I’d like to turn now from the future to the past. How do we deal with our history as a Church and as a community?
Here’s a quick quiz:
1. Who was the Pope before Pope Kyrollos VI? What was his name and when was his patriarchate?
2. In what ways was his election to be Pope unusual?
3. Why doesn’t he appear very much in our histories, Sunday School Curricula, Youth Group Programmes etc?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, read on. You will find them in the text that follows (and there will be a compulsory one hour test next Tuesday 😉 ).
We all know quite a bit about our current Pope, Pope Shenouda III who was yanked out of his desert cave and made Bishop for Education (a general bishop without a diocese) against his will, and later elected as Pope against his will. He has guided the Coptic Church through what many consider to be a modern Golden Age of revival, depth and strength (1971 – present). His achievements are all the more amazing, given the history I want to discuss today.
We also all know about the late Pope Kyrollos VI, the solitary living in an abandoned windmill and jarred out of this meditative life to lead the Church from 1959-1971. It surprised me to hear from older members of our Church that during his lifetime and service as Pope, Pope Kyrollos was not a very popular man in some circles of the Church. He wouldn’t play politics. When major crises faced the Church, he would quietly withdraw to his monastery to pray and seek God’s guidance. “Where is our Pope?” people would demand. “Why does he run away every time there is trouble?” I couldn’t imagine thinking that way about someone so obviously saintly as Pope Kyrollos VI, yet people in those days did think that way. Which tells you a lot about the people in those days:
Before Pope Kyrollos VI, there was a three year period in which the Church could not come to a decision as to who should become the new Pope. And the reason they could not decide was that the papacy of the previous Pope had been an unmitigated disaster. Pope Yusab II (1946-1956) had been Metropolitan of Girga before becoming Pope. A vocal section of the Church opposed his consecration because there is an ancient law in our Church that says that no bishop with a diocese may be ordained as Pope. Amazingly, Anba Yusab and his followers actually campaigned to have him elected! He was actually ambitious for the papacy. That in itself should have rung the alarm bells!
It didn’t take long after his enthronment as Pope for things to start going wrong. The chief problem of his papacy was his valet, or disciple, an extremely unscrupulous man who always carried a loaded gun with him, as well as a pack of cigarettes. This man seems to have had incredible influence over the Pope, and he knew how to use it! He became rich by selling ordinations to the bishopric and the priesthood. He threw his weight around and ordered people about according to his own wishes. The kindest analyses of Pope Yusab’s papacy describe his main failing as being his inability to control or to dismiss this dishonest man.
Things got so bad that at one stage, the Pope had to flee Egypt because his life was threatened. A group of over-zealous Coptic youth even went to the extent of kidnapping the Pope and threatening him with harm if he did not resign immediately. When the whole Church finally put an ultimatum to Pope Yusab to reform or to suffer exile, he chose the latter, and spent the remaining years of his life and papacy exiled in a monastery in Upper Egypt. He was relieved of all his papal responsibilities and a committee of three senior bishops was appointed to govern the Church in his absence. He died in exile in 1956.
You will now understand why the appointment of a new Coptic Pope took so long. Having been through this disasterous period, no one wanted to rush in and make a wrong decision! After three years of careful consideration, discussion and prayer, a man who was the diametric opposite of Anba Yusab was elected to take over, Pope Kyrollos VI: not a bishop, but a humble monk; not ambitious for the post, but terrified by its heavy responsibility before God. Pope Kyrollos proceeded to doggedly rebuild the spirituality of the Coptic Church, to return its focus to its ancient roots in the Bible, Church Tradition and the desert Fathers. By God’s grace, his successor is an educator in an age of information. Pope Shenouda has successfully steered the Church towards faith based on understanding and has fused the mind and the spirit together in a unified whole to worship God in a holistic way.
But what of poor Anba Yusab? Why is he forgotten? Most likely, Coptic historians do not like to mention him because it is seen as bringing our skeletons out of the closet. They do not wish to air our dirty laundry in public, which is why most objective information about Anba Yusab can only be found in history books written by non-Copts. I don’t think this is healthy.
I believe that we can learn just as much from the mistakes of the past as we can from the successes. I think the Bible backs up this point of view. Take any hero of the Bible. Take Moses or David or St Peter. In the Bible you will find a balanced portrayal that reveals strengths and weaknesses, victories and failures, sins and virtues. The Bible gives us a real picture of these giants of God and of the true historical events of the people of God. Why do we fear to do the same in our own times? Would it not benefit us?
From learning about the period of Anba Yusab II I have learned many valuable lessons. I have learned that God does not leave His people alone, even in the darkest times. In the midst of all this hulabaloo going on with the Pope, St Mary appeared to a Primary School class in a Coptic school, and the miracle encouraged all those who heard about it. Throughout those years the Sunday School Movement was growing and becoming more and more effective. Dedicated servants refused to be discouraged by the goings on at higher levels and turned instead to their own personal relationship with God and to spreading the Gospel of Christ to as many simple hearts as they could find. These were the years when the young Nazir Gayed (later to become Pope Shenouda III) was at his peak of service and eventually entered the monastery, as did a number of his luminous contemporaries who were to play such a prominent role in the revival that was to come later.
The Church is too big to be spoiled by any one individual, no matter how elevated his position may be. When it seemed that the Church had fallen into the hands of one who was going to destroy it from the inside, there were many faithful Copts who kept their eyes focussed on what the Church is really all about. They were not fooled or sidetracked by all the games being played. They understood that the real work of the Church is not in the politics and the wranglings of humans. It is in the work of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts.
Problems, within or without the Church, should never be allowed to discourage us from personally following God faithfully and striving to do His will. Those who do so remain firmly embedded in the real Church, in the company of God and following in His footsteps. Those who get caught up in the politics soon lose their place in the true Church, for they cannot find Christ in politics. May our Lord preserve always the purity of the mission of His Church…