Handing over the keys

23-11-2012 01:07 PM

Victor Salama

Last Sunday saw Pope Tawadros II enthroned as the new patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. As the Coptic congregation welcomed him with jubilation and tears of joy, they had

to say goodbye to Acting Patriarch Anba Pachomeus who had steered the Church with outstanding love and wisdom during the interim period between the passing away of Pope Shenouda III last March and the enthronement of Pope Tawadros III last Sunday. When Anba Pachomeus announced he had completed his mission in peace and was going back to his parish and beloved congregation in Beheira, the Copts gave him a several-minutes-long standing ovation that appeared to go on and on. It was their way of saying how much they appreciated the hard work he had done with such wisdom and grace. 
Only a week earlier, Anba Pachomeus had celebrated the golden jubilee of his taking orders. Watani happily shared in the celebration, and seized the opportunity to talk to Anba Pachomeus.
Tell us about the beginning. How did it all start?
I was informed of the late Pope Shenouda III’s death on 17 March by His Holiness’ secretary Anba Ermiya minutes after it had occurred. I received the news while in my car on the way from Cairo to my diocese in Beheira, so I asked my driver to turn back to Cairo.  Minutes later I was sitting beside the body of our beloved Pope Shenouda, swamped in a sense of loss. I prayed for strength and serenity to deal with the situation, in honour of my departed father, the Pope. God’s grace answered my prayers. I called Anba Mikhail of Assiut who, as the oldest archbishop in the Coptic Church, should have presided over the funerary rites for the late pope, but he declined for health reasons and asked me, as second in line, to assume this responsibility. 
It was hard, but God’s hand was with me. Pope Shenouda’s funeral was solemn, and leaders of the then ruling Military Council, Egyptian public figures, foreign ambassadors as well as heads of Egyptian Churches, all the Coptic Orthodox bishops and some 2,000 priests, participated in the funeral. Millions of Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, grieved for the loss of Pope Shenouda. 
A week after his death, the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Melli (laity Community) Council and the Endowments Authority convened to choose an acting patriarchNAS_6363.jpg to lead the Church until the 118th pope is elected.
A soon as the meeting began, the bishops present suggested my name. Anba Mikhail had been approached for the task but had again declined. At this point, I insisted that I would not be acting patriarch unless a consensus is reached. Deep within me I felt that I could not shoulder this responsibility if even one person resented my authority. There was a consensus that I should be acting patriarch, so I acquiesced. Again, I prayed for help from the Lord. 
 How did you shoulder the new responsibility?
Pope Shenouda died at a time when Copts felt anxious about their homeland and Church. 
The acting patriarch’s responsibility, strictly speaking, lies in overseeing the arrangements of selecting a new pope, and in running the Church’s matters. The first responsibility was the hardest, especially that we had to abide by the 1957 Bylaws, which was formulated more than half a century ago and thus includes articles that are incompatible with matters today. The bylaws, for instance, were drawn at a time when there were no Coptic Churches outside Egypt. We thus needed today a reasonable solution to the predicament of the thousands of Copts in the Diaspora, who were—in the moral sense—entitled to choose their new pope. We finally did resolve the problem, but it weighed on my conscience that no way could be found for non-Egyptian Coptic Orthodox to take part in the vote. 
Another point of conflict was that the bylaws did not ban diocesan bishops from nomination for the papacy. The laws stipulated by the Nicene Council and later councils did allow this, but some texts constrained it to only in case of absolute necessity, a situation very difficult to define. The nomination committee thus decided to take no stance on this controversial issue, and thus several diocesan bishops were nominated. But when the nomination committee finally short-listed the 16 candidates for the papacy to five, through a secret ballot, the short list included only general bishops and monks.
But a number of Copts who were against the nomination of diocesan bishops for the papacy had already taken their case to court.
When the final list of five was announced, all Copts felt relieved and many revoked their cases.
How did you manage the papal election process?
I dealt with it in full transparency, concealing nothing. The Holy Synod and the Melli Council were absolutely cooperative, and all decisions taken were consensual. Even when we used to differ in opinion, we discussed matters until we could reach a stance everyone agreed to. 
More importantly, we followed the monastic spiritual tradition; no one ‘ran’ for the elections, the candidates were nominated by members of the Holy Synod who saw them fit for the task. No one strived after the papacy as an honour; they all went with Mar-Ishaq’s saying, “Whoever strives after an honour, the honour evades him. But whoever evades it, it strives to find him.”
We were confident in God’s will, and preceded every step—the short-listing, the election of three finalists, and the altar draw from among the three—with three days of fasting and prayer. God responded to our fasts and prayers and chose a good shepherd for His people.
Did you wish that your disciple Anba Tawadros would be the new pope?
All 17 candidates are dear to me, and I was keen to deal with them all on equal footing. When the short list of five was announced, we introduced the five candidates to the congregation within a democratic climate. We invited the five to hold Holy Mass jointly; we sensed no ‘competition’ among them. Each introduced the others honourably. The final saying was that of the Holy Spirit. 
How did you run the Church during your time as acting patriarch?
