Thursday 20 March 2014 was one of the happiest days of my life. It was a dream come true, surpassing all my imaginations, when His Grace Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne defended his dissertation at Fordham University (New York City) and received his Ph.D. degree.
This was an accomplishment many years in the making and a labor of love for Bishop Suriel who wrote his dissertation on the recently canonized Coptic Saint Archdeacon Habib Girgis. Over one hundred were in attendance for the public dissertation defense, and thousands more supported His Grace online through Facebook, Twitter, and the website of the Saint Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Theological College (SACOTC).
Among those in attendance in person were dignitaries from the Coptic Orthodox Church. His Holiness Pope Tawadros II sent two bishops to the event: His Grace Bishop Epiphanius the Bishop of St. Macarius Monastery, and His Grace Bishop Makkar the Bishop of Sharqeya. Other ecclesiastical officials present included His Grace Bishop David the Bishop of New York and New England, as well as a host of Coptic clergy, laity, and non-Copts interested in Coptic scholarship.
Bishop Suriel’s dissertation defense is available online at SACOTC (http://www.sacotc.vic.edu.au). It highlights important educational and reform aspects about Saint Habib Girgis. I also encourage readers to watch an interview His Grace generously gave to the Coptic Civilization program on LogosTV in California centered on the life and influence of this famous Coptic Orthodox educator (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyP3RnF1h2k).
I do hope that His Grace publishes an abridged version of the 890 page dissertation in the form of a book, with translations to Arabic and other languages, for the benefit of humanity, education, and hagiography of the modern time Coptic saint, reformer, and educator.
His Grace has shepherded the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne since 1999. Born in Port Said, Egypt in 1963, he and his family immigrated to Sydney in 1967, where they were parishioners at the first Coptic Orthodox Church to be established on the continent. In January 1985 the future bishop met His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on a trip to Egypt in which he served as a youth leader. This trip was repeated again in January 1990, in which he assisted young Diaspora Copts to connect with the Egyptian population and ecclesiastical structure and in the process better understand their Coptic roots and identity.
To this day, Bishop Suriel serves as a bridge builder between the Coptic experiences and identities in Egypt and the Diaspora, and his attainment of the PhD degree at a prestigious Roman Catholic (Jesuit) university on Saint Habib Girgis is the latest example. For the sake of ministry outreach and to stay connected with Diaspora Copts and indeed Christians throughout the world, the bishop maintains an active presence on social media platforms. This includes Facebook and Twitter, where he actively posts on a page with over 6,000 followers on Facebook and close to 19,000 on Twitter, and in a personal blog that emphasizes the Diocesan educational system (http://bishopsuriel.blogspot.com).
With Saint Habib Girgis as a role model for theological education, Bishop Suriel worked hard and succeeded in gaining accreditation for the Saint Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Theological College (SACOTC) in Melbourne, where he serves as Chancellor, Dean, and Lecturer in Religious Education, Comparative Religion, and Pastoral Theology. The Diocese has also established other successful educational institutions such as St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox College (Prep to 12th grade). Without the labor and vision of generations of Copts influenced and inspired by Habib Girgis, SACOTC probably would not have been possible, and I am thankful to God’s providence that this institution continues to thrive in the Coptic Diaspora under the able academic and pastoral guidance of His Grace.
In writing a dissertation on Habib Girgis, the bishop follows his mentor Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012) who likewise admired the famous Coptic educator and pushed for his canonization, recently formalized under His Holiness Pope Tawadros II.
Saint Girgis was head of the Coptic Seminary in Cairo (1918-1951) and founder of the Sunday School Movement in the Coptic Church in 1900. He was a layman who rose to the rank of Archdeacon and throughout his career in Egypt revolutionized theological education. He was also a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books, and he composed over 100 songs inspired by the theology and hymnology of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In June 2013 Girgis was canonized by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As a church leader who pursued advanced theological education, Bishop Suriel is an example of the scholarly excellence Habib Girgis sought for his church as a means of resurrecting a glorious Coptic theological tradition extending to the Catechetical School in Alexandria and luminaries such as Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril.
Pope Shenouda III, who earlier was bishop for education (1962-71), and himself a disciple of Girgis, praised him in high Biblical and prophetic terms:
“ ‘The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep,’ as the Book of Genesis describes. ‘Then, God said, Let there be light, and there was light.’ And the light was Habib Girgis… Habib Girgis will remain across our modern history as the pioneer of religious education in our land. He was not only a teacher, but a school, even a university…
Habib Girgis established a strong foundation, and many built upon it. Perhaps others were able to build higher, but without his foundation, they would not have been able to build at all. He was the one who labored and all of us have entered into his labor”
[Pope Shenouda III, “Our Teacher Archdeacon Habib Girgis: Pioneer of Religious Education in Modern Times,” Watani International, 25 August 2013. Translation by S.M. Saad. Available online: http://www.wataninet.com/watani_Article_Details.aspx?A=44585]
It is my honor and privilege to join with thousands around the world in congratulating His Grace Bishop Dr. Suriel on academically preserving and articulating the legacy of Saint Habib Girgis. But even more than this, His Grace is carrying forward the saint’s legacy in the Coptic Diaspora in Australia, and indeed around in the world due to an increasingly globalized and digital world. Coptic scholarship is indebted to His Grace, not to mention generations of Copts and non-Copts who will benefit from scholarship on this saint whose educational and theological writings are still very much relevant today.
Dr. Saad Michael Saad (Los Angeles) is Senior Editor with Watani International.
In the photo: H.G. Bishop Suriel is surrounded by the bishops and doctoral dissertation committee after receiving his Ph.D. degree at Fordham University in New York. From left to right: H.G. Bishop David, Professor John L. Elias, Professor Gloria Durka, H.G. Bishop Suriel, Dr. Maged Mikhail, Dr. John J. Houston, H.G. Bishop Makkar, and H.G. Bishop Epiphanius.