This past Saturday, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria died at the age of 88 from cancer. Tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians held an overnight vigil in Cairo to mourn his death. The vigil was followed by a Sunday morning Mass, with the dead pope’s body, seated upon his papal chair, dressed in his ceremonial robes.
He had led the Coptic Church for 40 years. In his native Egypt he was patriarch to 11 million Copts and another 4 million worldwide. He was the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He was also the head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.
The Coptic Church is the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East. The Coptic Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox Churches which were established after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., when they took a different position on the nature of Christ. In the Coptic Christological view, Christ is “One Nature-The Logos Incarnate,” of the full humanity and full divinity, rather than the definition of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. After the Council of Chalcedon almost all the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the council and formed what is now known as the Oriental Orthodox Church.
Coptic Christology is sometimes referred to as miaphysite; in other words, they believe that Christ possesses a conjoined nature, human and divine, united indivisibly in the incarnate logos. The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that Christ is perfect in his divinity and he is perfect in his humanity, but his divinity and his humanity were united in one nature called “the nature of the incarnate word,” as taught by St. Cyril of Alexandria. We find their Christology expressed in the Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil of Caesarea, the belief in the two natures of human and divine are united in one substance or hypostasis “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration.” These two natures “did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye.”
Pope Shenouda visited Pope Paul VI in Rome in 1973 and signed a declaration of common faith. This marked the first meeting between the Churches of Egypt and Rome since 451 A.D. In 1989 he signed a similar declaration with his Orthodox brothers. In the year 2000, he welcomed Pope John Paul II to Egypt.
Pope Shenouda was affectionately known in Egypt as “Baba Shenouda,” and viewed by many Copts as their guardian, a charismatic leader known for his sense of humor. His smiling image was hung in many Coptic churches, homes and shops. In 1981 then-president Anwar Sadat sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun after he accused the government of failing to rein in Muslim extremists. A month later, Sadat was assassinated. Eventually Mubarak recalled Shenouda to his former position.
The Coptic Church had a love-hate relationship with Mubarak as they saw him as their best protection against Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood but, at the same time, his government often made concessions to conservative Muslims to keep their support.
Pope Shenouda kept a strict line on church doctrine, including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery. With his long white beard, large black turban and ornate oriental crucifix, his public persona appeared austere. However, he would suddenly break into laughter, living up to his reputation as a great jokester. His decision to resume the ordination of women to the diaconate after many centuries and the inclusion of women into theological colleges and communal councils was perceived as progressive, though he was against the ordination of women to the priesthood.
In a message of condolence to Coptic Christians, Pope Benedict XVI said, “I recall with gratitude his commitment to Christian unity, his memorable visit to my predecessor Pope Paul VI, and their signing of the Joint Declaration of Faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God together in Rome, on May 10, 1973, as well as his Cairo meeting with Pope John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation, on February 24, 2000. I can say how the Catholic Church as a whole shares the grief that afflicts the Orthodox Copts, and how she stands in fervent prayer asking that He, who is the Resurrection and the Life, might welcome his faithful servant.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.