Today is 14th November. It is the anniversary of the ordination of our own beloved Fr Botros in 1996 (Happy Anniversary Abouna!) but it is also the anniversary of the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III way back in 1971. No doubt, a great deal will be written and said about this beacon of Coptic history, but I would just like to add a few personal little memories to the avalanche of praise that rains down this day.
You see, for me, it is not the more obvious achievements that inspire my love and affection for this man whom I have only met on a handful of occasions in my life. It is not the number of Churches he has established, nor ordinations he has carried out. It is not what he has done that impresses me, it is who he is; his character and personality.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Pope Shenouda has played a vital role in my being Coptic Orthodox Christian and in serving as a priest. Through his character and his leadership, he has created a Church where the Truth of Christianity is first and foremost, above all else. This may sound obvious, but it must not be taken for granted. There are sadly many Christian communities in this world where the Truth of Christianity takes a secondary role to material wealth, or politics, or power, or personal rivalries.
His Holiness also made the Church into a more open institution. He warmly welcomed people who do not fit the usual image of a Coptic Christian into the Church with open arms. His personal support for missionary work in Africa and elsewhere is a case in point. His concerted efforts to make the French and British Orthodox a part of the Coptic Church without losing their individual identity is another example.
My own service is yet another example. Who ever heard of a man being ordained a Coptic priest when he could not even say “Abana Allazee” (“Our Father”) in Arabic, but only in barbarous English?! In my early years, some people left our parish in disgust that this new-fangled priest was praying in English in the Sunday liturgy. Without the sense of support and confidence from His Holiness, neither I nor the many other Fathers and layservants who have grown up in Australia and other western lands could have continued in our service. His Holiness made us feel that we belonged in the Coptic Church, where many others in times past would have excluded anyone who didn’t fit the Arabic mould.
Even more influential has been His Holiness’ personal modelling of integrity and character. His courage and strength are now legendary, being displayed in the difficult Sadat years. His wisdom has been extraordinary and his theological and spiritual knowledge and ability as a teacher have had influence far beyond the limits of Coptic Orthodoxy.
But it is his meticulous and constant application of Christian morals that has inspired me the most. His Holiness is the kind of person who insists on the truth in all he does, big and small. He refuses to take shortcuts that are not in keeping with Christian morals and ethics, no matter how hard that might make things.
Added to this honesty is a compassion and selflessness that is astounding for one in a position of authority such as his. Patriarchs are bowed to and served hand and foot. How easy it would be to just take this for granted; he is certainly busy enough to just accept this and turn his mind to weightier matters. And yet…
It was very dark, and four new young priests were standing outside the Papal Cell in St Bishoy’s Monastery at 2am, waiting to welcome His Holiness back from Cairo where he had just delivered his weekly Wednesday Sermon to 10,000 listeners. They scratched sleepily at the itchy fuzz in their newborn beards. The car swept up the driveway, and the small figure of His Holiness emerged from the back door. With a smile beneath manifestly tired eyes he patiently greeted the small group, and after a little good natured banter, he began to climb the steps to his cell. Suddenly, he stopped and turned around. He called his secretary and sent him into the cell to get something for him. A moment later, he called up the four startled new priests and gave them each a little torch. “Here,” he said, “take these. I was told that the monastery generators have been breaking down lately, and you might find that your electricity cuts out every now and then. You might want to keep reading in the dark, so use these.”
I still keep my torch as a treasured memory of a love that cares for each and every soul individually. Even at 2am after an exhausting Patriarchal day.
That is but one example of many of the courtesy, the thoughtfulness and the genuine love that His Holiness lives in our midst every day. Most of our youth have never known the Church without Pope Shenouda. May they continue to be led by his example for many years to come. Fr Ant