In truth, one must own that it was arduous work following up on the visit by Pope Tawadros II to the US. Every day was packed with consecrating churches, baptizing babies, speaking to congregations and clergy, exchanging gifts, and meeting officials. One could not help wondering how come the Pope does not slow down. But it was obvious the blessed work was buoyed by heavenly support.
“Egypt greets you”
Pope Tawadros II arrived at JFK Airport in New York on 14 September 2018 for a pastoral visit to the United States and Canada. The visit is expected to span four or five weeks. At hand to receive him were Egypt’s Ambassador to the US, Yasser Reda; Egypt’s Consul-General in New York Hisham al-Naqib; and high-ranking Egyptian officials in New York; also Anba Serapion, Metropolitan of Los Angeles and Southern California; Anba Missael, Bishop of Birmingham in UK; Bishop-General of US Anba Macarius the Eritrean; and a large number of members of the clergy.
Accompanying Pope Tawadros from Cairo were Anba Dumadius, Bishop of 6 October City and Ousseem; Anba Marcos General-Bishop of the Churches of Hadayeq al-Qubba and Waily; Fr Angaelos Ishaq and Fr Ammonius Adel, secretaries to the Pope; as well as Anba David, Bishop of New York.
The Pope was warmly heralded into the papal headquarters in New Jersey by a deacon procession chanting Coptic praises and carrying palm fronds symbolising peace and joy. He presided over Vesper service to a large Coptic congregation.
As he later met the clergy, the Pope greeted them with a smiling “Egypt greets you with peace”. He spoke of the great success of the first Coptic World Youth Week held in Egypt from 25 August to 2 September with participation of 200 young Copts from 30 countries across the world.
“The goal of this visit,” Pope Tawadros said, “is to draw the features of Coptic Church service here. I wish it would be fruitful and in fullness of spirit. Don’t ever forget that you are here on a God-given mission.
“Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Church during 1971 – 2012, was the first Coptic pope to visit here. He set the basis for a thriving ministry.”
“Be honest and faithful”
In New York, Pope Tawadros started off with consecrating the church of St Helena and St Anna-Simone in Flushing, and the baptistery named after St John the Baptist. He presided over Mass, his sermon focusing on the verse from St Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He warned that hypocrisy was a spiritual illness that might hit anyone: monk, priest, minister or servant, or layman.
“My beloved sons and daughters,” Pope Tawadros said, “as we embark on the new Coptic year 1735 which began 1 Tut, 11 September, please be wary of hypocrisy; don’t allow yourselves to be double-faced; be honest and faithful in all you do.”
The Pope assured the congregation that Egypt has come a long way since the hard times [of the Arab Spring turmoil and its aftermath Islamist rule]. Now Egypt, he said, is a secular State that is secure, safe, and looking up despite the negative image propagated by western media. Egypt, he said, is marching in firm footsteps towards a bright future.
“Do not forget,” Pope Tawadros said, “that Egypt is a Third World country, meaning that it works on a tight budget. But there is always a sincere will to overcome problems.”
The Pope spoke of the World Youth Week and the young Copts from outside Egypt who came to visit their roots. They saw for themselves, the Pope said, that Egypt was well and moving forward.
“May God bless your every move,” he concluded, “your service and your lives, with Anba David and the wide service this Coptic diocese of New York and New England offers, especially to second and third generation Copts.”
As Pope Tawadros moved on to Massachusetts, its Governor Charles Baker issued a document of welcome to the Pope. Another welcome document was issued by Paul Heroux, Mayor of Attleboro in Massachusetts.
In Attleboro, the Pope consecrated a new church in the name of the Holy Family, anointing three altars named after Anba Antonius, Anba Shenouda, and St Marina, as well as the icons in the church. He baptised seven babies.
The Pope again talked of the Coptic New Year, focusing on the verse: “Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is,” (Ephesians 5:15-17) the Pope concluded.
The Pope paid a visit to the church of Abu-Seifein and Mar-Mina in Wayland, Massachusetts, then headed to St Mark’s in Boston, the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in Massachusetts. He also visited the church of St Mary and Archangel Michael in Hampden, where he spoke of ‘Brotherly Love’, referring to the verse in 1 John 3:14 “He who does not love his brother abides in death.”
In a loving gesture of a father and pastor, the Pope visited the family of the late Maged Riyad al-Derdiry, lawyer and counsellor to Pope Shenouda III, in their house in New Jersey. He talked to the family members about Mr Derdiry and his contributions to the Church and Egypt; and playfully engaged with the children.
He presented the family with an icon of the Holy Virgin, and took photos with them.
Pope Tawadros also made a point of taking photos with the New York security guards who accompanied him, in an appreciation of their efforts.
While at the church of Abu-Seifein and Mar-Mina in Wayland, Massachusetts, the Pope held a meeting with the priests and the council of New England churches. “I am so happy to witness your service thriving,” he said.
