Conclusions of the conference

2016 martirio comunione testata web

24th International Ecumenical Conference of Orthodox Spirituality


Bose, 7–10 September 2016
in collaboration with the Orthodox Churches

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Conclusions read by br. Luigi d'Ayala Valva on behalf of the scientific committee of the conference.


"Martyrdom and communion": the XXIV International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox spirituality that now concludes its work, continuing the discourse initiated in the previous years, has tried to reflect on these two fundamental concepts of the Christian faith and their mutual relations. More than martyrdom as such, we intended to consider the potential of communion and the ecumenical horizons of Christian martyrdom. As the Scientific Committee, we did not wish to suggest a single definition of martyrdom and communion, leaving the speakers to emphasize the various aspects and the multiple dimensions, as well as the various possible connections between the two concepts. I think that from the papers the richness, the depth and complexity of the issue became clear. The various definitions of martyrdom that have been offered complement each other converging on the essentials: martyrdom is above all a testimony given to Christ (who is himself the first Witness), a testimony to the truth of the merciful love of God for men that Jesus came to reveal and which he lived up to the gift of himself on the cross. In this sense, martyrdom is above all a matter of love and life, not of blood and death. On the other hand, the dimension of communion linked to martyrdom is above all the result of intra-Trinitarian communion of God who gives witness of himself as a God of love; then it is a personal communion lived by the martyr with Christ; finally, it is a communion that redounds, as a seed, in favor of the whole body of Christ, the Church, and of all humanity.
From what we have heard, I would like to offer a few reflections that try to bring out the challenges that the theme of martyrdom and communion poses to the Christians of our time.

Recognizing the other's martyrdom

Speaking about martyrdom today, we are called first and foremost to a recognition. If it is true, according to the words of Patriarch Irinej of Serbia in his beautiful message, that today the Christian family as a whole is in fact divided into two groups – those who suffer martyrdom for their faith, and those who are living their faith still “safely”– we, who mostly belong to the latter group, in European churches, are called first of all to recognize the visible sign, the witness offered, at the cost of enormous sufferings, by innumerable brothers who bear like us (and before us) the name of Christians. The heartfelt words by Patriarch John of Antioch at the beginning of the conference should make us reflect: “Our Eastern Christians today seek someone who pays attention to their cry but do not find it!”. The recognition of the sufferings of our brothers must be translated into concrete solidarity, which can bring us to an awareness of being part of one “body”. Indeed, we can recognize to be members of each other only if we suffer and rejoice together, as the Apostle says (1 Cor 12:26), otherwise the Body of Christ and the reconstitution of its unity remain a theoretical idea. This sharing of joys and sufferings, as the Russian priest Aleksandr Elčaninov said, is the fundamental criterion of catholicity and of belonging to the Church (“if we do not feel this, we are not within the Church!” 1).
In this sharing, a real exchange of gifts takes place, between those Churches that today are Churches of martyrs and the others, which are physically safer, but are often much weaker spiritually. As in the time of the Apostle Paul, when churches issued from the pagan world sustained with their collections the poor of the Jerusalem Church, knowing that they had received from them the gift of faith and the witness to the Gospel (cf. Rom 15:26-27), so today we are called to become aware that these brothers bear witness for us and to us. While we are invited to recognize their suffering and to do something to alleviate it, we should also give thanks and rejoice because they are guarding in this world the “costly grace” of the Gospel.

