It was the first day of June; Copts were still living the fifty days of rejoicing that follow the Feast of the Resurrection and extend till the Feast of the Pentecost when I headed to the papal headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, to meet Pope Tawadros II. I had applied all the precautions necessary against COVID-19, reminding myself that the talk with the Pope would in all likelihood revolve around the pandemic on account of which we all suffer. Our churches are closed; services are suspended; the Chrism rite was postponed; the Holy Synod meeting has been adjourned; the consecration of direly-needed new bishops has been put off; and the World Youth Week has been cancelled. To say nothing of the long home confinement, and ongoing distancing from loved ones. With a heavy heart, I recalled the full list of coronavirus-related disruptions.
Pope Tawadros received me joyfully with the Resurrection greeting “Christos Anesti” to which I replied “Alithos Anesti”. The heavy heartedness quickly disappeared to give way to a cheerful mood. I put my rather bitter, pessimistic queries to him, only to hear peaceful, pleasant replies filled with hope. I was directly reminded of the Bible verse he had used with the first decision to apply coronavirus restrictions in churches: “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer” (Rom 12:12).
I began with a question that begged an answer: “How does Your Holiness see the COVID-19 pandemic?”
“We always thank God for everything, under every condition, and for everything that may come. We believe He is the Pantocrator who controls all. When He allowed the pandemic to occur, I believe it was an alarm call to wake up the human race to its real size in the universe. Many men and women had grown vain on account of the power they derived from the spectacular intellectual and technological advancement achieved by the human race; they drifted away from God, embracing atheism, violence, and deviant behaviour. But these brought nothing but anxiety, frustration, and depression since they rendered creatures as though without Creator. Now, that ‘powerful’ human being has been defeated by a tiny minuscule virus. Men and women stand weak and powerless, all their inventions, technology, arms, violence, riches, or greatness of no use. Many have realised that only God can save them.
The Bible says: “Be very careful, then, how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15,16).
How did the Church respond to the threat of coronavirus?
“We have been closely following everything from the start, on the global and local levels,” Pope Tawadros said. “Our churches the world over complied with restrictions and regulations decreed by their host country authorities. Cautionary measures escalated until churches had to close their doors.
“Egypt was no exception when it came to the spread of COVID-19 and the escalation in restrictions. The Church had to act. This was the responsibility of the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod, a miniature Synod that takes action in emergencies. It is normally formed of 20 bishops; together with the Pope they form 21 members. Three of the bishops were not in Egypt since they serve parishes in Europe and the US, but they participated in the meeting through online applications.
“On 5 March, we decided to suspend all church activities and meetings, limiting the service to Mass with specific restrictions.
“On 21 March, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths had risen, and the government imposed more cautionary restrictions on civic activities. The Synod’s Standing Committee had to convene again, with an idea to close churches altogether. We knew we had to take an unprecedented decision in face of an unprecedented situation. What made the decision more difficult was that it was Lent, the most sacred time in the year, when large congregations attend Mass daily and engage in various spiritual activities in churches. A number of the committee members rejected the idea of closing churches, but others thought that, under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. Following a long debate, it was voted to close churches. It was a very difficult, painful decision, but we had to act to protect lives. Funeral services were allowed in specific churches, in attendance of a very limited number of persons.”
Allowing baptisms and weddings
“Two weeks later, the Synod’s Standing Committee reconvened and issued a decision that churches should remain closed during Holy Week and the Feast of the Resurrection. The ritual of preparing the Chrism, Holy Myron Oil, which is normally done right before Holy Week, was put off.
“The rituals and Masses of Holy Week and the Resurrection were televised live, and sermons, meetings, and various activities went online.
“The fifty days following the Feast of the Resurrection have always been a time favoured by Copts to hold church weddings, so the Committee decided on 30 April to allow matrimonial services, provided only six invitees attended.
“On 30 May, the Synod’s Standing Committee again convened. Baptisms were allowed in presence of only the immediate family of the child to be baptised. It was decided to maintain the closure of churches and suspension of prayers with the exception of two Masses which were each to be in presence of only six clergy and in absence of the congregation. These were the Mass of the Feast of Entry of the Holy Family in Egypt, on 1 June; and the Feast of the Pentecost on 7 June.
“Why was the Myron Oil preparation ritual postponed?” I enquired of Pope Tawadros, “even though the Church is now using a new process to prepare it, which saves tremendous time and effort?”
“True,” he said. “The traditional process involved the manual crushing, soaking, and mixing of 27 sweet spices and aromatic substances as mentioned in the Bible, then adding them to olive oil, heating to 70 degrees Celsius and stirring throughout a three-day period, leaving to cool and precipitate the Ghalilaon oil to separate it from the Myron oil, then pouring the oils into vessels to be distributed to Coptic Churches in Egypt and around the world. This process was arduous and took over a full week. When I was chosen by the Divine to be patriarch in 2012, we decided to use modern materials of spice extract that allowed us to prepare the Myron in just two days. The first time we did so was in 2014, the 38th time in the history of the Church. We prepared 600 kg of Chrism oil and 300kg of Ghalilaon oil. We repeated the process in 2017. But now that the Coptic Church has expanded the world over, and with the growing congregations and their needs, we are about to run out of Myron, and need to prepare a new batch. It was decided to prepare it in April 2020 but, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, we had to postpone it.
