World Council of Churches - Feature
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For immediate release: 21 October 2004

"Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses"
First ecumenical calendar of saints and martyrs

By Henrike Müller (*)

Free photo available – see below.
The light in the church is dimmed, and it is only through small windows above the Iconostasis (**) that small streams of light penetrate the highly decorated building. Fumes of incense become visible in this light, and their strong scent fills the nostrils and contributes to the special atmosphere of an Orthodox service.

Bit by bit, people enter the church, going straight forward to kneel in front of an icon. One woman kisses the holy image, making the sign of the cross before moving back into the nave to attend the worship. Today's service honours St George, a 5th century martyr who is adored as an example of fidelity unto death.

A Sunday morning worship in a medieval Protestant church: the chancel is very simple, with white walls and roman-style windows with stained glass that make the light refract colourfully on the floor. The altar is decorated with a cross, the Bible and two candlesticks; the communion chalice and plate are already prepared.

In his sermon, the pastor quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian - By gracious powers so wonderfully shelter'd and confidently waiting come what may … - famous words from a poem Bonhoeffer wrote shortly before he was killed in a concentration camp in 1945. Since then, people treasure his words as a source of comfort and an example of trust in God.

>>> The variety of remembrance

Different churches have different ways of commemorating and adoring saints and martyrs - people who lived a Christ-like life or can serve as an example of faith. But one thing has become evident in recent times: the divide between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches on the one hand, and the Protestant churches on the other regarding the martyrs' impact on spirituality is no longer as deep as it was.

Dr Lukas Vischer, former director of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Faith and Order Commission and of the Protestant Office for Ecumenism in Bern (Switzerland), puts it like this: "On the Roman Catholic side, the significance of the veneration of saints has considerably diminished." On the other hand, "Protestant churches increasingly recognize that the radical rejection of the veneration of saints has led to distortions in their own midst. The legitimate condemnation of abuses has undermined consciousness of communion with the witnesses of the past."

>>> Who may be called a saint?

But whom are we talking about when we refer to saints, witnesses and martyrs? In a general sense, they are examples for Christian life, of an extraordinary faith and trust in God. Yet they are also ordinary people, close to us, and reminders that sanctity is for all who turn to God.

Such a Christ-like life is not limited to a specific era. Thus, the circle of martyrs and witnesses has no fixed borders, and the question: "Who are our saints, our witnesses?" cannot be answered fully - neither for a specific period nor for a specific denomination. But although "all churches are no doubt in agreement that the answer to this question lies ultimately with God alone," as Vischer points out, churches and Christians agree in acknowledging several shared fathers and mothers in faith.

"Examples can easily be given," Vischer continues, "Saint Francis of Assisi is accepted, and respected by Christians of all confessions as a convincing example of Christian life. Or think of martyrs of recent times such as Paul Florensky (Orthodox), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Protestant), Janani Luwun (Anglican) and Oscar Romero (Roman Catholic). There is no church where their martyrdom is not gratefully recalled."

However, different churches recall in different ways. Saints are canonized and regularly remembered in the Roman Catholic Church's worship practice and ecclesiastical year, for example. Each saint has his or her special day of remembrance, and people celebrate their personal saint's day. And sainthood has lost none of its relevance: since the beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II has canonized almost twice as many saints as were canonized over the past 400 years since the Roman Catholic Church first installed official canonization.

Likewise, saints play an important role in Orthodox liturgy and spirituality, through the presence of icons, for example. As images of exemplary faithful lives, the icons remind believers of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven, and thus visibly express the idea of heaven on earth. Orthodoy churches have "glorified" thousands of new martyrs in the last decade, victims of persecution during the Soviet period.

In the Protestant churches' worship, the commemoration of witnesses and saints has no fixed place. Their lives and faith are remembered in other ways, mostly by telling stories about people's exemplary trust in God. "The saints were not abolished at the time of the Reformation," says Dr Dagmar Heller, ecumenical officer of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). "But the reformers turned against the adoration of saints and their use as intercessors and intermediaries between God and mankind." Thus, in Protestant churches, saints are important as examples in faith and witnessing.

>>> Towards an ecumenical calendar

In 2002, the interdenominational monastic community of Bose (Italy) published a compilation of saints and martyrs, following a 1978 suggestion from the Faith and Order Commission which suggested that the existence of such a book would "strengthen the solidarity of all Christians in prayer and action".

The "Libro dei Testimoni" was a first step towards presenting this concern to a broader church public. Taking up its ecumenical approach and bringing it back to the churches themselves, a new ecumenical calendar of saints and witnesses will now gather the widest-ever spectrum of saints and martyrs from all Christian traditions.

But in terms of ecumenical cooperation, further questions arise. Is it possible to keep different churches' remembrances in one single calendar? How can agreement be reached on who should be accepted? And how can Christians handle the fact that some members of the ecumenical church family honour and praise saints considered as heretics by other churches?

To discuss these questions and to realize this project, a joint working group of representatives from different ecumenical organizations, including the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), as well as the Community of Bose, is collaborating on a so-called "Clouds of Witnesses" project - an image taken from the Bible (Hebrews 11:1).

>>> The cloud of witnesses - an ecumenical concern

According to this group, the calendar will "give shape to this exchange of gifts" and "promote a wider and more comprehensively shared recognition of this 'cloud of witnesses'".

Remembrance is "one of the most important steps most churches desire to take in order to provide new and fresh energy to the ecumenical endeavour". The common memory of the cloud of witnesses strengthens the idea of a fellowship that goes beyond borders and time, since it has its cause in God's covenant with mankind. A contribution to common worship and prayer, the calendar can bring people from different traditions closer to each other and direct their view to the common ground of Christian belief.

A shared memory of saints can contribute to the worldwide witness to Christ, since the examples of the past show how people can lead their lives in the spiritual and practical discipleship of Christ. Such a witness will necessarily impact on human community: "How can we be credible proclaimers of the good news without being able to envisage paths of peace and reconciliation first of all among ourselves?," the members of the ecumenical working group ask.

>>> Putting the project into practice

During the recent plenary meeting of the WCC Faith and Order Commission in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, (28 July - 6 August, 2004), the project was presented to the members of the Commission. They agreed to support and monitor its progress.

To begin, they asked the churches to compile a list of saints known and remembered in each church. The churches are also being asked to look beyond their confessional borders to identify those Christian witnesses from outside their tradition whom they would like to see included in this calendar.

Once completed, the calendar is to be published by the WCC, and is expected to be an inspiring source for and a contribution to ecumenical spirituality.

Until the first edition of the ecumenical calendar of saints and martyrs becomes available - and of course afterwards -, churches and parishes are being invited to walk towards each other and to discover the common memory and roots within their various worship and spirituality traditions.

The feast of All Saints, for example, could provide a good opportunity to celebrate the shared witness of the saints. [1540 w]

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(*) Henrike Müller, a curate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover, is working in the Media Relations Office of the WCC in Geneva.

(**) The iconostasis, or icon screen, is a central characteristic of Orthodox and other Eastern Christian churches. Usually a wall covered with icons and with large central doors situated between the altar and the main part of the church, the iconostatis symbolizes the union between heaven and earth, and of the union of God with mankind in Jesus Christ.

A free high resolution photo to accompany this story is available at:

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.

Additional information: Juan Michel,+41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363

The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, from the [Lutheran] Church of Norway. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.