Christian identity as a martyr identity

Martyrdom, moreover, as has often been repeated, expresses the Christian identity. It is not something marginal, accessory, or occasional. To recognize the martyrdom of the other Church, of these persecuted Churches, means therefore to honestly recognize that there (and not here) is the true measure of our Christianity, there is the true measure of the Gospel, that we have often – too often – watered down, and which we still water down, reducing it to a cultural event. As we have been reminded, martyrdom is intimately linked to the condition of the disciple who "takes" and "bears" patiently the cross behind Jesus (cf. Mt 10:38; 16:24; Lk 9:23; 14:27 ). As “apostolic”, the Church is and must be also a martyr Church, as Archbishop Anastasios has also reminded us.
The martyrdom, which has reappeared on the horizon of our Churches, must therefore be recognized as an invitation to rediscover the essential ecclesial identity, reminding Christians of the distinctive style of their presence within the world, if they want to be an evangelical presence and therefore a presence of communion and reconciliation. Either the Christian style is conformed to the cross of Christ, or it is not a style of communion. The figure of Christ crucified and humiliated expresses an ever-present reality for the Church, not just an image of the past. In this sense, it is necessary to do some soul-searching (ecclesial and theological) to examine if the joyful and vital proclamation of the resurrection and triumph over death has not often brought with itself an ecclesiological model of the triumphalist kind, which eventually leads to “make vain the cross of Christ” (1 Cor 1:17), in which alone we can find our glory, as the Apostle says (cf. Gal 6:14). The fate of the Christian, of the Church, of the Gospel in the world is not, and cannot be, that of a worldly triumph, but only that of a crucified presence of a crucified love, as it was for Jesus. “The disciple is not greater than his master “ (Mt 10,24).
Even though it is true that there is a visibility which is characteristically linked to the act of martyrdom since ancient times (we heard several times the quotation of the Apostle: “We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings”, in 1Cor 4:9), it is however a kenotic visibility, namely one that empties himself to show the “Christ whitin us”. The demanding question is: which type of visibility do our churches seek today? A visibility as self-assertion in society, possibly as a revenge against a situation of oppression, or a visibility that shows as much as possible, in its transparency, the truth of Christ and of his love, and therefore implies a certain degree of self-emptying of the Church? With the exception of the martyr-churches, are not we all still too linked to an ecclesial identity that, forgetting the cross, too readily appeals to the resurrection? It is the risk of “docetism” that, rejecting the “flesh” of history, ends up rejecting compassion with men.

Martyrdom as "exodus from the self"

Along the same lines, martyrdom is a constant challenge for the Church, to the extent that it is an invitation to an exodus from the self. Let us recall what Athanasios Papathanassiou was saying about martyrdom as “getting out of the temple”, to make visible the truth of the Eucharist in the concrete reality of existence, in communion with our fellow human beings. We have also heard from Fr. Panteleimon Manoussakis: if it is true that martyrdom takes place in the Holy Spirit, therefore in the Body of Christ, and not so much in the individual body of the martyr, thus, if there is a “dislocation” that is effected through the Spirit, we can then see a mysterious link between martyrdom and the desire of the Holy Spirit that drives the Churches out of their individual positions to recover thir visible communion and center in Christ. This “exodus from the self” of the Church, in addition to being one of the constants of the preaching of the current Pope, was a theme constantly borne in mind by the Fathers of the Holy and Great Council gathered in Crete. Archbishop Anastasios on that occasion defined “self-centeredness as the greatest heresy and mother of all heresies” in the Church. We can also understand what has been said about “truth-telling as martyrdom”, which implies a “death to the self” for the sake of communion, not only within the Church, but also in the secular and the political field and we have been reminded that Christian martyrdom is opposed to any self-assertion that seeks opposition to the other in the name of an abstract truth to defend. We could also suggest that the synodalilty, for which today the Ecumenical Patriarchate works tirelessly within Orthodoxy, is closely linked to the willingness of the single local Churches to “get out” from their particular, national and cultural shell, basically “dying to themselves” in a true martyrdom, for the sake of communion. In this sense, there is no communion without martyrdom, because there is no communion without the cross, without renouncing one’s own will, without reception of the otherness of the other. In this sense the Orthodox monastic tradition states that the renunciation of one's will is “as an effusion of blood”, that is, as a martyrdom2.

Remembering to reconcile with the past and open to the future

Moreover, many of the papers have rightly focused on the act and the duty of remembering the martyrs, those who have borne witness to Christ, and often have done it in anonymity, as in the persecutions of the last century. In addition to being an act of human justice and historical truth, the fact of remembering enables this martyrdom to bear fruits of communion. Of course, our capacity of memory is limited, and only God remembers all. But despite these limitations, there is still need to recognize and accept the words of truth expressed by the martyrs, so that communion can be realized, as was said by Aristotle Papanikolau; otherwise, despite the value of that testimony before God, there is always the risk that it can remain ineffective for us. Father Manoussakis, exploiting the etymology of “martyrdom” linked to the idea of commemorating, told us how martyrdom is in itself a “memory” of another memory, one with which the Lord, throughout history, relentlessly tries to awaken our attention testifying his love and his work on behalf of humanity. So there is a “memorial chain” permanently extended through the act of remembering the martyrs, which is in itself an act of martyrdom, just as an attestation of memory and truth. In fact, in many situations, to get ahead, the memory requires struggle and force of resistance against those who have no interest in remembering and yet want to bury and forget. Recall, for example, the martyrs of the Butovo Polygon about which Father Kirill Kaleda has spoken, and the testimony of figures such as the Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, or Father Alexander Glagolev, which were presented in all their current relevance by Lydia Golovkova and Konstantin Sigov.
The Churches have to practice more and more a purification not only of their historical memory, but also of their own way of remembering martyrs, freeing this act from any claim or expression of nationalist, ethnic, or confessional opposition. They should watch over the evangelical style of this memory, which is not guaranteed by the simple fact of remembering those who gave their life for the faith. The memory cannot be conceived as a revenge over a situation of oppression, but must always remain a testimonial memory, for the sake of a truth that gives life and creates communion. This is possible also by recognizing the witness of the martyrs of the sister churches. The true martyrs have no country, are in some sort citizens of the ecumene, as Patriarch Irinej reminded us. In this sense the proposal for an “ecumenical martyrology”, advanced many years ago by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and supported also by our community retains its value3.
The act of remebering by the Church, however, does not take us back to the past, but it is rather a call to conversion in the present; indeed, it is not even confined only to the present, but is open to the future. As last year in this same roomthe metropolitan of Zagreb Porfirije reminded us: “To remember means exercising a fervent expectation of what is still to come, since nothing is completely and irretrievably finished” 4. The memory of the martyrs, in the authentic sense, does not come from the past but from the future and directs us towards the future, towards that Kingdom that we constantly invoke in the “Our Father”.

