Wednesday 21 August 2013 marked the first feast of
St Habib Girgis—the anniversary of his departure from our world in 1951. St Habib is the most recent figure to be granted sainthood in the Coptic Orthodox Church
Our Teacher Archdeacon Habib Girgis
Pioneer of Religious Education in Modern Times
by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III
Published in Arabic, Watani, 18 August 1991
To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Habib Girgis
Translated by Saad Michael Saad
He started his life in an era that was almost void of religious education and knowledge. At the time of the establishment of the Clerical School [seminary], they could not find a religion teacher after the sickness of Hegumenos Philotheos Ibrahim. So, students remained without religion courses for three years, until Habib Girgis was chosen to teach his colleagues. In addition, there were no preachers. In churches, homilies were read from printed books or manuscripts. Other denominations began to invade the church.
“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.
He was born in Cairo in 1876. While still a child, his father died in 1882. His mother gave him a religious upbringing. He joined the Copts Secondary School in the Klot Bek district of Cairo. He was the first student picked to enroll in the seminary when reestablished in 1893. He was appointed religion teacher there while he was a student in the final year. He was the highest-ranking graduate of the seminary’s first graduating class of 1898.
He became the first professor of theology and homiletics in the seminary. He excelled in preaching and teaching.
He found no one to teach him, so he became devoted to the seminary’s library, reading, studying, searching, summarising, authoring, and [professionally] growing… He also received mentorship from Hegumenos Philotheos Ibrahim who was by then a very old man crushed by sickness.
At the time, the seminary had no specialisation in teaching religious subjects. So, he taught all subjects until Simon Silides, Ragheb Atiya (Hegumenos Ibrahim Atiya) and other pioneers of that generation came.
He was a contemporary of four patriarchs: these were H.H. Pope Kyrillos V, H.H. Pope Yohannes IXX, H.H. Pope Makarius III, and H.H. Pope Yussab II. He was very appreciated by all of them, as well as by all Metropolitans, pontiffs of the church, many of whom were his disciples.
He was the one who established the seminary in our era: It was he who bought its land in Mahmasha, and built a building for it, very magnificent by the standards of the time. It was he who established the School for Cantors attached to the seminary. He also built a church for the seminary, which is now St Mary Church in Mahmasha. He went around the country raising funds for the seminary. He was able to convince his friends to donate endowments. We mention among them the philanthropist and virtuous lady Roma Athanasius. She endowed 365 feddans of land.
He was appointed Principal (Director) of the Seminary in 1918 by a letter from H.H. Pope Kyrillos V on 14 September. He continued in this capacity 33 years until his departure on the eve of St. Mary’s Feast, on 21 August 1951. He was 75 years old. His educational activities were not limited to the seminary.
He taught in every venue and became the symbol of education in his generation and a mentor to all teachers. He preached in churches and [benevolent] societies.
He established many [benevolent] societies. Because there were not many churches, the importance of societies as platforms for preaching was obvious. Societies also provided social services and caring for the poor and orphans. Besides, it was these societies that established churches. That was before 1959, when the law separating churches and societies was enacted.
Society of al-Nasha’a [Upbringing] in Haret al-Sakkayeen was one of the famous societies in which he preached.
He once delivered a famous sermon there in the presence of Pope Kyrillos V, who remained standing during the one-hour long sermon, expressing happiness for Habib and frequently blessing him with the sign of the cross.
He also preached in al-Iman [Faith] Coptic Society. He was the founder of that society and transferred it to al-Faggala. He was also the founder of al-Mahaba [Love] Society for Childhood Education. He was an active member in al-Khaireya [Benevolent] Coptic Society and was instrumental in establishing Friends of the Holy Bible Society.
From within the seminary he established societies for preaching including the Society of Church Soldiers, Society for Propagation of the Word of Salvation, and the Alumni Society. These societies operated in 84 centers for the ministry of the Word. In no time, they established churches in al-Suff, al-Quanater al-Khaireya, Ain Shams, Almaza, and other locations. These became large fields of ministry for the seminary students.
In 1938, the seminary celebrated forty years since its first class graduated. The festival was attended by a great number of Metropolitans. The others sent letters or telegrams of appreciation to Professor Habib Girgis. On this occasion he published his book The Seminary
Between Past and Present. In it he described the establishment of the seminary and its buildings, the dormitories, and the increase in teachers numbers in many disciplines. Besides the many courses in religion, he introduced courses in logic, philosophy, psychology, Hebrew, and Greek. He also increased emphasis on [the study of] Arabic, English, Coptic, history, and church hymns, which was taught by al-Mu’allim Mikhail, the chief cantor of the church.
