The unprecedented revival of the Coptic Church toward the second half of the twentieth century is one of the great historical events of world Christianity. Whereas in many parts of the world, historians recognize a certain stagnation of the Christian witness, the sons and daughters of the pharaohs are filled with an unheard-of enthusiasm for the establishment of the kingdom of God and for evangelization through their Coptic Church.
This spiritual renaissance had its beginnings half a century ago—in the forties and fifties—in the Coptic Sunday School movements in Cairo, Giza, and Asyut. Inspired by the challenges they experienced in the Sunday School classes, young men consecrated their lives to God and joined the desert fathers. Especially in the Monastery of the Syrians under the able leadership of Anba Tawfilus (Bishop Theophilus), they were prepared for the work of rejuvenating their church.
Following the enthronement of Pope Cyril VI in 1959, some of the former Sunday School teachers and monks and hermits were called to the episcopacy in order to occupy responsible positions in the life and organization of the church. Among these young men was Nazir Gayyid, later known as Abuna Antonius al-Suriani (1954—62), then Shenuda, bishop for theological and educational institutions of the Coptic Church (1962-71), and now as Shenuda III, the present pope and patriarch.
Both the pontificate of Shenuda III and a dynamic, deeply spiritual, and capable episcopate have succeeded in providing an almost lifeless ecclesiastical institution with new visions and life,, thereby retaining the much cherished and long established traditions of the church and filling them with a new sense of spirituality.
The spiritual and educational background of Pope Shenuda III has largely determined the direction of the present movements of the church. At the young age of sixteen he had joined the Sunday School at Saint Antony's Church in Shubra. Later he became its teacher and drew thousands of young Egyptians to faith in Jesus Christ.
In more than one way, Nazir Gayyid became the leader of an altogether new youth ministry in the Coptic Church. In 1947 he received his B.A. in English and history from Cairo University. To this day, his speeches, sermons, and books reflect his impeccable use of the English language. At the theological college he completed the course of studies with academic brilliance, which led to his appointment as lecturer in the Old and New Testaments. In 1953 he was appointed fulLtime lecturer at the monastic college in Helwan.
On July 19, 1954, he was made a monk by Bishop Tawfilus of the Monastery of the Syrians and received the name Antony. At this time young Nazir Gayyid offered the following pledge:
I acknowledge that monasticism is a complete death to the world and all that is in it in the way of wealth and possessions, and in the way of relatives and friends, and in the way of appointments and occupations, and that it is a life of worship and dedication to God, a life of penitence and deprivation and perfect obedience and exclusion and poverty. And before God and his angels and his holy altar, and in the saintly presence of my father, the bishop, and of the assembly of my fathers, the monks, members of this holy congregation, I dedicate my life to God, that I may live in virginity and continency and estrangement from the world, promising that I will follow the life of true monasticism and obey its canons, even as our saindy Fathers have set for us, who have followed this angelic manner of life
A year later he was ordained priest. Throughout his life as priest, bishop, and patriarch, he has faithfully kept the monastic vows he made in the ancient Church of the Holy Virgin at the Syrian Monastery.
At the monastery he was placed in charge of the library. These duties enabled him to devote his studies to the reading of the church fathers and doctors. Meanwhile, though, his longing was for the solitary life. First he selected a cave three kilometers from the monastery. Later he exchanged this eremitical abode for a cave at Bahr al-Farigh, some ten kilometers from the monastery. As early as 1948 he had written a poem entitled "The Hermit," which was published in 1954 in the Sunday School magazine:
Alone am I in the desert minding my own affairs, I have a cave in the crevasse of the hill where I have hidden And I will leave it one day, dwelling where I know not.
