It was truly a meeting of titans.
In Rome last weekend, the patriarchs of two major Churches in the world, the See of St Peter
and the See of St Mark, met; Pope Francis, patriarch of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, met Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The meeting came exactly 40 years after the one that preceded it, which was in turn the first such meeting in over 1500 years. The great rift between the Churches occurred in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon in 451; after that date there were practically no relations between Rome and Alexandria—that is, until 1973.
In May 1973, Pope Shenouda III was the first Coptic Orthodox pope to visit the Vatican since that distant 15 centuries ago. He met Pope Paul VI and they signed a joint declaration on Christology. They also agreed to establish joint commissions for ecumenical dialogue.
But it had to wait till 2013 and Pope Tawadros II for another meeting to take place. Pope Tawadros, who was enthroned last November, had wished to participate in person in the enthronement of Pope Francis last April but, he said, the conditions were not then right. “When the new ambassador to the Vatican in Cairo, the Apostolic Nuncio Van Paul Goupil, paid me his first visit last April, I told him I would care to visit Pope Francis and offer him my good wishes. I said it would be auspicious if that visit could be arranged to commemorate Pope Shenouda’s visit which had taken place from 4 May to 10 May back in 1973. Even though he replied that the time might be too short, he pleasantly surprised me three days later by informing me that I would be received in Rome on 10 May.”
The Pope’s visit to the Vatican is his first international visit after his enthronement last November, and aimed at achieving a closer relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Rome, with the ultimate vision of the unity of Churches, as Pope Tawadros himself confirmed to Watani.
The meeting in Rome took place on Friday 10 May, in a climate dominated by the unceremonious informality, humbleness, and love typical of the characters of both Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II.
Watani was among the only four media institutions attending the meeting, the other three being Channel II of Egypt’s State TV, the Coptic TV channel CTV, and the Catholic Churches media office in Cairo, represented by Fr Rafik Greiche.
Accompanying Pope Tawadros in his visit to the Vatican, were Anba Pachomeus, Bishop of Beheira; Anba Hedra, Bishop of Aswan; Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod; Anba Epiphanius, abbot of St Macarius Monastery in the Western Desert, the papal secretary Fr Angaelus Ishaq, and Fr Seraphim al-Suriani, the papal secretary for the affairs of the Coptic Diaspora.
On hand to welcome him and his accompanying delegation at the airport were Khaled Ayad of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches at the Vatican; Father Rafiq Greiche, head of the press office of the Catholic Churches in Egypt; the Egyptian Ambassador to Rome Amr Helmy and Ahmed Ra’fat, the Egyptian charge d’affaires to the Vatican. The Coptic Orthodox bishops of Rome and Milano, Anba Barnaba and Anba Kyrillos were also there. Hundreds of elated Copts resident in Italy thronged the airport to welcome Pope Tawadros on 9 May.
Once Pope Tawadros arrived at the Vatican, he was greeted by Pope Francis who welcomed him warmly.
Pope Tawadros II and the delegation accompanying him stayed at the Santa Marta Hotel guesthouse in the Vatican, a 120-room guesthouse that usually hosts cardinals, bishops and VIPs. Pope Francis also preferred to stay there during Pope Tawadros’s stay.
In the afternoon, the Egyptian delegation visited St Peter’s, following which they had dinner with Pope Francis.
Pope Francis says
On the following morning, Pope Tawadros II met with the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian unity before the official meeting with Pope Francis.
Pope Francis began by welcoming Pope Tawadros and the Egyptian clergy who accompanied him, and recalling that another historic meeting had taken place between Pope Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI exactly 40 years ago, “in an embrace of peace and fraternity, after centuries of mistrust.”
“Today’s visit,” Pope Francis said, “strengthens the bonds of friendship and brotherhood that already exist between the See of Peter and the See of Mark, heir to an inestimable heritage of martyrs, theologians, holy monks, and faithful Disciples of Christ.
“Forty years ago the Common Declaration of our predecessors represented a milestone on the ecumenical journey…and prepared the ground for broader dialogue between the Catholic Church and the entire family of Oriental Orthodox Churches, a dialogue that continues to bear fruit to this day.”
Pope Francis gratefully acknowledged the “many marks of attention and fraternal charity” Pope Tawadros has shown to the Catholic Church and its pastors; and also commended the Coptic Pope’s efforts at bringing together all the Churches in Egypt. He invoked the protection of St Peter and St Mark, “who during their lifetime worked together for the spread of the Gospel”, and their intercession and help along the journey of the unity of the Churches.
Pope Tawadros says
“I am honoured and very glad to be here in the Vatican,” Pope Tawadros said, after congratulating Pope Francis on his divine appointment as Pope and Bishop of Rome. “Despite its being the smallest country in the world, the Vatican is the most important for its great influence and Holy Service.”
“May this visit of love and brotherhood,” Pope Tawadros said, “be the first of a long series between our two great Churches. Therefore I propose that the 10th of May each year should be a celebration of brotherly love between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.”
Pope Tawadros spoke of Egypt as the country of the Nile; of the Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic civilisations; of St Anthony, St Pachomeus, and St Athanasius. “The Prophet says, ‘Out of Egypt, I have called my son’ and ‘Blessed be Egypt my people’, and Jesus Himself sanctified its soil when He tread on it”.
He invited Pope Francis to visit Egypt, and he expressly cited the mission he was after: “The most important aim for us is the promotion of ecumenical dialogue in order to get to the most pursued goal, unity.”
Coptic affairs an Egyptian matter
While in Rome, Pope Tawadros met with the mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and he had dinner with the Egyptian ambassador to Rome Amr Helmy. He visited some of Rome’s landmarks such as the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum and the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. And of course he met with the Coptic congregation in Italy. On Sunday morning, he celebrated Holy Mass at the Coptic Orthodox Church in Laurentina, Rome. During his visit, the Pope also consecrated an altar and baptismal, and baptised three babies.
Following Pope Tawadros’s visit to the Vatican and Rome, he moved to Milano for a six-day pastoral visit of the Coptic Orthodox Church there.
Even before the Pope had left Cairo for Rome, his secretary Father Angaelus Ishaq denied absolutely that the talks between the two popes would tackle the situation and grievances of the Copts in Egypt. Pope Tawadros, he insisted, believes that Coptic affairs are Egyptian internal issues that should be tackled nowhere but in Egypt. Pope Tawadros is a sincere patriotic, Fr Angaelus said, and he totally refuses to discuss the internal problems internationally or to invite foreigners to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.
Love as precondition
“Our meeting with Pope Francis, revealed the depth of the fraternity and love he bears for our Church,” Pope Tawadros told Watani. Pope Francis clearly stated that we are all Disciples of Christ, and that St Peter and St Mark—the two apostles who founded both our Churches—were brothers in apostleship, Pope Tawadros said.
“My proposal that the date 10 May should be annually marked as a date that celebrates the close relationship between both our Churches,” Pope Tawadros said, “was in order that we may be always reminded that we have already embarked on the path of unity.”
Watani asked Pope Tawadros when he expected Pope Francis to visit Egypt in response to the invitation he had extended to Pope Francis. Pope Tawadros said that such a visit needed close coordination with the Vatican, “which we will be diligently following”.
Once back in Cairo, the Pope said, he intends that the question of baptism in the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches should be discussed by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox.
“True,” Pope Tawadros said, “unity between the Churches requires extensive theological dialogue but, without brotherly love, unity can never materialise.”
19 May 2013
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