Anba Moussa is one of the most widely loved and revered bishops in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Despite his 70 plus years, he is in charge of the services dedicated to young people in the Church. Since 1980 he has held the title ‘Bishop of Youth’, and it is almost unimaginable for Coptic young people that someone else would take this post, so understanding and interactive is he with them. Every time I see this fond, grandfatherly figure, the biblical verse from the Psalms springs to my mind: “… so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:5).
Watani talked to Anba Moussa and found his words candid, profound, and good humoured.
Your Grace, will you tell the young congregation about your early years, your childhood and youth?
I grew up in a Coptic Orthodox family in Assiut [some 350km south of Cairo]. In my childhood—and that was some 70 years ago—I was a regular pupil at Sunday School; in fact I liked it so much that I would go to Sunday School at three churches. Finally I settled down at the Mar-Girgis church in Assiut, where Sunday School offered the usual spiritual activity as well as activities in sports and culture, in poetry, literature, and preliminary journalism. At that time there were no computers, cell phones nor even typewriters. When I was 16 years old, we joined in activities where we would serve the needy in surrounding villages, and help educate children.
I later moved to Cairo where I attended Cairo University’s school of medicine with the intention of becoming a doctor. I graduated in 1962.
How did you begin your journey towards taking orders?
While at medical school, I heard a sermon by Father Matta al-Miskeen (1919 – 2006), a Coptic Orthodox monk and one of the most profound scholars and modern researchers on Theology in the Coptic Church, and I also attended a lecture by Waheeb Attallah—later Anba Gregorius, Bishop of Scientific Research and Theological Studies from 1967 until his death in 2001. Both men focused on one topic: the need of the Coptic Orthodox Church for men who would consecrate their lives to ‘service’ on every level: the spiritual, cultural, educational, health, and social, to answer the growing needs of the congregation.
I recognised at once that this was my way. I graduated from medical school, then paid a visit to Fr Matta al-Miskeen, himself a successful pharmacist-turned-monk, and confided to him my deep desire to consecrate my life to service. He listened to me then said: “May God be with you; whatever you choose to do, I will back you up”.
A few years later, one of the pillars of the Coptic Church, Anba Athanasius of Beni Sweif (1923 – 2000; Metropolitan of Beni Sweif and al-Bahnassa from 1962 – 2000 ), learnt from one of the consecrated volunteer workers in the Church, Shaker Abdel-Massih, that I was good at the service of young people. Anba Athanasius asked me, “Are you willing to devote your life to service?” I answered, “Yes,” and he then asked me, “Would you like to take orders or to be ordained as a priest?” I replied, “I wish to serve in a shirt and trousers, not in any clerical garment. This would bring me closer to the young persons I serve.”
I served in a shirt and trousers for 13 years. But as time passed, the urge to give all up and go into monastic life, to quench my spiritual thirst, won over. I left everything and entered the Western Desert monastery of al-Baramous in April 1976. After two years in the monastery, Pope Shenouda III (patriarch from 1971 to 2012) asked me to serve with him. He gave me the freedom to choose the field of service, and I directly said: “Youth”. He complied, and later consecrated me Bishop of Youth in 1980.
Last January President Sisi declared 2016 the Year of Youth. How does the Youth Bishopric interact with and attract young people, and what future plan does it have for the service of the young?
There is one key: Love. We love young people and interact with them,primarily drawing them in through love, prayer and understanding.
We recently held a four-day gathering at the Alexandria resort of Agami for 100 youth leaders to discuss the changes and variables of our contemporary times and how they impact the young. The young people highlighted 20 such variables, not one of which could be ignored. I personally benefited a lot from the discussions during this gathering. We formed a number of committees to work out how best to come to terms with these variables, and how the Church could tackle them.
Do you remember how many countries or continents you have served in?
I can’t remember exactly, but I have visited most of our churches worldwide. In 1989 I went on a 112-day trip with His Holiness Pope Shenouda. We were nine bishops and visited several churches all over the world. It was a very exhausting and challenging journey; we almost had no sleep.
Because you are a role model for young people who strongly admire your extensive knowledge and wisdom, what advice can you give them for acquiring knowledge?
I would say read, read, and read again. There is nothing like reading to broaden your horizons. But when it comes to spiritual matters, reading and education should be under spiritual guidance lest one loses the way.
You have published several books on theology. Can you tell us more about this?
