It’s not every day that you meet the Pope. We marked our calendar for Monday 6 March 2017 for that special event. A Watani group headed then to the papal headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya to meet Pope Tawadros. The group included Youssef Sidhom, Editor-in-Chief of Watani; Victor Salama, Deputy Chief Editor of Watani; Laura Hakim, Managing Editor of Watani Francophone; Dina Sidhom, Manager of Wataninet; and Michael Victor, Assistant Chief Editor for Church Affairs. I joined in my capacity as Managing Editor of Watani International. I was the only one among them to meet the Pope for the first time, hence the hopeful expectation with which I approached the event.
We were welcomed by the Papal Secretary Fr Ammonius Adel who also attended the meeting.
Praise for Watani
As we waited in the papal salon for Pope Tawadros to come in, my eyes took in the spacious room with the elegant marble floor, wooden panelling lined with the traditional Coptic design of intertwined wooden crosses, and the three icons that dominated the room from behind the Pope’s chair: the icons of God the Pantocrator, St Mark the Evangelist who brought Christianity to Egypt and was martyred in Alexandria in AD68, and Pope Tawadros II, the 118th patriarch to sit on the throne of St Mark.
The Pope came in, all smiles and welcome. His warmth and candour made us directly feel at home. He commended Watani as a paper that covered all sorts of topics of general interest in addition to its focus on Coptic affairs and issues. He praised the paper’s integrity and professionalism, and said he always read it in both its Arabic and English editions. No two guesses about how much gratification that last remark gave me.
Mr Sidhom applauded Pope Tawadros’s most prominent achievements: his efforts at modernising the Coptic Church’s institutions, his patriotic stances, and his endeavours at fostering good relations with other Churches. The Pope remarked that the Coptic Church was indeed sparing no effort to keep in step with modern times, be that in thought or technological advances. Yet it adhered to its time-honoured values; it was a Church built on scholarship, the blood of the martyrs, and a profound monastic tradition.
The Pope replied that the Coptic Church was a mainstay of Egypt; it has been there for some 2000 years. “If we compare Egypt to a big temple,” he said, “the Coptic Church would be one of its main pillars. What happens if you damage a main pillar in a building?”
Unity built on love
As to his ecumenical efforts at Church unity, Pope Tawadros said that unity could only be achieved if built on love. “If we start with attempting to iron out our theological differences,” he said, “not much can be attained since, predictably, each would be on the defensive. We have to start with building on a base of love; theology issues are sure to come up, but then they can be resolved—no matter how long that takes—with understanding and goodwill.”
The Coptic Church is among the oldest in the world, Pope Tawadros said. As such, it is a mother Church. “A mother loves her children tenderly, no matter what,” he said. “She has differences with them, to be sure, but love always prevails.” No surprise then, I thought at this point, that Pope Tawadros’s outreach to the various Churches has been a resounding success. Mr Salama, who had accompanied the Pope on his visit to Greece last December, confirmed the warmth of the meetings with the Greek prelates and their readiness to respond to Pope Tawadros’s initiative at cooperation. We all recalled other Churches which the Pope had visited and which today enjoy warm relations with the Coptic Church. Major among these visits was the visit to Pope Francis in Rome on 10 May 2013, a day since then marked annually by the two Churches as the Day of Brotherly Love. In October 2014, Pope Tawadros visited the Russian Church and met Patriarch Kiril in Moscow. Improved Coptic / Russian relations are already bearing fruit with a cooperation council formed and mutual visits ongoing by monks and researchers.
“A lot of prayer and effort are needed for Church unity to be achieved. It is not an easy path to tread,” the Pope warned.
Resumption of papal tweets?
Michael Victor asked the Pope if he would resume tweeting a daily message to Egyptians, a practice he had begun when he first became Patriarch in November 2012, but which he later discontinued. The Pope said he feared the public was getting an overdose of media messages, thus preferred to stick to his televised services, sermons, and addresses; as well as official statements in case events call for a declaration of the Church’s stance. This gave rise to a discussion on the electronic and social media which we all agreed was a modern-day feature that would continue to grow and develop till it one day crowds out traditional media.
The three requirements for success
Mr Sidhom gave the Pope a gift of a copy of the book Watani published in 1996 on Antoun Sidhom, the founder of Watani. He said the articles written by the senior Mr Sidhom and compiled in the book mirrored the history of Egypt throughout some four decades.
Mr Salama offered the Pope a large-size photo collage made out of 149 photographs of the Pope’s visit to Greece, at the centre is the 150th picture of Pope Tawadros sitting on St Paul’s rock in Areios Pagos.
The Pope gave each of us a gift of a Church agenda with all the important dates marked on the calendar. Each month’s page features a large souvenir photo of groups who held events with the Pope at the Logos Coptic Centre for conferences and spiritual retreats at the monastery of Anba Bishoi in Wadi al-Natroun in the Western Desert. He also gave us copies of his booklet Wa Kul Ma Yasnaahu Yangah (And All He Does Is Successful). “There are three requirements for success,” the Pope said, “an open mind, a wide heart, and a humble spirit.”
It was then time for a group photo, and we had to say our goodbyes, with hopes that more such meetings would follow. We left, all happy with the gracious meeting. In me there was a sense of joy, peace, and hope for a future built on love.
18 March 2017