An important and historical meeting took place last week in Rome between Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has over 10 million members. It was the first visit of the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church to Rome in 40 years and marked the 40th anniversary of serious dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches.
While the churches of Rome and Alexandria enjoyed close and fraternal unity for the first five centuries of church history, a formal break unfortunately took place in 451AD over a Christological dispute. Coptic Christians refused to accept the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD which proclaimed the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union, that is, that Christ’s divinity and humanity were separate. Copts professed his natures were united. From that point in history the Oriental Orthodox churches were called “Monophysites,” because of their belief in the “One Nature” of Christ. Many attempts over the centuries to clarify our different views and restore unity failed for various reasons.
In 1973, Coptic Pope Shenouda met with Pope Paul IV in Rome. It was the first such meeting between a Bishop of Rome and Bishop of Alexandria in more than 1,500 years. They issued a momentous declaration at this meeting. They affirmed their common faith in Jesus Christ, who “is perfect God with respect to His Divinity, perfect man with respect to His Humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division without separation.”
They quoted the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil of Caesarea: “His divinity did not separate from His humanity for an instant, not for the twinkling of an eye. He who is God eternal and invisible became visible in the flesh, and took upon Himself the form of a servant. In Him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of the humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.”
This statement was monumental in its attempt to clarify any misconceptions over the confusion concerning the language of Chalcedon. Also during that historic visit in 1973, which fell around the 1,600th anniversary of the feast of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who defended the undivided church of the third century against those who would deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ, his holy relics were given to Pope Shenouda in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Paul VI. They were brought back to Egypt amid great joy on May 10, 1973.
Pope Tawadros recalled these events to Pope Francis and said they “should be considered as a celebration of brotherly love between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.”
Pope Tawadros’ visit comes at a time of great suffering among the Coptic faithful in Egypt these days. Father Rafic Greiche, director of the press office for the Roman Catholic Church in Egypt, explained that since “the rising of Islamic parties in countries like Egypt and Syria means Christians are now feeling they are second or third class citizens. We Egyptian Christians want our brothers of all world churches to help us, to pray for us and to be real brothers in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pope Tawadros told Pope Francis that the Coptic Church “has been irrigated until now with the blood of numerous martyrs, thus becoming stronger and stronger.
Pope Francis said that our churches are united by “an ecumenism of suffering.” He said, “Just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity.”
Pope Tawadros responded, “The most important aim for both the Catholic and Coptic churches is the promotion of ecumenical dialogue in order to get to the most pursued goal, unity!”
Pope Francis added, “Let me assure you that your efforts to build communion among believers in Christ, and your lively interest in the future of your country and the role of the Christian communities within Egyptian society find a deep echo in the heart of the Successor of Peter and the entire Catholic community.”
May the great apostles St. Peter and St. Mark, founder of the Alexandrian Church, watch over our efforts and help us to establish full, visible unity among Roman Catholics and Coptic Orthodox Christians.