In order to run the Church, we needed to ordain priests, especially that during the last days of Pope Shenouda III, he could not do that owing to his poor health. We ordained some 100 priests in Cairo, Alexandria and the Diaspora. In the monasteries of Suryan, Anba Antonius, Anba Bishoi and Anba Shenouda, more than 30 monks took orders. Also 13 nuns took orders in the convent of the Holy Virgin in Cairo’s Bab Zuweila, and 14 young women were consecrated to serve with Anba Danial in Maadi, Cairo. 
We followed the principle that Pope Shenouda adhered to: never to ordain a priest without the consent of the congregation. And I personally met with all those who were to be ordained, as well as with their wives and children.
This year, there were attacks against Copts in Dahshur and Rafah, and a 14-year-old girl was abducted in Dabaa. How did you deal with these problems?
Each event was met by appropriate action. In Dahshur, a committee was formed, headed by the president’s advisor for legal affairs Dr Fouad Gadallah. This committee suggested offering emergency assistance; the sum of EGP 10,000 was given in compensation to each family and the Copts returned home.  In Rafah, the solution was only partial. Although our children were repatriated, they still feel insecure as threats still loom from time to time. As for the Dabaa girl, we know she was moved by her abductor to a village in Gamasa by Sheikh Ali Katamesh, a Salafi who has the reputation of luring and converting underage girls. 
Attacks against Copts recur frequently; is there no end in sight?
The solution lies with the government. There should be stricter security; the lack of security on the streets leads to countless problems. School curricula must be revised because many of them promote intolerance and rejection of the other. Religious discourse in mosques and churches must be directed to our country’s best interest and, last but not least, we must pay attention to the provocative and hostile role the media plays. These solutions are known to all, but it is imperative to take a step towards implementing them. I imagine that a major part of the solution is to go back to the old traditions of the Egyptian family, back to the good old days when Muslim and Christian families used to live in love and harmony.
What upset you most during your time as acting patriarch?
Nothing pained me more than the fact that some of our children resorted to the courts of law while my door was open for them. Had they knocked at my door, I would have sat with them to listen to their problems, understand their viewpoints and try to give them comfort, as I did with others. This is the role of a good pastor, and this is my style in my parish. No one who ever came to me was turned away; this is what pastorship is all about. 
During my time as acting patriarch, I had no specific affiliation and dealt with absolute transparency and concealed nothing. I used to put all matters before the Holy Synod and the Melli Council, even if they lay within my personal responsibility, and we would all mull them over and take a collective decision. I never took any decision related to the election of the new Pope or Church policy on my own. I announced from Day One that the Holy Synod would be in permanent session until the enthronement of the new pope. 
…And what pleased you most?
The cooperation between the Holy Synod and the seculars gave me great joy, as well as the youth who put so much time and effort to organise the elections and the altar draw. I sympathised with them when they worked late nights, but I was also filled with pride and happiness to see them serve with such dedication and joy. I told myself: we truly are a Church of the people, and it reassured me that all these multi-talented people would be serving with the new Pope.  
Were you happy when Anba Tawadros was chosen as the new Pope?
I was just as happy as the entire Coptic congregation. As a matter of fact, I haven’t heard of anyone who wasn’t. The reason behind my joy is that it is God who chose Pope Tawadros II. In all the stages of the election process—the nominations, the voting and the draw—the work of the Holy Spirit was very obvious, and hence the popular consensus and joy that followed; this made me happy. The Heavens gave our Church a good shepherd, one who has been throughout the stages of his childhood, youth, monkhood, priesthood and bishopry a model of commitment, fervour, good organisation, and achievement. I expect the Church will flourish greatly during his papacy.
What would you want to say to the 118th Pope?
I would like to remind him of what he already knows: our Church revolves around its people and it is the shepherd’s duty to be always present among his congregation. He believes in prayer, education, caring, innovation and collective work. I call upon him to proceed with what he believes in. Nonetheless, when we work within our limited parish our work is also limited but now he will have to reach out to the entire Coptic congregation in the four corners of the world and therefore, he has to plan everything on a much larger scale.
Will you set a path for him to follow?
He can accomplish everything on his own because he is blessed with many talents; he is a successful servant, thinker and innovator. There must be in the Church a specialised secretariat and institutions such as the Holy Synod and the Melli Council. But the Church still needs more institutions. It needs a higher council to standardise the curricula in seminaries, a higher council for taking orders, and standards to recognise new monasteries or convents. The work of the Church now requires the establishment of such institutions, as well as specialised secretariats that would form a grid to link the entire Church together. I already visualise the papal headquarters as a place filled with offices of different specialisations where seculars and clergy work hand in hand.
What will Your Grace do now that you have handed the pastoral staff to Pope Tawadros II?
I will hand in my keys to His Holiness and give him a report. I will tell him that I will always be at his service and ask him to let me go back to serve my children in my parish.
What will you write in your report?
I will write all the things that I have just told you and Watani readers, but also a few other things that I could not tell.
WATANI International
25 November 2012 
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