“The problem was not with the preparation in itself, but that the operation necessitated the presence of all the members of the Holy Synod to witness the ritual and sign the canon. The 2017 ritual was witnessed by 95 out of some 100 members of the Synod, in addition to a large number of clergy, monks and nuns, deacons and laypersons. This would have been an absolute impossibility under COVID-19 conditions. So we postponed the ritual [which must be performed before Holy Week, meaning it has been postponed for about a year]. In the meantime, we are rationalising the use of Chrism Oil which is mainly needed in baptisms and the consecration of new churches, altars, vessels, and icons.
No new bishops
“How about the Holy Synod meeting, Your Holiness,” I asked, “which is normally held some time during the period between Ascension Day and the Pentecost; why was it adjourned? Couldn’t it have been held online through an application such as Zoom for instance?”
“Let me explain that, for the Synod to meet, ten committees should have concluded their year-long tasks of studying issues, pastoral and ideological, of concern to the Church. Accordingly, they should have issued recommendations on them, after which these recommendations should have been forwarded to the secretariat-general of the Synod to place an agenda. As it is, the work of these committees was halted on account of COVID-19 restrictions, so not all their tasks were completed, and hence there could be no Synod meeting.
“The adjourned Synod meeting also led to postponement of the consecration or seating of new bishops direly needed by the Church. We were preparing to seat Anba Macarius as Bishop of Minya, and consecrating two new bishops for Minya which has been divided into three dioceses. We had also planned to install five new bishops in the Cairo parishes of Ain Shams and Ezbet al-Nakhl; as well as New Jersey in the US; and the monasteries of St Macarius and of Anba Bishoy, both in the Western Desert. Now, all this has to wait.
We live for one another
COVID-19, however, was not all about the hard times, but has led to many positive situations, Pope Tawadros said. “On the national level, we were able to make a contribution of EGP3 million, readily donated by our congregation, to the Tahya Masr (Long Live Egypt) fund to purchase ventilators for COVID-19 cases. We also had the sewing and embroidery ateliers in our parishes and convents temporarily discontinue their normal production in order to produce gowns for medical staff whose efforts with the sick we absolutely appreciate. We pray for the Lord to support and bless them.
“During these difficult times, we feel concern for poorer families and those who lost their livelihoods, or whose income has declined. It worries us that they may not be getting the sufficient nourishment needed to sustain their immune system to fight off the virus. The Church regularly distributes boxes of dry food to these families, in addition to financial support when needed. This may not be as much as we wish it could be, but it is what we can do as revenues and donations drop on account of the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“Last April, Emigration Minister Nabila Makram called me to ask if the Coptic Church could help a number of Egyptians stranded in Kenya, who could not fly home because air travel from and to Egypt had been suspended. I contacted our Bishop in Nairobi, Anba Boulos who has a strong, thriving service there, and asked for his help. Anba Boulos opened the doors of the Church in Nairobi to the stranded Egyptians, offering them accommodation and answering all their needs, until the Egyptian government was able to fly them back home.
Once they were out of quarantine, I was happy to receive a few representatives from among them, together with Ms Makram and Ashraf Sobhy, Minister of Youth and Sports. Among those stranded had been Egyptian players preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. It was a very pleasant visit; all I could say was the Egyptian folk saying: ‘We live for one another’.”
Communion with a common spoon
“Is there hope of opening churches any time soon?” I asked.
“I cannot confirm anything in this respect,” the Pope said. “It depends on the general health conditions in Egypt and the extended or declined spread of COVID-19.
“On a positive note, churches have taken the closure time to do necessary maintenance and sanitisation work to prepare for when they reopen. Most have prepared data bases of information on the congregation and community service, which will serve well when activities resume.”
Talking of reopening churches and resuming activity in the future reminded me of the controversy over the Coptic method of Communion using a shared spoon. “Is there any plan to change that, Your Holiness?” I asked.
“This matter never came under discussion by the Synod’s Standing Committee,” the Pope said. “Throughout history, the spoon has never been reported to carry disease. Yet, we give Communion to a sick person without using the spoon. The matter is not beyond discussion. Our Church is reasonable, and anything outside the faith and creed is open to discussion.”
On the spiritual front
“Most of all,” Pope Tawadros said, “the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions provided me with a wonderful opportunity to retreat to the monastery during Lent. I delivered a short daily spiritual message that was televised live, and will also do so during the coming days of the Apostles’ Fast which begins 8 June and extends to 12 July, the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. I plan to resume my weekly Wednesday sermon during the Fast of the Apostles. It will also be televised live.
“COVID-19 has led us to close churches, but it also gave birth to small churches in our homes, as family members learned to worship together from home. That is a great blessing.”
10 June 2020