A friend of mine told me a story I can never forget. She had gone with others to meet the legendary Pope Shenouda III who, upon hearing her name,
If it weren’t for him
Muslims especially credited Pope Shenouda with the love and wisdom that worked to abort efforts by extremists to divide Egypt along sectarian lines. By “Muslims” I mean mainstream Egyptians, the man and woman on the street who belong to no specific political movement and who have always managed to have minds of their own. When Pope Shenouda died last March, many Copts said that they were stopped in the street by Muslims who would offer their condolences for his death. And they very frequently said that “if it weren’t for that man [Pope Shenouda], Egypt’s Muslims and Copts would have in all probability been at each others’ throats.” I met in person with several such encounters in various spots in Cairo.
The Bible says: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13: 7). One year on the passing away of Pope Shenouda, it may be fitting for us to remember him who spoke the word of God to us so generously, consider the outcome of his life, and imitate his faith.
Pope Shenouda III was born Nazir Gayed in the village of Salam in Assiut, Upper Egypt, in 1923. His mother died after giving birth and, since he also lost his father at an early age, his elder brother Raphael brought up his younger siblings.
Gayed was a devout churchgoer and Sunday school member. He graduated from Cairo University and the Coptic Orthodox Seminary, and joined its faculty. During his military service in 1948, Gayed took part in the Palestine War in 1948.
Into the desert
Despite what promised to be a successful career in teaching, Gayed chose a life of solitude with the Divine, and took orders in 1954 at the Western Desert Monastery of the Holy Virgin, commonly known as the Surian Monastery (Monastery of the Syrians), under the name Antonius al-Suriani.
Wishing for even more solitude, he became a hermit and lived in a lone cave in the desert for six years. These years produced a large amount of poetry by the gifted Fr Antonius, poetry that expressed deep love of solitude, and the rich peace he found in the desert.
In 1962, Pope Kyrillos VI consecrated Fr Antonius Bishop of Christian Education and dean of the Seminary under the name Anba Shenouda, after 4th century St Shenouda the Archmandrite who was a strong, avid scholar. Anba Shenouda lived up to his namesake, and through his weekly prayer meetings—attended by no less than some 7000 every Wednesday—as Bishop and later as Pope he carved for himself an indelible imprint as a Christian teacher. He was a prolific writer, and has to his credit more than 100 books; most of which were translated into English, French, and German. He wrote a weekly Bible study for Watani, which went on almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.
Women and youth
On 14 November 1971, Bishop Shenouda became Pope Shenouda III, the 117th patriarch of the Coptic Church. Under his papacy, the Coptic Church saw a huge revival. To serve the growing congregation inside and outside Egypt, he ordained more than 600 priests and consecrated some 80 bishops. Coptic dioceses and churches were established all over the world: in Africa and Asia, Australia, North and South America, Europe, and New Zealand. Today there are some 180 Coptic churches outside Egypt, and nine monasteries.
Under Pope Shenouda, women and youth came to have special places in the Church. A Youth Bishopric was established, presided upon by Anba Moussa who is widely loved by the young—and old. “A church without youth is a church without future,” the Pope used to say.
As to women, and according to a biography of Pope Shenouda written by Fr Mikhail E. Mikhail of St Mark’s, Cleveland, Ohio; the Pope’s idea was that: “We felt a great need of the work of women and we wanted women to have a certain order and service in the church, not only as Sunday School teachers.”
Pope Shenouda was deeply committed to Christian unity. In an address he gave at an ecumenical forum during the International Week of Prayer in 1974, he said, “The entire Christian world is anxious to see the Church unite. Christians, fed up with divisions, are pushing their Church leaders to do something about Church unity, and I am sure that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us.”
In 1973, Pope Shenouda was the first Coptic Orthodox pope to visit the Vatican in over 1,500 years. He signed a common declaration with Pope Paul VI on Christology and agreed to establish joint commissions for dialogue on unity. He also visited Churches—Orthodox and non-Orthodox—worldwide, and engaged in dialogue with various Protestant Churches.
Pope Shenouda was famous for his legendary sense of humour. He was able, through a good laugh, to break the ice with the young and old. Children especially were close to his heart; he interacted with them on a one-to-one basis with understanding, wit and humour; and they reciprocated his love for them.
Perhaps most outstanding in Pope Shenouda III’s papacy was his persistence in spending three days every week at the desert monastery. His stature as pope never could make him forget that he was, first and foremost, a desert monk who had by choice given up everything for the privilege of being close to his Creator and Saviour. There can be no doubt that this must have been the source of love, wisdom, and strength in his life.
17 March 2013