The Vatican is formally recognizing 21 Coptic Orthodox workers who were beheaded by Islamic militants in Libya as martyrs with their own feast day, in a significant new ecumenical gesture aimed at forging unity between Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Pope Francis announced the inscription of the 21 workers, most of them Egyptians, in the Roman Martyrology, the compendium of saints celebrated liturgically in the Catholic Church, during an audience Thursday with the Coptic Orthodox pope.
During the audience, Francis kissed relics of the 21 young men that Tawadros II offered him as a gift.
Pope Francis repeatedly has said that the 21, like most Christian martyrs today, were not killed because of the denomination they belonged to, but simply because they were Christian. The Coptic martyrs, he said, “are also ours.”
Meeting in the library of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Tawadros made a special presentation to Pope Francis.
“I have no words to express my gratitude for the precious gift of a relic of the Coptic martyrs killed in Libya on Feb. 15, 2015,” Pope Francis told him.
“These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ,” he said. “I am pleased to announce today that, with Your Holiness’ consent, these 21 martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion that unites our two churches.”
Related: Homily for February 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday and the Coptic Martyrs
The martyrology — with more than 6,500 individual names and close to 7,000 unnamed martyred “companions” — is organized as a calendar; it lists the saints and blesseds whose feast is celebrated by the Catholic Church each day and provides a small biography of each.
At more than 800 pages, the martyrology is considered a liturgical book, not a catalogue or history, because it forms the basis for determining which saint is remembered at Mass each day.
Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and mainline Protestants recognize hundreds of the same saints and martyrs because they have been honored for their holiness from centuries before the churches split.
What Pope Francis did is something new.
“This is a first,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.
During ecumenical meetings and prayer services, he said, it is common to “commemorate informally” saints and martyrs of another tradition, “but there never has been a decision to put them into the martyrology,” thus formally including them “in the prayer of our church.”
Officials said the Vatican will likely designate February 15 as their official feast day.