ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


The Coptic Catholic Church

Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, a derivative of the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They received the Gospel from St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought the faith to the city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world. There, he died a martyr’s death around the year 67.

The evangelist extended his apostolic activity beyond the city’s prosperous Jewish community. He called for the city’s Copts and Greeks to adopt “the way,” the early Christian description for discipleship in Jesus Christ.

Mark sowed the Christian seed on fertile ground. Centuries before the Arab advent in the eastern Mediterranean, and with it the rise of Islam, Egyptian Christianity blossomed. It provided the church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for its explosive expansion in the Greco-Roman world, introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the universal church with some of its greatest saints and scholars, including Pantaenus, Clement, Origen, Anthony, Macarius, Didymus, Athanasius, Arius, Cyril and Dioscorus.

The Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80.3 million, the Copts belong to three groups. The majority belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church. This church developed independently, breaking communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople, after the Council of Chalcedon (451) attempted to solve the Christological clashes of the early church. Despite centuries of relative isolation and on-again off-again discrimination or persecution, the Coptic Orthodox Church is experiencing a revival.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European and North American missionaries — Catholic and reformed — competed for influence among the Orthodox Copts, especially after their evangelical efforts among Muslims failed. The goals of these missionaries — to educate the largely illiterate laity, bolster the formation of the clergy and work for the reunion of the churches — were well intended. But their efforts splintered the Coptic Orthodox Church, eventually forming Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical communities.

For several reasons, including immigration and the accrual of more accurate statistics, the accounting of Catholic Copts has fluctuated recently. According to the 2007 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the annual yearbook of the Holy See, there are 161,327 Coptic Catholics in seven eparchies in Egypt, down from 265,500 in 2006. Today, these Catholics are led by the former bishop of Minya, Antonios Naguib, who was elected patriarch in March 2006.

Catholic missionary activities. The ascent of Latin Catholic Europe, coupled with the advance of Islam and the decline of Eastern Christian Byzantium, hardened the divorce between the Latin West and the Christian East. Efforts to restore the full unity of the church took place in councils in Lyon in 1274 and Florence in 1439. But these efforts failed: The papacy typically offered economic and political support as the reward for reunion, support welcomed by beleaguered monarchs and hierarchs, but largely rejected by the rank and file.

A formal union between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches took place under the octagonal dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence on 4 February 1442. The act was rejected in Egypt, however, particularly among the monks, who wielded tremendous power and influence among the Coptic Orthodox people.

Ironically, the failure of these reunion efforts influenced the development of a Catholic ecclesiology that “vigorously emphasized the necessity of the direct jurisdiction of the pope over all the local churches,” wrote Paulist Father Ronald Roberson in The Eastern Christian Churches.

“This implied,” he continued, “that churches not under the pope’s jurisdiction could be considered objects of missionary activity for the purpose of bringing them into communion with the Catholic Church.”

Those groups of Eastern Christians who accepted union with Rome were thus absorbed into the Catholic Church, but grouped by “rite,” enabling them to maintain their liturgical traditions, canonical disciplines and privileges.

The Franciscans had long established a presence in Egypt, but Catholic pastoral activity commenced in earnest with the foundation of a Capuchin mission in Cairo in 1630. With the support of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, Capuchin friars preached in Coptic parishes and monasteries. In 1675, priests of the Society of Jesus established a house in Cairo and initiated theological exchanges with Coptic scholars. These exchanges ended the church’s isolation and encouraged warmer relations with Catholics.

An 18th-century Coptic bishop of Jerusalem, Amba Athanasius, pledged fidelity to the bishop of Rome and abjured the “heresies” of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Accordingly, in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV appointed him apostolic vicar for those few Copts who had entered the Catholic Church. A line of apostolic vicars succeeded Athanasius — who eventually returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church — but the community remained small and poor. Most Catholic Copts were fellahin, illiterate peasants who tilled the soil along the Nile River in Upper Egypt. A minority included families of peasant origin in Cairo’s Faggalah quarter. All worshiped in modest Latin churches lent by the Franciscans.

A hierarchy is constituted. The Holy See erected a Coptic Catholic patriarchate in 1829, but it remained inoperative; a Coptic Catholic aide to Muhammad Ali, the “father of modern Egypt,” led the Holy See to believe Ali wished for its creation.

Five years later, Ali permitted Coptic Catholics to build their own churches, but the community lacked the financial and personnel resources to undertake any projects. Consequently, they languished.

In 1893, the Franciscans gave the Catholic Copts 10 churches for their exclusive use. Pope Leo XIII grouped these churches into three eparchies, appointing a bishop, Amba Cyril Makarios, as administrator.

Leo XIII reestablished the patriarchate and in 1899 appointed Amba Cyril as patriarch, who assumed the name and title “Cyril II of Alexandria of the Copts.”

Before his patriarchal appointment, Amba Cyril had presided over a Coptic Catholic synod, which introduced a number of Latin practices, including an abbreviated Divine Liturgy, akin to the Tridentine low Mass, and devotions such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Stations of the Cross.

These Latinizations sparked controversy among the tiny community, which then numbered some 5,000 people (as opposed to the Coptic Orthodox, who included more than a million people). In 1908, the Holy See asked the patriarch to resign and the Coptic Catholic patriarchal office remained vacant until the appointment of Amba Marcos Khuzam as patriarch in 1947.

Modern church. The Coptic Catholic Church grew considerably after Vatican II, ironically at the expense of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Much of this growth may be attributed to the Catholic (Copt and Latin) administration of schools (more than 100 parishes sponsor primary and secondary schools), orphanages, clinics and medical dispensaries in some of the poorest and remotest villages of the Nile Valley, which remains the center of Coptic Catholic life.

Vatican II’s call for the Eastern Catholic churches to restore their faith and traditions, reinforced by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 apostolic letter, “Orientale Lumen,” has made some impact on the Coptic Catholic Church. Some of the Latinizations of 1898 have been reversed: Icon screens have been restored, the Divine Liturgy has been renewed and the administration of sacraments according to Coptic rites has been revived. But there are no Coptic Catholic monasteries as found in the Coptic Orthodox monastic tradition, which is largely responsible for the Coptic Orthodox renaissance. There are, however, four Coptic Catholic religious communities modeled on Latin Catholic orders.

While the number of Coptic Orthodox entering the Coptic Catholic Church has declined, ecumenical relations between the two are frosty. But as Egypt’s Islamic radicals step up their attacks on all Copts — forcing many to emigrate — their commonalities may banish what has divided them.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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