Pope Shenouda (87), head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is a busy man. For 39 years he has presided over the spiritual – and often political – affairs of Egypt’s Christians, having become pope in 1971. Underneath him are over 100 bishops who administrate local and international dioceses as well as specific programs and activities of the church. He spends [in theory] three days a week in Alexandria, the seat of the historic papal see, three days in Cairo, the center of church governance, and one day in the Monastery of St. Bishoy in the desert of Wadi Natroun, for isolation and prayer, though in practice it is sometimes more. Yet each week he takes one evening – Wednesday at 6pm – to be with the people, answer their questions, and deliver a short homily. This past Wednesday we at Arab West Report had the privilege of attendance.
St. Mark’s Cathedral is located in downtown Cairo and is the central church building for the Orthodox of Egypt. It can accommodate several thousand worshipers and was filled to near capacity during our visit. We arrived about one hour early and slipped into the throng which was bottle-necking at the metal detector. Two weeks earlier al-Qaeda in Iraq issued threats against the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and security has been vigilant since then. Entrance was granted only upon presentation of the national identity card with the marking of ‘Christian’ for the religion field, or else the tattoo of a cross on one’s hand. Once inside, however, the masses organized themselves into an orderly line, stretching from the door of the church, out into the courtyard, around the bend and across the top of the stairs, and then down into the parking lot.
Having neither the identity card nor the tattooed cross, our substituted foreign passports afforded us special privilege. We were advanced to the front of the line, were ushered through a second metal detector, and brought to the very first pew, replete with listening devices for translation.
The evening began with the chanting of a choir. Each week a church is selected to supply this ancient Coptic art during the meeting; representation today was from Akhmim, nearly 300 miles to the south of Cairo. About thirty young men and women dressed in purple presented praise to God and prayers for Pope Shenouda. After about an hour of intermittent performance, they moved in procession past the pope, who greeted them individually.
The evening’s events are televised regularly on two Coptic channels – CTV, affiliated with the church and founded by Christian businessman Tharwat Basily, and Aghabi (the Coptic word for ‘love’), owned by Bishop Botros. You can watch online, if desired, at www.ctvchannel.tv. The station honors the pope with the title ‘the teacher of generations’. Certainly in this generation the title is appropriate, as Pope Shenouda, though 87 years old, enjoys rock star status among many Coptic Christians. Egged on by the mounted extension cameras operated by the networks as they scanned the audience, those in attendance would stand, cheer, and wave pictures of the pope above their heads. The scene resembled a professional sporting event more than a religious gathering.
As the pope prepared to speak, however, all were quiet. During the choir performance the pope was handed small slips of paper from the audience, and he read them over as they sang. Over the next hour and a half he read personal questions and gave answers as his wisdom dictated. The pope is known for his sharp wit and sense of humor; though most of the time we failed in translation to appreciate the joke, the audience chuckled regularly.
Pope Shenouda selected a wide range of questions, perhaps forty in all. Some were theological. Question: What will happen to the bodies of those saints who were translated directly into heaven? Answer: They will appear in the last days, be killed, and then rise again in the resurrection.
Question: My priest said that if a man repents of his sin there will be no punishment for it, is he correct? Answer: If a priest says there is no punishment, he himself should be punished. There is forgiveness for sin, but there are also consequences.
Some were political / ecclesiastical.
Question: I read in the paper that the trial of so-and-so had taken place and he was found guilty, is this correct?
Answer: You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers (this line generated the greatest applause throughout the night).
Question: My priest says that there are two tithes that must be paid, is this correct?
Answer: No, there is only one tithe, but additional offerings are welcome and blessed by God, but voluntary. Furthermore, priests and bishops also have to pay the tithe, as they are not exempt and should serve as your models (this line generated the second greatest applause throughout the night).
Some were personal.
Question: My brother asked me to quit my job and work with him, but once I did so he failed to pay me my share of the money; what should be done?
Answer: Your brother should pay you the money.
Question: It is very difficult for my mother in Upper Egypt to take care of housework, especially now that her washing machine has broken; what can be done?
Answer: We can buy her a new washing machine, but she should take better care of it than she did the old one.
Eventually, the pope set the papers aside. There was a short break, but then he began his closing meditation. Entitled ‘Its end will come’, he spoke of how our problems in this world may be troubling, but that as our faith tells us God will eventually put everything right, we can endure with patience. He laced his message with several stories taken from the Bible and church history, including Job, David, and Athanasius facing multiple exiles during the Arian controversy.
The end was abrupt. The pope delivered his closing sentence, stood, and was ushered away – slowly, of course, as is appropriate for an 87 year old man. The bishops filtered out in turn, and many in the audience also stood to leave. An official of some nature rose and gave the closing benediction, but few were paying attention. Pope Shenouda had left the building.
Now, the audience faced the same challenge. Several thousand people cannot leave an area quickly. They all filed out into the parking lot, moving like sand in an hourglass trying to pass through the main gate back out into the Cairo streets. A small group of ten to twenty stood on the steps of the building adjacent to the church and chanted for Pope Shenouda, as if they wanted an encore (they received none). Eventually, we found our way out the gate as well, and proceeded home, thankful for the experience, but somewhat out of sorts with what took place.
There is always much to learn, and as foreigners, we must remember it takes us longer than normal to do so here. I was raised in a low church tradition, without religious hierarchy. I know the celebrity certain pastors in the United States have attained, but this surpassed them all. I cannot recall that even the Catholic pope has been so openly adored. Pope John Paul II had the admiration of many, but this level of affection was more akin to that given to Michael Jordan in the NBA.
Furthermore, I cannot say that I was won over by his ‘performance’. The pope’s answers did not seem especially profound, and the homily was simply a listing of stories rather than a deep theological treatise or affecting discourse. Most likely I am yet insufficient in appreciating Coptic spirituality; perhaps it was simply an off night. After all, on occasion even Michael Jordan shot 6 for 19 from the field, but was still applauded wildly. Pope Shenouda has authored over 100 books; his theological and spiritual stature should not be questioned.
Even so, an explanation for the wild approbation may be found in similarity to the aforementioned saint in Pope Shenouda’s message. Athanasius was the 20th pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Shenouda is the 117th), but was much more than that. At a time in which Egypt was feeling imperial pressures from Constantinople, the largely Christian population of Egypt found in him a rallying point and embodiment of national sentiment. Arianism as a heresy doubted the divine nature of Christ, but political maneuverings in the post-Constantine Roman Empire raised the question of who was responsible for local ecclesiastical affairs. Athanasius was the people’s choice – defending orthodoxy made him a saint; defending his flock made him a hero.
Many Coptic Orthodox Christians today applaud Pope Shenouda in a similar manner, even though they are now a minority, and his cause is not the nation. Rather, the pope speaks of himself as ‘the father of his children’, and he is looked to as the defender of Christian interests. Religious identity is on the rise among many Egyptians in both Christianity and Islam, which can almost be explained as a near-nationalism. Very few Egyptians, in fact, speak of a sense of pride in their country. It has been replaced, rightly or wrongly, with religious sentiment.
Pope Shenouda therefore, is at the crest of this sentiment. As many Christians believe their community to be beleaguered by Muslims and government alike, they look to the pope as the one figure who can represent them. Copts have little widely regarded secular leadership; only the pope can fill this role.
During his weekly meeting Pope Shenouda did not appear to pay much attention to his applause. On occasion he waved his hand to quiet them down. Another time he announced that people should descend from the scaffolding (as Zacchaeus with Jesus) so as to avoid injury. Most of the time, he had a wry smile on his face, but never seemed to revel in the moment. At the same time, he did little to stop it, and I had the impression that this happens every week.
Similarly, I am still too inexperienced to know Pope Shenouda’s attitude toward his leadership of the Christian community. Does he know the reality and shoulder the burden? Has he sought this position and defended his territory? As noted, he lays claim to being the spiritual father for his children, but does this go beyond their Christian faith into their public lives?
Good analysis can try to untangle these questions; much analysis has attempted it already. For now I am content in the ambiguity of the question, but being content does not mean being at ease. With Pope Shenouda as with the weekly meeting, there is much to appreciate, but there is a lingering unsettledness. Surely this is natural, as no Christian life is perfect. Yet for the Copts of Egypt, finding that note of serene balance is essential in navigating the challenges before them. May God guide them, and with them all of Egypt.