“The first Coptic churches outside Egypt were established in Kuwait in 1962, in Canada in 1968, in the US in 1969, and in England in 1971.”
The Pope referred to the Bile verse in Nehemiah 2:20, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build…” The most important word in this verse, he said, is ‘we’, because it points at teamwork. “As long as we stand together,” he said, “we can surely succeed”. He recalled Pope Shenouda’s words that whenever intentions are sincere, the Lord grants the ability.
At St Mark’s in Natick, Massachusetts, the Pope opened a new building to be used for Sunday School. A celebration was held during which Pope Tawadros honoured Fr Moussa al-Gohary, pastor of the church of St Mark in Boston, and a number of prominent figures in the Coptic Church in New England.
A presentation was made of a future plan for Sunday School service, and a vision for a centre for New England churches.
Before closing, the pope spoke on how to live in holiness, joy and success. He quoted the Psalm: “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labour of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table.” (Psalm 128)
Keys of Cranston city
In Rhode Island Pope Tawadros consecrated the church of St Mary and St Mina. Its altars were named after St Mary and Mar-Mina; the Archangel Michael; Mar-Girgis (St George) and all saints; St Mary and St Joseph; and Pope Kyrillos VI who was patriarch during 1959 – 1971. The Pope also anointed the icons of the church and its baptistery. He explained to the congregation the consecration ceremony which, he said, “changes an ordinary building into a House of God. This change takes place through fervent prayers, the Grace of God and the Holy Spirit. Many symbolic actions take place such as the three processions around the church, the placing and sealing of the holy relics in the altar table, the washing and anointing of the altar table, the placing of the new altar coverings and other holy articles on the holy table and the lighting of the vigil light.
Pope Tawadros spoke of the day coinciding with the first Sunday in the new Coptic year. The scriptures focused on three main principles, he said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”, “Watch out for the sin of self-justification”, and “Always pray and ask God to give you wisdom”.
After the consecration ceremony, the Pope baptised a number of babies. “As long as you raise your children in church and Sunday School,” he said, “your sons and daughters will be always surrounded by the angels. The church is the safe haven where our children are protected.”
In Cranston, Rhode Island, the Mayor Allan Fung handed Pope Tawadros the key of the city. The Pope, in turn, presented the Mayor a Coptic icon.
Unifying feast days
Pope Tawadros moved on to Buffalo, New York, where he consecrated the fourth church during his visit: St Mary and St Moses the Black, also known as St Moses the Powerful, in North Tonawanda. He promoted its pastor, Fr Mark Iskandar to Hegumen.
After Mass, Pope Tawadros met Mayor of North Tonawanda, Arthur G. Pappas; and City Judge Shawn Nickerson and presented them with gifts of Coptic icons of the Holy Family in Egypt, and the Holy Virgin.
At St Mark’s in West Henrietta, Rochester, New York, Pope Tawadros prayed with the congregation and gave a spiritual word. He then answered their questions on various topics.
To a question on unifying the dates of Christmas and Easter among the various questions, the Pope replied that he had made a proposal to various Catholic and Orthodox Churches to unify the date of the Feast of the Resurrection to be the third Sunday in April. The proposal, he said, is under study. Some suggested that the date should be the second Sunday instead of the third, but no decision has yet been taken, he said.
As for Christmas which is celebrated in the West on 25 December and in Egypt on 7 January, the Pope said that there is no agreement among members of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod on changing its date in Egypt. “In all cases, let us pray for that matter,” the Pope said.
On President Sisi…and Minya
On the political front, a question was posed to Pope Tawadros on whether his current visit to the US was made at this particular timing to set the stage for President Sisi’s expected visit to New York in the near future. The Pope answered: “President Sisi made a similar visit last year, was I here to set the stage for it? The date for my visit was set almost a year ago when I should have come then but my health prevented me. The visit was thus postponed to this year; how could it then have anything to do with President Sisi’s upcoming visit? Please do not believe whatever is posted on social media!”
“What exactly is happening [to the Copts] in Minya?” the congregation asked.
“Egypt includes 27 governorates and some 6000 villages,” the Pope said. “When problems persist in one governorate, in a few villages there, it does not indicate a phenomenon.
“Minya,” he said, “is a region with its own particularities that make it liable to the occurrence of specific problems. It is widespread and incudes large Muslim and Christian populations. It is in dire need for development on the economic, cultural, and societal levels.
“We are in constant contact with Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya, and we spare no effort in attempting to resolve problems there. We have good relations with the authorities who are very cooperative. But the problems are not easy.
“Some problems are solved through prayer, others through negotiations, patience, or in time. Never can violence or wrath resolve anything. We do our very best, exercising wisdom. Please be confident of that.”