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A life well lived

Eva Romani

31 Dec 2014 1:01 am

Category: In memorial
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FA: In memorial

Today the Coptic Church commemorates the arbaeen of the passing away of the eldest bishop in the Church, Anba Mikhail of Assiut. The arbaeen, literally forty, is a ceremonial marking of the 40th day on the death of a person, a tradition that goes back to ancient Egypt and related to the mummification process, but which Copts still keep to this day. Anba Mikhail was widely honoured, loved, and respected; and was a special friend who believed in and strongly supported Watani. We here commemorate Anba Mikhail by recalling excerpts of material Watani had printed about the Metropolitan during his lifetime.

Copts loved to call him the “Angel of Upper Egypt” or the “Lion of Upper Egypt”. The two seemingly contradicting traits—angel and lion—best described the strong, fiery, yet extremely gentle Anba Mikhail, Metropolitan of Assiut, the capital of Upper Egypt. The man, whose spiritual stature and wisdom were legendary, was the eldest of the bishops of the See of St Mark not only in Egypt but also around the world. During his lifetime of 93 years (1921-2014), Anba Mikhail was contemporary to seven Coptic Orthodox patriarchs, starting with the 112th Pope St Kyrillos V and through to the current patriarch, the 118th Pope Tawadros II.
Born in the Upper Egyptian village of Rahmaniya, he took orders as Matthias al-Maqari in February 1939 at the tender age of 18. In 1946 he became the youngest bishop in the Church when he was seated as Metropolitan of Assiut by the 115th Pope Yousab II. The proud landowning Copts of Assiut looked down on the 25-year-old bishop and refused to accept him in their homes. But with every day that passed, they grew to love, honour, and venerate him as he faithfully served and bonded with them.

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Hospitalised in Cairo
Anba Mikhail was always accessible, close to his congregation. Hordes would rush to him at times of trouble and hang on his every word, looking for reassurance and some message that the Heavens will not let them down. And reassure them he did: “Jesus knows, Jesus knows,” he was often heard to say “all your suffering, troubles, and needs. He answers in His way at His right time. Throw your cares upon Him and seek first the Kingdom of Heaven…and all your needs will be answered.” The words might seem commonplace for a Christian cleric, but the strength and authority with which they were uttered assured people these were no ‘mere’ words.
The Metropolitan of Assiut rarely left his parish or congregation even for medical treatment; he only moved out when assigned by the Church to perform some urgent or pivotal duty. So when he had to be hospitalised in Cairo in July 2007, Assiut congregation realised he was seriously ill, confirming stories that had circulated to that effect. They gathered in tears to bid their beloved father goodbye, understanding how much he had silently suffered. But when the doctors in Cairo advised him to head to France for treatment he staunchly refused and, as soon as he felt better, returned to Assiut. On Tuesday 24 July 2007, the bishopric burst at the seams with the crowds who came to welcome Anba Mikhail home and take his blessing as he celebrated Holy Mass there at the church of the Archangel Mikhail. Watani described the emotional event in its 29 July 2007 issue under the title “His Grace Anba Mikhail recovers”.

The visit
When the Metropolitan had been in hospital in Cairo, he received a visit from Pope Shenouda III, which had a deep effect on the Coptic congregation. There had been talk of sour relations between the two widely loved prelates, on account of rumours that Anba Mikhail had aspired to replace Pope Shenouda when the latter had been -banished to his desert monastery by President Anwar al-Sadat in September 1981. At the time Sadat, who was president from 15 October 1970 to 6 October 1981, had clamped down on some 1,500 Egyptian leading figures and intellectuals, among them Pope Shenouda, on claims that they led dissent against him. Anba Mikhail, true to his deep-rooted monastic tradition, refused to refute the rumours that he had aspired for the top post in the Church and had thus earned the disapprobation of Pope Shenouda, leaving it to the Divine to reveal the [completely opposite] truth. The Pope’s visit in 2007 once and for all put an end to the rumours. Watani was on hand to report on the warmth of the visit and its pleasant, joyful climate. “You were bishop long before me,” Pope Shenouda said, acknowledging a seniority much honoured in the Church.
When Pope Shenouda passed away in March 2012, Anba Mikhail who in his capacity as the eldest of the bishops of the Coptic Church should have been Acting Patriarch till a new pope was elected, declined the position owing to his old age and poor health. The second eldest bishop, Anba Pachomeus, Metropolitan of Beheira, undertook that task.