Foretaste of eschatological communion

Martyrdom, thus, directs us towards the eschatological reality of ecclesial identity. In fact, if Christian identity is an identity of martyrdom, and martyrdom is always effected by the Lord and is always future (“at that moment I will be really a disciple”, says saint Ignatius5), then Christian identity is an open identity: none of us has the right to close it. The witness of the martyrs is the irruption of the eschaton in the historical present and calls the Church to its deeper truth, which does not come simply from the past nor is given fully in the present, but comes, is given, and is expected from the future, from that future which is in God’s hands. Those who have surrendered their lives in God's hands, the martyrs, are the citizens of the heavenly Church who “are a sign” to those who are still members of the earthly Church. This implies listening to what the cry of the martyrs means today for the Churches, to what the Spirit says to the Churches through them. The martyrs, those of yesterday and of today, raise constantly a cry, “How long?”, which is not simply directed towards heaven, towards God, as the Revelation of John says (Rev 6:10), but is also addressed to us who are here on earth and are often unable to see the reality of this world from the perspective of the heaven. This cry reminds us of our responsibilities: “How long will you carry out your divisions on earth?”.

Ecumenism of blood, invitation to conversion of the Churches

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis, in their joint statement signed in Havana (Cuba) on 12 February 2016, claimed that “these martyrs of our times, who belong to various Churches but who are united by their shared suffering, are a pledge of the unity of Christians”6, as we were reminded on the first day of our conference by the message of Metropolitan Ilarion of Volokolamsk. Along the same lines, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, welcoming Pope Francis to the Phanar in 2014, said: “The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which Church their victims belong to. The unity is… already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrdom”7. For his part, Pope Francis in similar terms asked, as Cardinal Koch just recalled: “If the enemy unites us in death, who are we to divide us in life?”8.
We should be aware that the fact of being associated together under the one name of Christians by the persecutorsin the persecutions in the first centuries differs from the persecutions of the twentieth century, in which persecutors had rather the tendency to adopt a policy of division among the Churches, so as to submit them better. Tthey supported one against the other, and as a consequence Christians could rarely perceive themselves in solidarity under the same suffering. although fortunate cases can be found both in the Nazi death camps and in the prisons of the Soviet power, as we heard in the touching story of Nicu Steinhardt9. Today everywhere Christians are victims of persecution together. And perhaps we should be better able to grasp this as a “sign of the times”, in order to respond with vigilance.
The “ecumenism of blood” should not be regarded as a minimalistic ecumenism, as some of its critics believe, because the experience of martyrdom is in fact the supreme experience that expresses the heart of the Christian faith. With martyrdom we are not at the periphery, but at the center of the Christian faith, hence recognizing each other as sharing the central experience, the witness to the one Lord, gives Christians a solid foundation, which requires them to convert their way perceiving ecumenism and unity (ecumenism of blood, as the Patriarch of Antioch reminded us in a highly appreciated statement , should be combined with an ecumenism of repentance and conversion: conversion which means the orientation of mind and heart to what God is doing and wants us to do. Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Ut unum sint wrote that if the Churches “are able truly to ‘be converted’ to the quest for full and visible communion, God will do for them what he did for their Saints”10. In martyrdom we see how unity is not something that we build ourselves, with our own strength. IIt is rather God who has already achieved it in the martyrs through his Spirit; recognizing the martyrdom of the other (of the other Church) means de facto recognizing the Spirit “who blows where he wishes” (Jh 3:8), beyond the visible boundaries of our own Church. We must be more aware of this and draw the consequences from this for the ecumenical journey. The problem is converting from an ecumenism that seeks to build unity out of the divisions to an ecumenism that welcomes unity from the future of God to overcome the divisions that we humans have realized in the past.
It is worth mentioning once again, after having done so repeatedly in this room during the course of our past conferences, the beautiful text of Dorotheus of Gaza depicting Christians as people who are heading towards a single center:

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose  that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men.  To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they are to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor11.