In 1959 Pope Cyril VI appointed him to be his personal secretary, but Abuna Antonius preferred the life of solitude. For several years
Abuna Antonius had successfully withstood all pressure to be consecrated to the episcopacy. Then, in September 1962, Cyril VI summoned the hermit to the patriarchate in Cairo because of some insignificant misunderstanding pertaining to the administrative affairs of the monastery. While kneeling in front of the patriarch apologizing and expecting to be forgiven and to be relieved from the administrative affairs in the monastery, the patriarch placed his hands on the head of the hermit, thereby consecrating him bishop of theological and educational institutions of the Coptic Church. The ordination took place in the patriarchate on September 30, 1962. In reply to my letter of congratulation, Bishop Shenuda wrote:
Grace and peace from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ be upon you. I thank you for your gentle words of congratulation sent to me. I can never forget your friendship and love. As a matter of fact, however, a letter of consolation—not of congratulation—was fit for the occasion. How may a monk be congratulated on leaving the calmness of the wilderness and abiding again amidst the disturbance of the city? How can anyone congratulate Mary if she leaves her place at the feet of Christ and goes to labor with Martha in the kitchen? For me, it is, indeed, a matter of shame. I remember that day of my consecration to the Episcopacy in tears and lamentation. Indeed, the glory of solitude and contemplation is above measure. It may not be compared with that of the Episcopacy or even that of the Papacy. The true consecration, my dear friend, is the consecration of the heart as a holy temple for the Lord, Who on the Last Day will not ask us for our pastoral grade but for our purity of heart. I write this letter from my beloved cave at Bahr al-Faregh in Wadi al-Natrun, in which I expect to stay till Epiphany, and then return to Cairo
Nevertheless, whenever possible the bishop retired to the monastery.
His leadership in the field of Christian education was rewarded when he was elected president of the Association of Middle East Theological Colleges in 1969. An important aspect of his ministry was the innovation of his weekly sermons, in which he responded to theological and social questions. Thousands of young people attended these services. After lecturing and preaching for half of the week in Cairo or Alexandria, Bishop Shenuda would retire for the second half of the week to the monastery.
During these years one of the aims of the Coptic Church was to free itself from its century-old theological isolation. Bishop Shenuda represented his church at several ecumenical conferences. The last conference he attended as bishop for education was the First Pro Oriente Consultation between the Oriental Orthodox and the Catholic
Churches in Vienna in September 1971, just one month prior to his election as pope and patriarch of Alexandria. At this conference Bishop Shenuda espoused the christological formula of Saint Cyril of Alexandria. This was the text that was later officially accepted by Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenuda III:
We all believe that Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word. We believe that He was perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity and that His Divinity never departed from His Humanity not even for a single instant. His Humanity is one with His Divinity without commixture, without confusion, without division, without separation.
Following the death of Pope Cyril VI on March 9, 1971, the Holy Synod decided on March 22 to prepare the election of a successor. On October 29, 1971 an official election reduced the five candidates to three. Then on October 31, young blindfolded Ayman Munir Kamil chose one of the pieces of paper with the names of the candidates and gave it to the locum tenens, the Metropolitan Antonius. He declared God's chosen shepherd for the Coptic Church: "Bishop Shenuda!" Two weeks later, on November 14, 1971 the bishop was enthroned as His Holiness Shenuda III, 117th pope and patriarch of the See of Saint Mark.
As pope and patriarch he continued lecturing at the theological college and the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies. An additional six branches of the theological college were established in Lower and Upper Egypt, and three more were founded in the United States and Australia.
As a scholar, Pope Shenuda III encouraged the various fields of Coptic studies, including the publication of the monumental Coptic Encyclopedia. In April 1988 he signed a contract with al-Ahram news agency to have the archives of the Coptic patriarchate put on microfilm.
As head of the church he has consecrated more than eighty bishops and over five hundred priests for the Coptic churches in Egypt and the diaspora. Through periodic seminars with members of the clergy, he has encouraged the pastoral, spiritual, and educational life of both bishops and priests. His special attention to young people has led to the establishment of a very dynamic youth ministry under Bishop Musa. Because of the unprecedented increase of churches, especially in the diaspora, Pope Shenuda III has consecrated large quantities of the holy myron, or sacramental oil, at Easter in 1981, 1987, 1993, and 1995 at the Monastery of Saint Bishoi.
Because of his deep commitment to Christian unity, he has invested much time and effort in creating better ecumenical under standing. His emphasis has always been that Christian unity should be founded on unity of faith rather than on jurisdiction. To this end he initiated the theological dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Swedish Lutheran, and Reformed Churches.
