Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pope Shenouda III in Ohio

H.H.Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church is in Ohio! He is in America to consecrate St. Mary’s Coptic Church in Columbus Ohio and St. Abanoub Coptic Orthodox Church in Euless Texas. Unfortunately the 84 year old pontiff became ill and was hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic. He is expected to resume his duties once he is feeling better.

I find everything about this trip fascinating. The Pope has led the native Christian church since 1971. He started his religious career in a fine Egyptian tradition, he started in the desert as a monk. Today he still tries to spend at least three days a week in a monastery. His life as witness has had a huge impact on the state of the Coptic Church in Egypt.

The Copts are the descendants of the ancient Egyptians (“Copt” means Egypt). They influenced early Christianity. St. Anthony, the “Father of the Monks” and the Desert Fathers provided a model of monasticism that has influenced all of Christianity including the West. The writings and the lives of the saints influenced an important neighbor and fellow African, St. Augustine. This is the land to which the Holy Family fled. This is the land of St. Athanasius the Apostolic, and St. Cyril the Great. This is an apostolic church founded by St. Mark.

However, the church was the first to schism in response to doctrinal questions about the nature of the Trinity. Many in the Coptic Church would say the schism was the result of poor translation and even poorer political relationships of the day. This proud church found itself with Arianism on one side and the Empire on the other. Egypt then devolved into fighting between two doctrinal positions. This weakened position made them vulnerable when a small Arab army marched into Egypt and took over the whole country in the name of Islam. After only 100 years the reign of Christianity in Egypt was over. Today the Copts are a minority people in an Arab Islamic nation. Their delicate balance is to preserve their faith while not offending the dominate faith of the nation. The result of this “dance” has been impressive.

This Pope has seen a revival in monastic life in Egypt. He has reestablished old monasteries and opened new ones. He has ordained hundreds of monks and nuns. He is the first Coptic Pope to establish monasteries outside of Egypt. At this time there are nine such sites.

The church has also expanded around the globe. When his holiness became pope in 1971 there were nine churches outside of Egypt. Today there ware over 100.

The Pope’s life has not been easy. For standing up to then President Anwar El-Sadat the pope was exiled to a monastery for 40 months. He was referred to by the President as “the ex-pope”. During his time away from his people he prayed, reflected and wrote 16 books!

The Pope has worked tirelessly to improve relationships between Copts and Muslim Egyptians. He has also been a forceful advocate for greater Christian unity. He met Pope Paul VI in Rome in 1973. He became the first Coptic Pope to visit the Vatican in over 1500 years! He has met with most of the patriarchs of the Orthodox churches.

So, this man who lived for six years in a cave he carved out with his own hands, a graduate of the University of Cairo, the author of over 100 books, this bridge between various forms of Christianity is in the United States. Better yet, he is in the Midwest. I wish him a speedy recovery as he does what he does best, care for his flock.

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