“The family is the icon of the Church” is a famous quote frequently used by Pope Tawadros II. “It is a quote by St John Chrysostom (347 – 407),” he explains, and denotes the family as an icon, the crowning beauty of a church.
“A family founded on the teachings of the Bible,” the Pope says, “creates a healthy, robust generation physically, psychologically, socially, morally, and mentally. The family is the first and main source of understanding life.”
House on the rock
On 31 July 2020, Pope Tawadros II was guest of the 100th episode of “House on the Rock”, a talk show on the Christian TV channel CTV. The show handles family problems from a Christian viewpoint, aiming at: “Founding strong Christian households built on the rock”.
“Because it is a very special episode, we wished to make it a remarkable one,” Nancy Magdy, the talk show hostess, said. “What better than to have our shepherd and father, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, talk to us about concerns of the Christian family? The Pope graciously agreed to host us at the papal headquarter at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo. For this we are truly grateful.”
What did God intend?
Many persons get married because, by tradition, it appears the right thing to do. “But what was God’s purpose in instituting marriage?” Ms Magdy asked.
“God’s words to Adam and Eve were: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28),” Pope Tawadros said. “That has been ‘from generation to generation’. It is the basis of the family institution; not only the direct family, but also the extended family. A baby is born to parents and siblings who love it; also to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who form a family wrapped in love. In various places on earth, families extend into clans and tribes whose members staunchly support one another. Love is born and thrives in the family. Without family love we end up with a ‘dry’ generation with no warmth. The Bible says: ‘A satisfied soul loathes the honeycomb, but to a hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet’, (Proverbs 27:7).”
If a family is devoid of love, the Pope said, its children suffer all sorts of problems, such as depression, psychological disorders, addiction, corruption, or others.
Love in their hearts
So what should be the foundation for marriage, the basis upon which a Christian family should be built?
“A Christian marriage is a union between a man and woman qualified to form a family; not merely that, but it is a union between two families. Most important, it is a union in which God is a third party to the marriage, a triple bond between a man, woman, and God’s eternal presence.”
Pope Tawadros said that young men and women should not qualify for marriage simply because they are of marriage age, nor should they look for a partner using a single vision that focuses on beauty or wealth or any such transient element; all these do not make a person qualified to be a partner in a Christian marriage that binds one man and one woman for life. They should both have the love and fear of God in their hearts, have true and constant love for each other, and have the purity of soul that makes their bond a lifelong faithful one. To be sure, other practical elements such as social or money considerations weigh in, but should never gain precedence over the main Christian fundamentals.
Matter of upbringing
Men and women brought up in families built on love of God and love of parents for each other produce children who grow up to be good husbands and good wives, Pope Tawadros said. “It’s a matter of upbringing. Children who grow up to see father and mother respect and love each other will inevitably do so with their partners once they have their own families. It’s what they knew and saw in their childhood and youth.
“I know a young man who got married to a beautiful young woman from a good family. They had two children together, then she had an accident that left her bed bound. For some 20 years, her husband lovingly took care of all her needs, and of their children. That was because it was the way he was brought up in a family that put love first. It’s the ‘experience of love’, just as Jesus Christ loved us, came to earth and was crucified for us; He made the ultimate sacrifice for us.”
Pope Tawadros talked of the utmost importance of loving affection between couples before they take the decision to marry. He lamented the fact that relationships appear to have grown dependent on online contact and expression so much that ‘feelings’ have lost some of the strength and warmth generated by direct contact. “Human feelings are expressed through eye contact, body language, response to specific situations, and so on.” This makes direct contact prerequisite for any relation to flourish.” As to getting married basing on a relationship through mobile phone or Facebook, there can be no good chance it would work.”
Ms Magdy asked the Pope if this also applied to young men who work outside Egypt but marry women from back home, their engagement period spent online.
“The Bible says in Matthew 26:73: ‘… Your speech betrays you’. And Greek philosophy says: ‘Speak, so that I may see you’,” Pope Tawadros said. “There must be real conversation between an engaged couple for true feelings to find expression and to flourish. I believe an engagement period should be no less than six months of face-to-face contact, not remotely, because it is a process of building a relationship.”
Five phases, in order
“A union goes through five phases: the mental, sentimental, social, spiritual, and finally physical union. This is the rational order to build a family upon the rock.” Here Ms Magdy asked: “Can’t this order be shuffled or reversed?” To which the Pope replied: “Oh no, no, no! Any disorder in these steps would lead to confusion.” An engagement period is a time to understand each other, to agree and disagree, he said. Disagreements are constructive, he said; they might bring more understanding or, in some cases, they might lead to relinquishing the marriage project entirely.
“Sometimes,” Ms Magdy said, “a young couple may insist on getting married in the face of strong opposition from their parents. Would it be right for them to go ahead, or should they refrain?” Pope Tawadros commented that this was a very difficult question since it involved many variables. “In general,” he said, “it depends on the maturity of the man and woman involved; especially that of the bride-to-be. If she is a mature young woman, I can tell you that they may go ahead with the marriage; it’ll work well.”
