Fr. Ron Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of USCCB's Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, reflects on the passing of Pope Shenouda.
Last Saturday His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, passed away. At the helm of his church since 1971, his death is a huge loss not only for his own community but for Christians everywhere. Tributes to the late Patriarch came from church leaders around the world, including Olav Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict wrote “the entire Catholic Church shares the mourning of Coptic Orthodox and, with fervent prayer, asks the One who is the resurrection and the life to welcome His faithful servant to His side.”
Who was Pope Shenouda and why does is his death matter to Catholics?
First, the Coptic Orthodox Church is among the most ancient in the world, tracing its origins to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as described in the Gospels. The Christian community in Egypt, where Christian monasticism originated, gave rise to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, one of the great centers in the early Christian world. For centuries it was ranked second only to Rome itself. The Alexandrian tradition of theology, spirituality, and canon law are precious aspects of the Christian patrimony.
Unfortunately, the great majority of Alexandrian Christians broke with the Church in the Roman Empire when they rejected the Christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Alexandrian Christians eventually become known as “Coptic,” which means “Egyptian” in the ancient Coptic language. Along with several other churches that rejected Chalcedon, the Coptic Church is known today as “Oriental Orthodox.”
The Coptic Church flourished for many centuries. But Arab invaders conquered Egypt in the 7th century, and by the end of the 12th century Islam had become the faith of the majority of Egyptians. Copts experienced alternating periods of persecution and well-being depending on the policies of their Arab rulers. Today Coptic Orthodox, ninety-five percent of Egyptian Christians and ten percent of the Egyptian population, still struggle to find their place in a sometimes hostile Egyptian society.
Yet during his four decades in office, Pope Shenouda presided over a church renewal that continues today, including a remarkable and inspiring upswing of monasticism in Egypt. Emigration of Copts to other parts of the world has also made the vibrant Coptic tradition better known in areas far beyond the boundaries of Egypt.
Pope Shenouda III was also known for his commitment to ecumenism and served as a president of the World Council of Churches from 1991 to 1998.
His role was key in the improvement of relations between the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches after the Second Vatican Council. In a visit to Rome in 1973, he and Pope Paul VI signed a Common Declaration that finally put to rest the fifth-century Christological disputes. Despite some remaining disagreements they wrote, “we are rediscovering ourselves as Churches with a common inheritance and are reaching out with determination and confidence in the Lord to achieve the fullness and perfection of that unity which is His gift.” An official dialogue between the two churches was established that year, superseded by a dialogue between the Catholic and all Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2003. Pope Shenouda hosted the first plenary meeting of this dialogue in Cairo in 2004.
There can be no doubt that Pope Shenouda III will be considered a giant in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
But he will also be remembered as a promoter of Christian unity, especially with the Catholic Church. May he rest in peace, and may his legacy live on in the hearts of the faithful.