The Metropolitan and the saintly pope
Watani compiled many instances in the relationship between Anba Mikhail and Pope Kyrillos VI who was patriarch from 1959 to 1971, and who was canonised in 2013. In its issue of 16 March 2008, the paper printed a story on the two great men who enjoyed a very close relationship. The Pope required Anba Mikhail to accompany him on several of his foreign travels, and delegated him to supervise the construction of the St Mark Cathedral in Anba Rweiss in Cairo, which was opened in 1968. Anba Mikhail was among the official delegation that went to the Vatican in Rome in June 1968 and received part of the relics of St Mark from Pope Paul VI to bring back to Cairo. St Mark was the apostle who preached Christianity in Egypt and was martyred in Alexandria in AD68, but his body was smuggled to Venice in 828 and only returned to Egypt in 1968 when it was placed in a shrine under the main altar of the St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo.
Anba Mikhail joined Pope Kyrillos VI in celebrating many events such as the consecration of Anba Mina, Bishop of Girga and Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. In his capacity as abbot of St Macarius monastery in Wadi-Natrun, he had to recommend his monastery ‘son’ to the Pope for consecration as bishop, and to hand him over to His Holiness. Anba Mikhail had been abbot of the monastery since August 1946.

Abbot of St Macarius’s
In March 2009, Watani printed a front-page news item that Anba Mikhail had resigned his post as abbot of St Macarius monastery after 65 years of service. The monks sent delegates to Pope Shenouda asking him to persuade Anba Mihkhail to retract his decision, but the pope explained that he had already tried to persuade Anba Mikhail to stay on but that the latter was insistent on resigning. During his years as abbot, Anba Mikhail had consecrated the great library of St Paul at the monastery and the adjacent Altar of the Holy Virgin.
On 22 March 2012, three years after Anba Mikhail’s resignation and a few days after Pope Shenouda passed away, a group of monks from St Macarius’s visited Anba Mikhail and begged him to resume his responsibility as abbot, since the monastery had been under the direct supervision of the departed Pope. Anba Mikhail accepted and was reassigned as abbot from April 2012 until 10 March 2013 when he resigned for good, assured that the monastery was then in the safe hands of a new abbot, Anba Epiphanius.

The place closest to his heart
Assiut is known as the Egyptian governorate with the highest Coptic population. It was blessed by being the last destination of the Holy Family—Baby Jesus, St Mary and St Joseph—on its flight into Egypt from the face of Herod the King who wished to kill the Christ Child (Matthew 2). When Anba Mikhail became Metropolitan of Assiut, the better known spot where the Holy Family had resided was the present-day Monastery of the Holy Virgin known as Muharraq Monastery north of Assiut.
The other spot was the cave in Assiut’s western mountain near the village of Dronka. This, as the late historian Girgis Daoud wrote in Watani, lies at an altitude of 100 metres at a distance of 10km from the city of Assiut. It was a desolate spot when Anba Mikhail became Metropolitan; older Assiutis remember the tedious journey on foot or donkey up the mountain to reach the cave, all the while chanting praises for the Holy Virgin. Thanks to Anba Mikhail, the place is now able to host thousands of overnight guests who, added to the day visitors during the celebration of the Holy Virgin every August, make some 2 million individuals. The mammoth effort of construction, building roads, and setting up water and drainage networks was compounded by struggles against unjust decisions by officials who did not view kindly the ‘expansion’ by the Church. But the bishop’s efforts bore fruit and the place became a site of major historical and touristic importance. It was, as Anba Mikhail always said, a case of “All things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8: 28). The Holy Virgin’s now stands out as a gem suspended in the mountain above the green fields, warmly welcoming visitors.

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Site of peace and comfort
In the same manner that he carved and polished the rocks of the mountains, Anba Mikhail worked on maintaining good, loving relations with all Assiut residents, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as officials.
In a talk he gave Watani, which was printed on 19 August 2007, the then Assiut governor General Nabil al-Arabi talked about the spiritual and touristic importance of the cave church and the site promoted so assiduously by Anba Mikhail. “Muslims, who revere the Christ Child and Mary His mother, see the cave site as a blessed place and come to visit it in crowds.” He talked of including the site on tourist itineraries and promoting it worldwide in order to achieve an economic revival in Assiut. “I have visited this area many times and must admit that I always felt peace and comfort I seldom found in any other place,” General Arabi said.

Every August
Every year in August, Copts celebrate the two-week Fast of the Holy Virgin which ends with the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin on 22 August. Spiritual celebrations are held in churches all over Egypt, but the ones most popular are those held in spots where the Holy Family had stayed on its Biblical flight into Egypt. Some 39 such celebrations are held around Egypt; however, the one that most attracts pilgrims and the best organised is the one in Assiut Mountain where some two million converge on the cave church in a gathering of peace and love.
The monastery is a destination for spiritual and heritage tourism by local and foreign visitors. Tourists come from places as far apart as France, Germany, Italy, the Americas and Australia, as well as Diaspora Copts from the world over and African congregations especially from Ethiopia. There are also the researchers, historians and archaeologists. In 2006, a visitor who had arrived from London to attend the August celebration said: “I was imagining that at the end of the road uphill I would find a great place overlooking the green valley; I never expected that all I’d find would be a cave inside the mountain,” she said. “I am very happy I came to this ancient, holy place. I believe that there is a connection between the visit of the Holy Family and the feeling of peace and love that reigns in this area.”

Watani International
31 December 2014

 



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