The news was heartbreaking; the loss irreplaceable.
The Copts knew their beloved Pope Shenouda was ailing; they realised he may not have long
The news was heartbreaking; the loss irreplaceable.
The Copts knew their beloved Pope Shenouda was ailing; they realised he may not have long to live; yet, when phones rang on the evening of that fateful Saturday carrying news that the Pope had passed away, the pain and sense of loss were indescribable.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (1923-2012), the 117th Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St Mark passed away on Saturday 17 March 2012 (8 Parmhat 1728AM). The papal secretary Anba Ermiah announced the news of the Pope’s death early in the evening, saying: “We mourn His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and offer our condolences to the Church and to everyone who loved him. We are sure he is now in heaven with the saints, interceding with the Lord on our behalf.”
“Don’t say the Pope is dead”
The funeral service was to be held on Tuesday. Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth, said it was the Pope’s will to be buried at the Western Desert monastery of Anba Bishoi in Wadi Natrun.
Saturday evening saw some 500,000 gather in the grounds of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, which is also the papal headquarters, mourning Pope Shenouda. They chanted “Irhamna, Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy”. “Don’t say the Pope is dead, he is in heaven,” they said.
On satellite TV, Youssef Sidhom, Editor-in-Chief of Watani, highlighted the substantial role played by Pope Shenouda III in the Egyptian Church. He was a dedicated pastor, Sidhom said, who carried the Church from a very local institution to one open to the world. Sidhom said that the Church under Pope Shenouda was keen to preserve the Egyptian identity of the Copts, whether inside Egypt or in the Diaspora.
Pope Shenouda, said Sidhom, persuaded Copts not to resort to violence to place their demands before the authorities or the Egyptian community, and urged them to create and nurture compassionate relations with their fellow Muslims.
Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Military Council (MC), announced a decision to grant Copts in Egypt three days leave for them to be able to pay their last respects to Pope Shenouda III.
Egyptian TV declared three days of mourning for the Pope, and the MC declared Tuesday a day of mourning.
Watani printed a commemorative issue in honour of the great man.
On the throne of St Mark
It is customary that the body of the dead pope would be mummified and seated on the throne of St Mark till the funeral when he would be laid down in the [uncovered] coffin during the service. After the service the coffin is closed and carried in a procession of deacons three times around the church before it leaves for burial.
Dressed in embroidered vestments and a golden mitre, and holding a gold-tipped staff, Pope Shenouda’s body was placed on St Mark’s throne at dawn on Sunday, and mourners were allowed in to pay their last respects.
Hundreds of thousands flocked to St Mark’s to cast a last glimpse at the Pope. The unprecedented crowds heading to and leaving the cathedral led the traffic authorities to divert and redirect the traffic around the cathedral area.
The papal secretary Anba Yu’annis said that four Copts died because of the severe overcrowding. Some 50 persons were injured, and five children reported lost. Anba Yu’annis could not give any details concerning the four persons who lost their lives.
Holy Synod and Melli Council convene
A meeting was held at noon on Sunday between the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Melli (Community) Council, to decide upon the immediate arrangements following the passing away of Pope Shenouda III Saturday evening. Some 62 archbishops and bishops attended, and 15 Melli Council members.
The participants decided that a committee would be formed to decide on the final arrangements of the funeral service and subsequent burial arrangements. Wednesday and Thursday would be allocated to accepting condolences in the various parishes.
On Thursday morning, an extraordinary meeting was held by the Holy Synod and attended by the Melli Council, and elected Archbishop of Beheira Anba Pachomeus acting patriarch till a new pope is elected.
It is customary that, following the death of a pope, the eldest archbishop member of the Holy Synod should handle affairs till the Holy Synod elects an acting patriarch. The eldest archbishop, Anba Mikhail of Assiut who was consecrated in 1946, declined to undertake that role on health grounds, and Anba Pachomeus who was consecrated in 1971 is now acting patriarch.
“The wisest of the wise”
Condolences poured in.
Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Military Council, visited St Mark’s to offer his condolences, accompanied by his chief of staff Sami Anan. On its Facebook page, the Military Council said Pope Shenouda’s wish of “preserving the unity of Egypt and its social fabric” would be achieved.
The Grand Imam of the topmost Islamic institution, al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib said Egypt had lost “one of its rare men at a sensitive moment when it most needs the wisest of its wise.”
The Vatican also paid tribute to Pope Shenouda, Pope Benedict XVI saying in a statement: “The Catholic Church shares in the grief and prayers of Coptic Christians in mourning the loss of their spiritual leader… May the Lord welcome this great shepherd and give him the reward he deserves for his service.”
“We will remember Pope Shenouda III as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue,” the US president Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé also offered his condolences, saying that Pope Shenouda “had developed a dialogue with other Churches and with Islam in a spirit of tolerance, making a profound mark on the history of his country, Egypt.”
Middle East papers paid tribute to the statesman-like pope, and praised his delicate balancing skills in upholding Christian interests in a Muslim majority country.
According to the BBC’s Cairo correspondent Jon Leyne, Pope Shenouda was seen as a leader who did his best to protect Copts at a time when Islamism was on the rise. The massive crowds, he said, bore witness to the huge love and respect for the Pope.
The funeral service was held on Tuesday at St Mark’s. A military plane flew the coffin to the monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Western Desert, as well as a few accompanying bishops to the monastery. Others followed in private cars.
Throngs of Copts had gathered at the monastery, which lies off the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway, to be in reception of the Pope when he arrives. Many were there since the previous evening, spending the night outside the gates of the monastery, while others were pouring in since early morning.
Attending the funeral were the Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri; Speaker of the People’s Assembly Saad al-Katatni; governors of Cairo, Alexandria, Giza as well as other Delta and Upper Egyptian governorates; current and former ministers and politicians; presidential candidates; and public figures. Ambassadors of the Vatican, US, EU, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine also attended. Muslim religious leaders were also there; the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib sent a representative.
Participating were the patriarchs of the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syrian, and Armenian Churches; as well as representatives of Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Churches inside and outside Egypt.
The bells toll
The Military Council had declared Tuesday a national day of mourning; flags were flown at half-mast and, outside the cathedral tens of thousands of Coptic mourners watched the service on giant screens. The women were in mourning black. The pain, the loss, the heartbreak produced uncontrollable tears, even with men attired in traditional Upper Egyptian where it is unthinkable that a man would sob.
At Anba Bishoi’s, the bells tolled as the coffin arrived. In a procession of chanting monks, the Pope was regally carried to his final resting place.
The masses poignantly waved: “Maa as-salama ya Sayidna”; literally, “Go in peace, Master.”
25 March 2012