One of the tragedies of Christian history was the alienation of several of the great ancient churches of the Mideast from their original union with the See of St. Peter. Since Vatican II, efforts towards reconciliation have been ecumenical; i.e., seeking to reunite whole churches through quiet discussion. The earlier strategy had mostly been to bring individuals or smaller groups back to unity with Rome.
In the 17th century, for example, Capuchin Franciscans from France undertook to establish contacts with the separated churches of the Middle East. A mission was set up in Cairo in 1630 among the Coptic (= Egyptian) Christians. These were considered heretical by both the Catholics and the Orthodox because they had not officially accepted the condemnation of monophysism, the error that after the incarnation Christ had not two natures (divine and human) but only one.
In 1633, a Capuchin friar, Father Agathangelo of Vendome, was named head of this Cairo mission. With him went a Father Cassian of Nantes.
The friars approached the Coptic hierarchy in a most friendly way. As a result, they were granted permission to preach, discuss theology, and give spiritual conferences in Coptic church buildings. The Capuchins also befriended the monks of one of the oldest Coptic monasteries. Thus they were able to reconcile several Coptic Christians to the Holy See.
Unfortunately, the good impression made by the friars was largely offset by the gross immorality of members of the French colony in Egypt. Father Agathangelo did his best to correct this bad example, but with little success.
Agathangelo and Cassian were almost relieved, therefore, to be reassigned to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Christian Church was closely allied with the Coptic Church, and shared its supposed approval of the monophysitic heresy.
Nevertheless, the two Franciscans knew that their new assignment was perilous, for the Ethiopians thought little of Catholics. Furthermore, there was then living in Ethiopia, as they would learn, a Lutheran physician named Peter Heyling, who was bitterly anti-Catholic. When he heard that Capuchins were coming into the country, he at once told the Ethiopian authorities that these Franciscans were a bad lot. As a result, the friars had scarcely set foot within the border when they were arrested, loaded with chains, and forced to march to the provincial capital of Gondar. Brought before King Basilides, they stated that they were Catholic religious from France; and they asked to speak to Abuna Mark, the newly appointed head of the Ethiopian Church, whom they had met in Cairo, and to whom they had an official letter of introduction.
Abuna Mark had indeed met them in Cairo, but Dr. Heyling had already turned him against them. The Abuna not only refused to give them audience, but recommended that the king hang them both without delay. Basilides did not want to do that, and a Moslem at court also tried to persuade Mark to change his mind. But Heyling and Mark and the king’s mother stirred up a mob against the friars. There was no turning back.
Agathangelo and Cassian were given the option of accepting the monophysitic error or being executed. They refused to deny their faith. There was an embarrassing moment before the execution: the executioners had no rope. “Here,” said Cassian, “take the ropes we wear around our waists.”
The suggestion was accepted. As the two swung from their own cinctures, Mark commanded all bystanders to throw stones at them.
But death was not the end. For the next four nights, it is said, a miraculous light appeared above the bodies. Basilides, terrified, ordered that they be cut down. Some Catholics buried them in an unmarked grave. Pope St. Pius X beatified Fathers Agathangelo and Cassian in 1905.
Ironically, in 1989, after an ecumenical conference between the Orthodox churches and the “monophysitic” churches, including the Coptic and the Ehtiopian, all agreed that they taught the same doctrine, that in Christ incarnate there are two natures. Pope Shenouda, the patriarch of the Copts, had made the same statement to Pope John Paul II at an official meeting a few years before.
Thus, the two Capuchins had died in defense of a doctrine that their executioners themselves held without realizing it! The irony of violence!
–Father Robert F. McNamara