Ms Magdy made the remark that there is a common perception these days that marriage is not what it used to be, that wives and husbands can no longer carry the load their parents or grandparents carried to make family life thrive. With a smile the Pope said that probably that was what previous generations also said when comparing themselves to younger generations. The current generation, he said, is overwhelmed with modern-day demands and responsibilities, but it is very important to give love, care and time to children. “But I’d like to say that not all is dark; many young couples form lovely families and bring up wonderful children. They are happy, and it makes us very happy to see them so.”
Head .. and heart of the family
How about ‘authority’ in the family? The Bible verse says: “For the husband is head of the wife,” (Ephesians 5:23). “This verse is used by many men to justify their despotic attitude towards their wives and children,” Ms Magdy said.
“They do not read the verse to the end,” Pope Tawadros said. “The verse proceeds: ‘as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body.’ St Paul the Apostle uses the analogy of Christ and the Church to stress that in marriage there is no dominion; only wise, loving care and protection … We could say that if the man is the head, the woman is the body, the heart of the family, its backbone.
“We see cases where the man, the head of the family, physically abuses his wife. Such behaviour causes us so much pain, because it is so absolutely removed from Christian teachings. This behaviour that relinquishes Christian culture and borrows principles of other cultures; this in itself is a sin. Let me tell the men who do so that this deprives them of the blessings of God and places them under His retribution.”
Unified Family Law for Christians
Christians in Egypt have long been waiting for a family law that would apply to all the various Christian sects in Egypt, major among them is the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. So far, there have been bylaws that govern Coptic Orthodox families but, if the parties to any dispute are of different sects, and in the absence of a unified law for all, courts would resort to applying Islamic sharia. Hence the dire need for a unified family law that would apply to all Christians in Egypt.
According to Pope Tawadros, the process of drafting that law took some five years. ”It was an arduous process,” he said. “The Coptic Orthodox Church leadership is based in Egypt, whereas the Catholic Church’s is in the Vatican, so we had to wait for their approval on every point. This took time. Finally, we decided on a separate chapter in the law to apply to Catholics since their Church does not recognise divorce.
“On another hand, our Synod took much time and discussion to decide on and meticulously phrase the resolution of various family problems, according to the teachings of the Bible.
“Now the draft law has been finalised and handed to the Ministry of Justice which should in turn place it before parliament to pass into law.
Breaking up a marriage
The unified law answers the needs and predicaments of modern-day Christian families, Pope Tawadros said.
“Among the most frequent and thorny problems are those concerned with divorce, breakup, or marriage annulment. We based the articles of the new law on the Bible verse: ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ Ephesians 5:31). ‘So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Matthew 19:6). The words ‘What God has …’ mean that the decision is according to God’s teaching not to human desire. ‘Be joined to his wife’ means that the marriage is between a mature man and a mature woman. ‘Become one’ is the condition of maintaining a Christian marriage. If a partner chooses to be far from [not one with] the other, the pledge and condition has been breached; where is the marriage then?”
The new law, the Pope explained, has tackled the causes of breach of marriage, which lead to divorce. Among them is adultery which has always been very difficult to actually prove, so proof of it has been expanded to include virtual or written content, or photographs for instance. Desertion has also been cited as grounds for divorce. A marriage is annulled in cases where the union was based on any sort of deception.
In all cases, however, Pope Tawadros said, the Church has to tackle each case on its own. “That is why” he said, “we expanded in number and outreach the Clerical Councils; the councils studying marriage disputes and issuing judgement on them. We now have councils in Cairo, Alexandria, the Delta, and Upper Egypt; and in the USA, Europe, and Australia. A council comprises five members: a bishop, two priests, a lawyer and a doctor.
Inheritance is another issue which the Unified Family Law for Christians in Egypt tackled. Currently, if the parties to a dispute over inheritance do not belong to the same Christian sect or belong to one not governed by a law specific to it, the court rules according to Islamic sharia, granting a man double the share of a woman. “No such principle exists in Christianity,” Pope Tawadros said. “The Bible says in Galatians 3:28 ‘…there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Basing upon this principle, the new law stipulates equal inheritance shares for men and women. This decision was unanimous.”
No one can argue with the principle that prevention is better than cure. With this in mind, the Pope talked of the family counselling now provided by the Church with the aim of helping families thrive, override rough patches, and treat problems before they run out of control. Famously labelled Mashoura, literal for ‘counselling’, the Church ministry now serves married couples as well as those contemplating marriage who are now required to attend these courses as a prerequisite for marriage. The Pope said that these courses have borne good fruit; in some cases couples engaged to be married even decided after attending the course that their marriage would probably not work, so they ended their relationship.
Finally, what advice did the Pope have for engaged couples, newly married couples, or those married for a long time?
“To those engaged to get married, I say: you have taken the initial step on a significant path. Pray together.
“To those recently married: Be patient, base your life on love, the art of making the other happy. Be sure that Christ is in your homes so they would become ‘houses of prayer, houses of purity, houses of blessings’ as we pray in the litanies.
“To those long married: Renew your union.
“And to all: Remember, ‘family’ is a word of six letters that I say stand for: Father And Mother I Love You. The word is the epitome and depth of love.”
5 August 2020