In May 1973 Pope Shenuda III was invited by Pope Paul VI to visit Rome, which was the first meeting between an Alexandrian and a Roman pontiff since 451. At this occasion they signed the confession of their common christological faith. In 1979, 1987, and 1995 Pope Shenuda III met with the archbishop of Canterbury to discuss their mutual understanding on the basis of the Scriptures. In November 1988 Shenuda initiated the Coptic-Presbyterian theological dialogue, which could pave the way for reconciling some of the theological problems between the Orthodox and the Protestants in the Middle East.
Regarding relations with the other Orthodox churches, Shenuda III visited the Orthodox patriarchates in Damascus, Istanbul, Moscow, Bucharest, and Sofia. As head of the largest church in the Middle East and the oldest church in Africa, he has given particular attention to his church's involvement in the Middle East Council of Churches and the All-African Council of Churches.
In February 1991 he led a delegation of eleven Copts to the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia. At the conclusion of the assembly he was elected one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, representing the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In November 1994, at the assembly in Cyprus, he was elected one of the four presidents of the Middle East Council of Churches.
Although he has spent much time and effort serving world Christianity, in his heart Shenuda III remains a monk. As such he has been instrumental in rebuilding and renovating several deserted medieval Coptic monasteries. His pontifical residence is established at the rear of the Monastery of Saint Bishoi. This houses a chapel, conference and lecture halls, and guest houses. Here he spends half of each week in contemplation and reflection.
In 1971 there were only seven Coptic churches in the diaspora. Today there are almost eighty Coptic churches in the United States and Canada, about twenty-six churches in Australia, and almost thirty churches in Europe. Seven Coptic bishops serve the overseas congregations.
In 1994 the nineteen parishes of the Orthodox Church of the British Isles were received into full communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church. On Pentecost 1994 Anba Seraphim was consecrated metropolitan of Glastonbury. Following Eritrea's gaining polit ical independence from Ethiopia, the president of Eritrea, Isayas Afewerki, requested from Shenuda III the establishment of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the See of Alexandria. At the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church on September 28, 1993, it was decided to accept the request of the Eritrean Christians. On Pentecost 1994 Pope Shenuda III consecrated five Eritrean bishops, thus laying the foundation for an independent Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. On May 7, 1998, the pope consecrated the 93-year-old Bishop Philippus as first Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea. More than fifty Coptic bishops and seven Eritrean bishops participated in the ceremony in St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.
Meanwhile, due to several misunderstandings and accusations against Pope Shenuda III made by President Anwar al-Sadat, especially in his speech before Parliament on May 14, 1980, the political climate between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state had seriously deteriorated. This tragic situation culminated in the presi-dental decree of Sepember 3, 1981, in which Sadat ordered the exile of Pope Shenuda III to the Monastery of Saint Bishoi, while at the same time imprisoning eight bishops and twenty-four priests, as well as numerous Coptic notables. Sadat then created an administrative committee of five bishops for the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Holy Synod, however, confirmed Pope Shenuda III as the head of the Coptic Church, although President Sadat continued to refer to him as the 'ex-pope.'
During his enforced exile in Saint Bishoi's Monastery, Amnesty International officially named him a 'Prisoner of Conscience' on August 26, 1983. Many Christians throughout the world expressed their deep concern. Special prayers for his release were organized in June 1982 and again in November 1984. Bishop Dumadius (formerly Abuna Mityas al-Suriani) visited his old friend every week. On January 2, 1985, President Mubarak revoked President Sadat's decree of 1981. Accompanied by fourteen bishops, Pope Shenuda III left his exile on January 4. The following day he celebrated Coptic Christmas at Saint Mark's Cathedral, where over ten thousand people welcomed him as pope.
In the meantime the relationship between the government and the church had significantly improved. As a small testimony of good relations with the Islamic majority, Shenuda III has regularly invited the leading personalities in religion and politics for the evening fast-breaking meal of ifiar during Ramadan. Since 1986 the prime minister, the grand mufti, the shaikh of al-Azhar, and others have joined in this meaningful demonstration of goodwill. Shenuda III has repeatedly refused to be identified as the leader of a Christian minority. "As Copts," he has emphasized, "we are Egyptians, part of Egypt."
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