Professor Habib Girgis established Sunday Schools [in 1900] and designed its curriculum. The Seminary and Sunday Schools became one educational entity under his leadership. He became the Deputy to the Pope, who was the Supreme Head of Sunday Schools and its General Committee. He printed for it elegant handout cards with a colored image on one side and the lesson [of the week] on the other.
In 1946 Habib Girgis established the evening seminary for university graduates. Many leaders of Sunday Schools from the Cairo and Giza churches enrolled.
Another burden of Habib Girgis was to write the religion curriculum and books for schools. In 1909 he wrote his book, Summary of Faith Fundamentals, in three volumes for elementary schools. It was well received by teachers and students. In 1937, he wrote eight new books in a series, Orthodox Christian Principles, to suit elementary and secondary schools. Later he wrote three books in another series, Precious Treasure of Holy History. These became the formal textbooks in both government and Coptic schools. He also communicated with authorities in the Ministry of Education to increase attention to religious education.
Habib Girgis also paid attention to journalism. He published his famous magazine, al-Karma, in 17 volumes. Its deep and powerful articles and high calibre authors distinguished the magazine. Its first issue was in 1907, and he [Habib Girgis] was assisted in its authorship by: the famous lawyer Gabriel Bek al-Tukhi, the famous judge Nassif Bek al-Tukhi, Archon Professor Takla Rizk who taught religion and science at the seminary, Professor Yassa abdel Messieh who taught Greek and rites at the seminary and was librarian at the Coptic Museum, Professor Simon Silides who taught theology at the seminary, Quossa Bek Girgis the preacher and writer, Mr Kamel Girgis, Aziz Bek Marcus, and Dawoud Bek Ghali.
It was a first that this magazine published translations of patristic literature.
It became the best Coptic magazine of its time. It published research in church canon law, science and religion, biblical studies, doctrine and theology. Each issue included a powerful spiritual sermon by the teacher Habib Girgis. It is believed the magazine was discontinued [in 1931] due to financial reasons for it became a financial burden on him.
Habib Girgis was also a poet:
He employed this gift to write religious hymns and songs. All have Orthodox character. Some were songs for Sunday School children. These hymns were compiled in two books, Orthodox Songs and Doctrinal Hymns, and Conscience Awakening by Songs of the Young. Habib also authored an anthem for the Seminary.
Habib Girgis authored many volumes:
Beside what we already mentioned, he wrote in the topic of theology his famous book, The Seven Sacraments of the Church. In comparative theology, The Orthodox Rock; and in church history, St. Mark the Evangelist; and The Life of St. Paula and St. Antony; and in spirituality, he published several books, The Mystery of Righteousness, Spiritual Views of Christian Life, Comfort to the Faithful, and The Spirit of Supplications. He also wrote on his hopes for reformation his book, Practical Means for Coptic Reformation.
Habib Girgis received great fame:
People loved Habib greatly because of his care for education in all areas, and because of his spiritual personality. In elections of the General Community Council (Majlis Milli), he received the highest number of votes in most terms.
Habib Girgis will be remembered as the pioneer of religious education in our land in modern history. He was not only a teacher, but a school, even a university. Importantly, he was a symbol for positive work in the church, a symbol for the love of education, a symbol for meekness, zeal and many virtues.
Our celebration of Habib Girgis’ memorial is an expression of loyalty and commitment. We shall not forget the good deeds of Habib Girgis to us and this entire era.
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 laboured and all of us have entered into his labour.
St Archdeacon Habib Girgis
The Revival of Coptic Patristic Theology
Saad Michael Saad
When the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church recognized the sainthood of Archdeacon Habib Girgis (1876-1951), there were many justifications for the church’s decision. Miraculously, the body of St. Habib Girgis was found intact 43 years after his death (as reported in al-Kiraza Magazine, vol. 22, no. 17, 13 May 1994). Concerning his role in church life, H.H. Pope Shenouda III described the saint as follows (Watani, 18 August 1991):
“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.
Concerning his role as an educator, Pope Shenouda described him as (al Kiraza, vol. 19, no. 29, 16 August 1991): “Habib Girgis was not merely a teacher, but was a school, even a university. He was a symbol for positive work in the church, a symbol for love of education, a symbol for meekness, zeal and many virtues.”
One of St Archdeacon Habib Girgis’s most important contributions as a visionary and reformer is that he made the Copts conscious of their heritage and historical-spiritual realities. Being an ancient nation, the Copts have their faith deeply rooted in the early church fathers. St Habib awakened that self-consciousness through several movements including Sunday Schools, the Seminary, ministry of the Word, benevolent societies, and publications. In all of these movements, the revival of patristic theology was a primary component.
