were “martyred” by Christians of another separated Christian jurisdiction. Recognising each other’s martyrs is therefore not without ecumenical problems. I have before on this blog wondered about the death of Brother Roger of Taize – whether it could be seen as a “martyrdom”, and whether or not that, beyond the question of whether or not Roger had been at some stage personally received into Catholic communion by John Paul II, might be a reason for recognising him as a saint of the Church.

Unfortunately, the simplest solution – that the German Evangelische Kirche themselves recognise Pastor Stellbrink as a martyr and beatify him by methods proper to their own communion – is not possible, since the Protestant Churches do not have a process analogous to that of the Catholic Church’s canonisation process. If they did, it would be a simple matter of a both communions raising their respective martyr(s) “to the altars” on the same day, perhaps even (in a fit of ecumenical niceness) in a joint ceremony. Herein lies one of the continuing issues between Catholics and Protestants – the place and role of the saints in our theology and practice. Do those Protestants in Lubeck who ask that the Catholic Church beatify Pastor Stellbrink along with with his brother Catholic martyers really desire that the Church should propose one of their own pastors as an “intercessor” before God in heaven? Would this not mitigate against their insistance that there can be no other “mediator” than Christ himself? If not, would we not then be at a point where they can recognise that our proposition of the saints as “intercessors” does not, in fact, mitigate against the doctrine of the “One Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”?

Ah. So many questions. As Melanchthon would have said, in the “heavenly academy”, these debates will all be solved…

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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15 Responses to The Ecumenism of the Martyrs?

  1. jules says:

    In my opinion, if Pastor Stellbrink is seen as one who indeed had intended to join with the Catholic church at the time of his death it would be a case of baptism of blood. It must proved that immediately before or at death he was ‘catholic’
    The other question raised were interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking that Pastor Heinze Russman wants his cake and eat it too.

  2. Robert says:

    The question has arisen before this at least once. I refer to the Ugandan Martyrs, beatified in 1920 and canonised by Paul VI 44 years later. In the sermon for the 1964 occasion, Pope Paul mentioned (according to Wikipedia) the fact that Anglicans as well as Catholics had been murdered in Uganda: “Et mentione digni sunt alii etiam, qui, anglicana instituta religiosa profitentes, pro Christi nomine morte affecti sunt.” (“And the others are worthy of mention also, who, professing the Anglican religious customs, were afflicted with death for the name of Christ.”)

  3. Stephen K says:

    I can’t help thinking your qualifying condition for Pastor Stellbrink’s status as a martyr is somewhat niggardly, Jules. This is a subject where sectarian consciousness has no place. On the one hand I don’t think the Catholic Church has any place categorising any other community’s martyrs or heroes/heroines. But on the other hand, if Pastor Stellbrink died because he placed his love for Jesus above all other considerations, even his life, then by all reasonable counts he was a Christian martyr and Christians of whatever stripe can so honour him, without invoking class distinctions.

  4. Jim Ryland says:

    I tend to agree with Stephen. We honor Old Testament figures as beatified and usually recognize those considered blessed by Orthodoxy. Membership in the Roman see should not be a qualification nor should membership in any denomination perceived as “catholic”. The shadowy perception of the “one true faith” should not take a front seat to a life given for Our Lord’s sake.

    • jules says:

      ….and yet the church has not and will not canonised those outside the church. Why? Is it because that visible membership has something to do with it? I know that by God’s grace and mercy one can achieve salvation by BOB or BOD, but to proclaim sainthood one must have been a catholic in communion with the pope and entire church.

      • Schütz says:

        Yes, I think this has to do with the matter of the certainty of sainthood required for canonisation. Many people die for their faith, eg. Thomas Cranmer. He was a martyr, but not for the Catholic faith. Therefore the qualificaiton of real or desired communion with the Catholic Church remains, even for martyrs. I guess it is a matter of what they died for. Cranmer explicitly died for a position he had taken against the Roman Church. He himself would have seen his death as a self-sacrifice for Christ, of course. Shows how tricky this question is.

  5. William Tighe says:

    “The shadowy perception of the “one true faith” should not take a front seat to a life given for Our Lord’s sake.”

    What is “shadowy” about the Catholic Church’s longaeval claim to be “the One True Church?” More to the point, it is a fundamental doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church that cannot be “discarded” or “suffer the death of a million qualifications,” although I will concede that it does require “footnoting” — as was done in the CDF’s document “Dominus Iesus” in 2000.

  6. Michael Webb says:

    Restrictive and stilted love in our attempts at deciding who is ‘in’ as a martyr and who is not based upon a purely formal entryist view of the Catholic Church will never do.

    Theology and enyclicals have moved away from such restrictive meanings over the centuries. Those who through no fault of their own and who love Christ can and do become martyrs; whilst we charitably provide information and example during life for why all should become Catholics.

  7. Robert says:

    Sorry, you’re right, David, I accidentally overlooked that part of your post. My apologies. Perhaps you should delete my comment!

  8. Matthias says:

    Interesting comment in Wikipedia under UGANDAN MARTYRS that the King who ordered their deaths was received into the Anglican church-whilst in exile- not long before his own

  9. Chris Jones says:

    “the Catholic Church has never, to this date, beatified or canonised anyone who was not in communion with the Catholic Church.”

    St Isaac of Nineveh

    While St Isaac is usually thought of as an Orthodox saint, rather than a Catholic saint, his canonization long precedes the Schism.

    It may be true that the Roman Church has never canonised anyone outside the canonical boundaries of the Church, but it is not true to say that the Catholic Church has never done so.

    • Schütz says:

      I guess I should clarify my terminology, Chris. As you know, I don’t like the term “Roman Catholic” to refer to the “Catholic Church”. Use Western or Latin Catholic, if you must. This clarification should make it clear that the West has many Eastern saints. As you point out, St Isaac “precedes the Schism”, which means he was in communion with the Catholic Church, even though he was an Orthodox saint. In which case, my point holds.

      • Gareth says:

        The term ‘Roman’ Catholic is really a discriminatory one only used in my experience by those with against the Catholic Church.

      • Chris Jones says:

        Unfortunately, you missed my point, which has nothing to do with East vs West, Orthodox vs Catholic. St Isaac, like all pre-Schism saints, is both a Catholic saint and an Orthodox saint.

        The point is not that St Isaac of Nineveh was an Orthodox (rather than a Catholic), because he wasn’t either Orthodox or Catholic. The point is that he was a Nestorian, who lived and died outside the canonical boundaries of the Catholic Church. He was never in communion with the Catholic Church, and yet he was canonised by the Catholic Church and has always been venerated in the Catholic Church. St Isaac is the classic counter-example to your assertion that the Church has never canonised anyone who is not in communion with her.

        Some might say that rather than being a counter-example he is “the exception that proves the rule,” but still, your assertion needs to be qualified.

        As you know, I don’t like the term “Roman Catholic” to refer to the “Catholic Church”

        I didn’t use the term “Roman Catholic” to refer to the Catholic Church; I used the term “Roman Church” to refer to the “particular Church” that happens to be headed by the Pope, as distinct from other “particular Churches.” As you probably know, the restriction of beatification and canonisation of saints to the Pope is a comparatively recent development. It may well be that no one outside the communion of the Church has ever been canonised by the Pope (I don’t know one way or the other), but such canonisations have been done by particular Churches other than that of Rome (at least in the case of St Isaac).

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