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Navigating the choppy waters: with love

16 Nov 2013 11:35 am

Victor Salama


Monday 18 November marks one year on the enthronement of Pope Tawadros II as Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.  Watani wishes the Pope a blessed new year as patriarch, and marks the occasion by offering our readers excerpts of three interviews conducted with the Pope throughout the first year of his papacy.

His name, Tawadros or Theodore, is literal for gift of God. And for Copts, he is literally that: the answer to their prayers.
When Pope Shenouda III passed away in March 2012, the Copts were devastated. The 88-year-old Pope had been the pastor of the Coptic Church for 40 years; he was widely loved and revered not only by his congregation but by Egyptians in their wide majority. His wisdom, loving kindness, and even his wit, were legendary; his charisma was overwhelming. Copts had come to lean on him for support in times of trouble—exactly what they saw themselves experiencing since the turmoil that came in the wake of the January 2011 uprising and the following rise to power of the Islamists.

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Altar draw
Anba Pachomeus, Bishop of Beheira, became acting patriarch in the interim period when Pope Shenouda passed away and until a new pope would be seated. Anba Pachomeus, in singular wisdom and spirituality, deftly steered the Coptic Church through the choppy waters till he handed her over to the new pope. Most important, Anba Pachomeus led every step in the process of electing the new patriarch with prayer. Three times the Coptic congregation conducted three-day intervals of fasts and prayers for the good Lord to help them elect the right person to become pope.  
Finally, it was time for the altar draw that was to determine who of three elected bishops would be pope. After Holy Mass, the 8-year-old boy Bishoi was blindfolded and asked to pick up a name from the three names placed in a chalice. But before Bishoi was allowed to do so, Anba Pachomeus, in his clerical vestments, stood next to him and, in his powerful voice, entreated the entire congregation to each utter a fervent prayer from the heart for God to make the choice for a good pastor for His Church. The minute of prayer passed, and Bishoi stretched his hand and picked a scroll from among the three. Anba Pachomeus opend it before the congregation and held it high for everyone to see. “Anba Tawadros,” he announced. “This is your new pope, Anba Tawadros II. Blessed, blessed, blessed!” he said.


Good shepherd
A week later, the new pope was enthroned in a ceremony that was singularly moving for the public as well as for the new pope who in many instances could not fight back his tears. He was led to the door of St Mark’s cathedral, given the keys to open it, then led to the altar in a venerable procession of bishops. He was invested, and Anba Pachomeus called upon him to pick up the shepherd’s staff and sceptre which were placed on the altar “from the hand of the Shepherd of shepherds. You have been entrusted with His flock, and from your hand will He require their blood.” As Holy Mass proceeded, the new pope read the gospel from St John 10: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life for his sheep.”
And so it was that the Coptic Church got its new pope, Pope Tawadros II.

“Serving with love”
The first words by the new Pope: “I will be a servant to all, be they Christian or Muslim. My heart and love is open to everyone,” materialised in their full sense, in humility and glory, throughout the first year in his papacy.
When he first talked to the paper, Watani asked: Do you see difficult times ahead with the rise of Islamists? “Islamists have existed for a very long time,” was his answer. “It is true that they have now become more brisk, but we believe in the last promise Jesus Christ gave us: ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28: 20).
And in reply to how he planned to deal with the State, he said: I will employ the concept of ‘love in action’. Our heart is open to everyone, and we love everyone. We offer our love indiscriminately to all, even those who hate us. I am opening a new page with all individuals and streams, including the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. I thank the Lord that the Church’s relation with the President is one of affection and respect. We pray that the Lord gives him strength and support to serve this country.”

First steps
More than two months later, in January 2013, Watani made its second interview with Pope Tawadros who, in addition to facing the indomitable task of measuring up to his predecessor, the charismatic Pope Shenouda III, had to meet the challenge of bringing the two-millennia-old Coptic Church into the 21st century.
Five main issues required attention to bring them up to modern-day requirements, Pope Tawadros said. “These are monasticism, research and seminaries, endowments and Church property, family law, and Church projects. Only when we achieve this goal can we then say we have managed to ‘put our house in order’.”
The Pope talked about the Coptic congregation in Egypt and in the Diaspora, and the role of the clergy and the laity who both complemented each other. Since then, new bishops and priests have been ordained to tackle the growing needs of the service.
“Does your Holiness plan to visit the churches of the Diaspora?” Watani asked. “I cannot go abroad before the needs of churches at home are covered. I plan to pay them visits whenever the chance arises, because my mission is to serve in the first place, and these visits give me great joy. My first visit was to Beheira which was once the parish in which I served. It was very emotionally-charged; I met with Anba Pachomeus who is more than a spiritual father to me; and the congregation I love so dearly. I visited the church of the Two Saints in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve; this was the church that saw the bombing on New Year Eve 2011 in which more than 20 Christians lost their lives and some 100 were injured. I went unannounced because I am not fond of formalities and receptions.”