We look for what young people need most, and attempt to answer it. I took my lead from Anba Athanasius who was among the greatest figures and teachers in our Church in modern times. He always said it was a pity that we taught and preached but never put it down in writing. I decided I would ‘put it down in writing’ so as to hand the teachings on to those who could not listen to them first hand, and also to future generations. I have also published the sermons and teachings of Anba Athanasius.
In which direction should Islamic-Christian dialogue be heading?
Towards brotherly love, what else? We will not change one another’s religion or beliefs; we cannot change it even within the various sects of Christianity. But we can interact, tolerate and understand; melting the ice between us and fostering a spirit of love. ‘Love’ does not mean we ought to be identical but rather that we should harmonise, integrate, cooperate and so on.
In your viewpoint, what is the best way to stand up to sectarian conflict?
Educating the young generation in tolerance and accepting the other is the best way, with the leaders acting as role models. We should address the minds of young people; the key to the mind is the heart, so we should teach them to love all.
You invited the [Muslim] journalist and political writer Hamdy Rizq to address a Coptic youth conference, and this was seen as a step towards national unity. What was the response to this golden idea?
This was not the first time. We have invited —and still do—many Muslim public figures to Coptic youth gatherings. In the Youth Bishopric we are always keen to maintain a national dimension.
We have honoured Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam, who is eager to take part in our gatherings. He is an open-minded person and has played an exceptional role in fostering enlightenment. Besides, he is a dear friend and is making a great effort to revive and spread enlightened thought, culture, and activities.
The Youth Bishopric sponsors a programme under the theme of ‘national participation’ to encourage young people to participate actively in public and political life. In the past Copts were accused of apathy, but this is changing. Our courses tackle such topics as the history of modern Egypt and the Copts’ contribution to Egypt over the ages.
On a personal level, I maintain cordial personal relations even with some Islamist figures who are seen as fanatic, among them Muhammad Emara, Tareq al-Beshri and Selim al-Awwa. Only through exercising brotherly love can one do that.
What do you think of the spread of atheism these days? What can the Church do to strengthen the faith of young people?
When we talk about atheism, we should remember that a believer carries God’s spirit inside him or her. Atheists reject the existence of God, so there is not much we can say to persuade them.
We already offer young people courses on faith and theology and on how to recognise the existence of the Lord through mind and reason not only through faith. These courses come under the theme of ‘The Defending Fathers’.
Young men and women naturally reach the point where they stand at the crossroads of: Where am I now? Where is God? And where is His Church? If they decide to take the way of the Lord, it is because they find spiritual satisfaction and contentment there, attaining new birth and life. We should be there for them, to help in their awakening to faith.
Many seek to serve with devotion, but this is primarily a vocation that leads men and women into various paths: serving children, the poor, the sick, the elderly, those in prison, or many others who may need to be served. It is the Lord’s guidance that directs a person to where he or she is most needed.
You were among the first to call for social activities for young people within the Church. What made you do that?
My service among young people made me realise that they needed social activities within the walls of the Church. It is a primary need for youth to have fun and to interact.
Since 2000, and in response to an idea by Fr Bigol of Mar-Mina church in Shubra, Cairo, we have been holding competitions that began with secondary school students and then spread to all age groups on a nationwide scale under the name ‘al-Kiraza festival’. The scale of participation is staggering; it is obvious young people fully enjoy it. The winners receive awards from the hand of Pope Tawadros, an act they especially cherish.
What else does the Youth Bishopric do to address the needs of the young?
The Bishopric offers vocational training for young people, and employment opportunities through our offices. Also very popular are lectures and talks by experts and successful businessmen on how to launch and run small businesses.
There has been a movement that gained ground after the Arab Spring in 2011 that the older generation should ‘retire’ and let the younger generation take over. But this is unreasonable; the young have the vitality whereas the old have the experience. They both complement each other. We cannot get along without any of them.
With the spread of violence all over the world, how can young people deal with the atrocities around them and live a life of inner peace?
This can only be realised through God who is the source of all peace. His presence in the heart of young people can rebuild broken psyches and provide profound love and warmth. Christianity is a faith, a life. When Christ is in my heart, in my mind, in my behaviour, I constantly feel His presence and become one with Him.
When young people complain that, on the practical level, they can have no time for God, I say that it is not a matter of ‘time’; it is a way of life. When the heart calls: “Oh Jesus, Lord” the Lord is there. If even for a second or a split second, He is one with you.
The Copts who were beheaded by Daesh in Libya last year [February 2015] kept on repeating the name of the Lord Jesus Christ before they died; they went to their death with His name on their lips. I am certain He was there for them to the very end. This is the ultimate Christian faith; this is living it in life and in death.
6 July 2016