Since the meaning of patristic theology includes consciousness of how the early Church fathers and mothers lived and expressed their faith in God, every Copt can contribute to patristic theology by living the liturgical experience in the church. Liturgies used by the Coptic Church represent the highest level of patristic theology. Moreover, the Synaxarion and icons on the church walls articulate the lives and theology of the apostles, martyrs, patriarchs, desert fathers and mothers, and other saints. And of course homilies written by the early church fathers are read in the church throughout the year.
But in 1900 only a few people went to church. There were few churches then and transportation was awkward and unsafe. As a result, at age 24 St Habib Girgis started the Sunday School Movement for religious education of the young in their own communities. The life and faith of the saints filled the curriculum. Thanks to the Sunday School Movement, and its founder and patron for fifty years St Habib Girgis, the Coptic Church has a theologically literate laity that is the envy of many churches. This literacy has been decisively enriched by the patristic theology revived by St Habib Girgis.
In his 17 volumes of al-Karma magazine (which intermittently appeared between 1907-1931), Archdeacon Habib Girgis published for the first time the treasures of patristic literature available to him. For example, in al-Karma, vol. 4, 1911, we find homilies by Saints Basil, Kyrillos I and John Chrysostom, and the Life of Gregory the Wonder Maker. Among titles of the last volume of al-Karma, Vol. 17, 1931, we find: Commentary on the Gospel of Luke by St. Kyrillos I, A review of a book on Ibn-Kabar, Coptic Liturgies, Eastern Liturgies, Ancient Coptic Manuscripts, and John Climacus and His Ladder.
Certainly Habib Girgis was a visionary and pioneer in this field, but why did earlier attempts by others have limited success? A century earlier another visionary and pioneer, Ibrahim el-Gohary, was only able to sponsor limited translations and manuscript production of patristic literature. Not only did Girgis sit on al-Gohary’s shoulders and thus had a greater vision, but it was also the advent to Egypt of printing technology and the art of journalism that enabled him to fulfill these dreams in education.
Another motivation for Habib Girgis to explore the Fathers came from his teaching responsibilities at the Seminary, beginning at age 22. Because of his serious illness, Habib’s mentor Fr Philotheos Ibrahim (1837-1904), a disciple of Pope Kyrillos IV, was only able to mentor Habib from his home and only for a few years. An author of many books including Al-Magmoo’ al-Safawi (the Collection of Ibn al-Assal), surely Fr Philotheos directed Habib to seek resources in the Patriarchal Library.
That library housed numerous valuable manuscripts of patristic literature. From these resources, Habib Girgis was able to read, digest and prepare lessons for his students at the Seminary. The results of these efforts became manifest not only in Habib’s writings, but also in his students’ writings, which began to appear soon after. One of those students, Fr Menassa Yuhanna (1899-1930), wrote nine volumes filled with patristic theology before his untimely death at age 31. His volumes are being translated to English and published by St Shenouda Monastery in Australia (http://stshenoudamonastery.org.au/).
Yet another motivation came from the waves of western missionary activities among the Copts in Egypt. Those activities led Habib Girgis and his disciples to appeal to the teachings of the Fathers in the defense of Orthodox doctrine. By contrast, another western activity enabled the Coptic movement to find the sources of the Fathers. For it was western orientalists who earnestly began translating and publishing patristic literature from Coptic, Greek, Syriac, Amharic, and other languages, to English, French, German and Arabic, during the nineteenth century. Here again, another student of St Habib Girgis, Fr Marcos Daoud (1897-1986), translated numerous of those books from English to Arabic, including Life of Antony, Apostolic Constitution, and Ecclesiastical History.
Through direct discipleship or indirect influence, all generations following St Habib Girgis have learned how to contribute to the revival of patristic theology and benefit from its treasures.
The great theologian St. Habib Girgis did not limit himself to patristic theology however. He equally articulated biblical theology, scholastic theology, and pastoral theology. He also mastered the art of combining them to develop a vision for the church, diagnose ecclesiastical illnesses, prescribe medicine, and address critical issues with wisdom and assurance of faithfulness to Coptic heritage and orthodoxy. One such product is his volume Practical Means for Coptic Reformation. This and many other volumes by St Habib Girgis are being translated to English and published by both St Antony Monastery in California (www.stantonymonastery.org) and Archdeacon Habib Guirguis Educational Fund in East Rutherford, New Jersey (www.copticreview.org).
We thank God for the saintly life and successful ministry of the great theologian and visionary St. Habib Girgis. The Coptic world now reaps the fruits of his several movements for reformation and revival, including patristic theology.
Saad Michael Saad is Senior Editor, Watani International; and Managing Editor, Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia (www.cgu.edu/cce).