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Reaching out
Pope Tawadros took the important step of reaching out to the heads of other Churches in Egypt. “It was all possible by the grace of God,” he said. “At the outset of my papacy, I met the heads and representatives of Churches who were guests at the enthronement ceremony. I was particularly touched by the words of Mar Ignatius Zaka, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church; His Holiness Gregorius III Laham, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church; His Holiness Theodoros II, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa and Mar Bishara Boutros el-Ra’i, the Maronite Patriarch. They reached out to me and offered to start a dialogue for unifying our Churches in Christ.
“We also had the opportunity to meet representatives of the Churches in Egypt, and this led us to build a unified position on that front. Then came Christmas, and I made a point of visiting the heads of the other Churches to offer them goodwill and good wishes. They all later returned my visit, and these meetings drew us closer.
“I feel a strong urge to walk the road of unity.  I wish to see all the Churches tied with the bond of love. As I say this, I envision Jesus Christ on the cross with His arms stretched out to welcome all and unite them in His love, His passion, and His resurrection.”

Walking the path to unity
“Pope Shenouda III had called for the establishment of a council for the Churches of Egypt (Coptic and Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopal),” Pope Tawadros said. “We picked the thread from there. The unity we are seeking does not mean fusion into one Church, but rather the union of all Churches in Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.” The Egypt Council of Churches has now materialised and is a reality on the ground. There are efforts to have it mentioned in Egypt’s new constitution, to define the Christian body in Egypt.
“Achieving union of the Churches involves working along two lines” according to Pope Tawadros, “the first relates to faith and creed, and this requires extensive work to resolve the theological differences that have built up over 15 centuries. This can’t be done overnight.
“The second line of action is mutual love and life of communion. We all believe in the same gospel and see the same goal: the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Unquestionably, however, the major step Pope Tawadros took towards Church unity was his initiative to visit Pope Francis in Rome last May. The meeting came exactly 40 years after the one that preceded it, which was in turn the first such meeting in over 1500 years since the great rift between the Churches in 451. After that date there were practically no relations between Rome and Alexandria—that is, until 1973 when Pope Shenouda III visited Pope Paul VI in the Vatican; they signed a joint declaration on Christology and agreed to establish joint commissions for ecumenical dialogue.
The second meeting in Rome took place on Friday 10 May 2013, in a climate dominated by the unceremonious informality, humbleness, and love typical of both Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II. “Unity between the Churches requires extensive theological dialogue,” Pope Tawadros told Watani, “But without brotherly love unity can never materialise.”

“No exclusion, marginalisation, or exception”
As far as political Egypt is concerned, the Pope was able to navigate successfully through the difficult time when the Islamists were in power. He proved that the strength and success of the Church are an essential part of the whole country’s strength and success. His tradition of reaching out in love to others despite the painful Islamist attacks against the Copts and churches, endeared him to all and built respect and honour for the Church.
In an interview with Watani last September, the Pope described the Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi’s year in office as “short but hard, especially for Copts”.  
“History will register the total absence of political will to avert sectarian strife during that period,” the Pope said. “We will never forget the unprecedented attack on St Mark’s Cathedral—a national Coptic symbol—and the papal premises while the police looked on.
“Yet this was not the first time in its history that the Church faced hardships. But the Coptic Church has always been a patriotic establishment and unfailingly displayed courage and balance. We spent the Mursi year exercising the self-restraint and love implied by Christian idealism; the Bible teaches us to bless when persecuted and offer love for hatred. We bear no grudge against anyone; we don’t allow such sentiments in our hearts.”
When the Islamist regime fell on 3 July under pressure from the people’s 30 million-strong mass protest on 30 June and consequent military intervention, Pope Tawadros was right there among Egypt’s military and civil leaderships to announce the Roadmap for Egypt’s future, which he had taken part in drawing. “That Roadmap,” he said, “was drawn with input from every one present, and is geared towards the interest of all Egyptians, with no “exclusion, marginalisation or exception”.

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The ultimate power of prayer
But people in Egypt are living in fear and anxiety on account of the fierce Islamist terrorist activity. “This is normal,” Pope Tawadros confirmed, “and was to be expected. The country is in the throes of acute labour pains. But the baby will soon be born, and a new beautiful Egypt will emerge.
Finally, Watani asked, “what would you like to say to the Coptic congregation?”
“As much as the Lord grants me, I will serve each and every one of you. I ask for your prayers. Pray for me to be able to honour the post He gave me though He knows how unworthy I am. Pray for this heavy duty I have been shouldered with; there can be no success here except through the spirit of prayer. Pray that the Lord should perfect His work in us.”

WATANI International
16 November 2013


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