The martyrs have already achieved the center and from there invite us to pursue the path without fear. Their voices, to which during these days we have tri listened (from Antioch to Rome, from Russia and Ukraine, to Romania and to Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia...) form together a choir singing as one: “We are one in Christ!” (cf. Gal 3:28). If we listen to this voice and recognize each other truly in communion in one martyrdom for Christ, this should facilitate mutual recognition also in Eucharistic communion, because Eucharistic communion and martyrdom have always been intimately linked in the patristic and ecclesial understanding: it is question of being consistent with our own theology.
Not surprisingly, among the “martyr churches” today. like those of the Middle East, theological reflection and ecclesial practice in this field are much more advanced than in other churches. Where there is already a real sharing of sufferings, divisions appears for what they are: incomprehensible and senseless, because they contradicts concrete experience.

Gift and witness to the world

Finally, the horizon of communion shown by martyrdom is not limited to the Church. Martyrdom is a gift for all, it is a seed of communion offered to the whole world. The Church, through martyrdom for the sake of faith and justice, bears witness in front of the world to a rationale “other” than the worldly one: it is the rationale of love that breaks the cycle of violence and hatred. This witness must be given with humility and generosity, knowing that in this world of ours,which is not the Kingdom, will always be contradicted, and will never be accepted by all. yet it continues to fertilize history, to place in it a seed that will be fully revealed at the end of time and that, according to our faith, in Christ crucified and risen has already yielded its fruit.
Martyrdom is not only a testimony of fidelity to God, but is also a testimony of the true face of God to the world, a God of love who, in the person of the martyrs, is revealed to the world as the one who gives himself unconditionally. This is the heart of the Christian proclamation, which the testimony of contemporary martyrs helps us to rediscover in its purity, freeing it from any cultural coating that is likely to adulterate it. To be credible, this proclamation can only be unitary (Jh 17:21: “so that the world may believe that you have sent me”). Martyrdom is therefore also an invitation to recover a common mission, starting from the essentials, thus returning to the origins of the ecumenical movement, which arose, as we know, in the first half of the twentieth century from the realization of how great a scandal was the division among Christians for the proclamation of the Gospel.

Let me conclude by quoting the apolytikion of the feast of All Saints, using it as an epiklesis to the Lord for our churches:

Clothed as in purple and fine linen with the blood of your Martyrs
throughout the world, your Church cries out to you through them, Christ God: 
Send down your pity on your people, give peace to your commonwealth,
and to our souls your great mercy.

1 A. Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest, p. 124, cited in. K. Ware, The Inner Kingdom, Crestwood NY, p. 117.
2 See Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, Letters 254; Antiocus of Saint Saba, Pandette 39; Theodore the Studite, Little Catechesis 98; 128.
3 Cf. A Cloud of Witnesses. Opportunities for Ecumenical Commemoration, a cura di T. Grdzelidze e G. Dotti, WCC, Geneva 2009; Il libro dei testimoni. Martirologio ecumenico, a cura della Comunità di Bose, Cinisello Balsamo 2002.
4 P. Perić, “Memoria e perdono: la riconciliazione tra i popoli oggi, in Misericodia e perdono. Atti del XXIII Convegno internazionale di Spiritualità ortodossa, Magnano 2016, p. 358.
5 Cf. St Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans 4,2.
6 Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia 12.
7 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Address to His Holiness Pope Francis during the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of St. Andrew in the Venerable Patriarchal Church, November 30, 2014.
8 Pope Francis, Address to the Renewal in the Holy Spirit Movement, July 3, 2015.
9 N. Steinhardt, Jurnalul fericirii ("Happiness Diary"), Bucarest 1991.
10 Pope John Paul II, Un Unum sint: On Commitment to Ecumenism 84.
11 St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings 6,78.
12 Τῶν ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ Μαρτύρων σου, ὡς πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον τὰ αἵματα, ἡ Ἐκκλησία σου στολισαμένη, δι' αὐτῶν βοᾷ σοι· Χριστὲ ὁ Θεός, τῷ λαῷ σου τοὺς οἰκτιρμούς σου κατάπεμψον, εἰρήνην τῇ πολιτείᾳ σου δώρησαι, καὶ ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἡμῶν τὸ μέγα ἔλεος.