VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Praising the ecumenical commitment of the late Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, Pope Benedict XVI offered his condolences to Orthodox Christians in Egypt on the death of their patriarch.
Pope Shenouda, who served as patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 41 years, died March 17 at the age of 88.
In a message released at the Vatican the next day, Pope Benedict said he wanted to express his condolences and “brotherly compassion” to the bishops, priests and faithful of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which includes about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million people.
The vast majority of Christians in Egypt belong to Pope Shenouda’s church and his four decades as patriarch often involved standing up for the rights of the country’s Christian minority and working with the Muslim majority to promote human rights and the common good.
“The Catholic Church as a whole shares the grief that afflicts the Orthodox Copts,” Pope Benedict said, and Catholics pray that “the God of all mercy may receive Pope Shenouda in his joy, his peace and light.”
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai, who traveled from Lebanon to Egypt March 17 as part of a pastoral visit to Egypt’s 4,000 Maronite Catholics, had been scheduled to meet with Pope Shenouda at 4 p.m. that day.
“We were told in the morning that the meeting would not be possible because the pope’s health had deteriorated badly,” Archbishop Paul Sayah, vicar general of the Maronite Patriarchate in Lebanon, told CNS by email March 18.
The patriarch had advanced the date of his visit to Egypt, Archbishop Sayah said, “because we knew of the state of (Pope Shenouda’s) health.”
He said Patriarch Rai wanted “to express his solidarity with the pope in the difficult period the Christians and Egypt at large are witnessing.” The archbishop said the patriarch also had hoped to “strengthen the ecumenical ties with all the churches in the region, with the hope also of holding a summit for the religious leaders, Christians and Muslims, in the region.”
Archbishop Sayah said Pope Shenouda “exercised very strong leadership in the Coptic Church in particular and for the Christians of Egypt in general. He was very … courageous when it came to taking stands, vis a vis the government in general. He was moderate, wise and open to dialogue. In a crisis situation, he never made a rushed decision but instead would withdraw to his monastery to pray and consult before deciding. One of his famous sayings in such situations was: ‘God exists, God is here.’
“Amid the wave of attacks on the Coptic Christians recently, he took a strong stand and yet kept the doors for dialogue open. He succeeded in keeping his links with the authorities while holding together his own people. He showed both wisdom and moderation while not appearing to be weak and helpless,” Archbishop Sayah said.
Speaking with reporters March 19, Patriarch Rai praised Pope Shenouda “as a good shepherd who led his church … with wisdom and care.”
Pope Benedict highlighted Pope Shenouda’s 1973 visit to the Vatican where he and Pope Paul VI formally signed an agreement on Christ’s humanity and divinity, ending more than 1,500 years of disputes on the issue, and clearing the way for the formal Roman Catholic-Oriental Orthodox theological dialogue.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches that trace their origins to the Christian communities that did not accept the wording of the Council of Chalcedon’s definition in 451 that Christ was fully human and fully divine.
Pope Benedict also mentioned the meetings Pope Shenouda and Blessed John Paul II had in Cairo in 2000. At the end of an ecumenical prayer service in Cairo, Pope Shenouda broke through the formality of the event, embracing Pope John Paul and telling him: “We love our country, and we love you!” Pope John Paul replied, “We love you, too.”
From 1991 to 1998, Pope Shenouda served as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches. In a statement March 18, the organization’s general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, said Pope Shenouda will be remembered for his ecumenical leadership and as “a strong believer in Christian-Muslim conviviality and cooperation. His initiatives in the field of interreligious dialogue contributed to the unity of the Egyptian people.”
Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut.