Tomorrow, July 1st, marks the the tenth anniversary of the passing of Fr Mina Nematalla, the pioneering Coptic Orthodox priest of Australia. In 1969 he became the first Coptic priest to settle in Australia and established the Coptic Orthodox Church on this continent. Today I would like to share a few personal thoughts to mark this occasion.
Upon my ordination back in 1991 I was assigned by HH Pope Shenouda III to serve at Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Church as an assistant to Fr Mina. At that time, Fr Mina was alone in the parish, and very, very sick. In fact, it was during my ordination and stay in Egypt that Fr Mina finally underwent a complex kidney transplant that saved his life and released him at last from the tyranny of constant renal dialysis.
I arrived at the parish not quite knowing what to expect. My family had had some contact with Fr Mina back in the 70’s but that was very limited. I would go on to serve with Fr Mina until his passing in 2000, and during that time, I got to see him at his best, and at his worst. I came to respect the man as I have few other people on this earth. He had his faults – there is no denying that – we all have. But this is a day for remembering and celebrating the positives. Perhaps his legacy can then live on in our own lives, thereby enriching and encouraging our own journey to the God he loved so much.
The chief characteristic of Fr Mina that dominates his picture in my mind was his absolute straightforwardness. He was the kind of person who never left you guessing what he was thinking. With Fr Mina, what you saw was what you got, without fail. Some people found this confronting, others found it perhaps even discourteous. But I revelled in it. How much simpler and easier life becomes when people are honest with each other! This also meant that it was so easy to trust him. He was a man of his word, the kind of person who kept his word, even to his own disadvantage.
I fondly remember the times when I, as a young inexperienced priest, messed up. He would call me over for a private chat in which he would simply and clearly point out what I had done wrong. Following a genuinely two way discussion, he would give me my admonition, and then tell me that that was the end of the matter. And it was. It never came up again and it never changed his attitude towards me.
This straightforwardness was also an important part of his spiritual life and practices. No doubt, anyone who grew up serving with Fr Mina the Hermit (later to become Pope Kyrollos VI) should have a good grounding in the spiritual life, but what impressed me deeply was just how ‘organic’ his spiritual life was. His prayers were not for show – they were from the heart. There are many who still remember his deeply emotional liturgy, the wide inflections of tone, the profound expression in his voice and upon his face, the tears that sometimes leaked out. All of this came from the heart. To behold Fr Mina at the altar felt like beholding Moses at the Ark of the Covenant – that same sense of man bare before God is evoked. And the same may be said of his love for the praises of the Church, praises he refused to miss even in his illness. The obvious childlike delight he took in praising God served as an inspiration for many, yet it was a genuine delight in God, first and foremost. Even the smallest discussion with him on the topic revealed just how deeply that delight in God ran.
Another fond memory involves children. Fr Mina loved children, whether they were his own offspring or anyone else’s. People sometimes complained that the sanctuary had been turned into a nursery during the liturgy. He would love to have up to a dozen young deacons around him, teaching them how to chant the responses, when to bring the censer, how to behave in the sanctuary. This was a reflection of his generosity – he saw service in the sanctuary as a great honour, and he wanted to bestow that honour upon as many children as he could. We are still enjoying the benefits of this policy today in our parish, for it produced generations of deacons who genuinely love and respect the service of the liturgy, and particularly that sacred service of the sanctuary. We can only pray that we pass this tradition on to coming generations.
I was blessed to serve with a sensible man. In the tug and pull of parish service, with so much respect heaped upon the clergy by the congregation and so much pressure to follow the faith to the letter, it is not uncommon to find clergymen who lose their common sense. But Fr Mina was not one to fall into the this trap too easily. Deep down inside him was a heart of genuine humility, a humility that was not for general display, but guided his every action nonetheless. This humility, this sense of his own weakness and fallibility was, I think, what kept his feet so firmly on the ground. Many times did I see him wisely rejecting more fanatical directions suggested by others in favour of things that made sense, and worked in the real world in which we live.
These things may not seem to be major virtues to some readers, but they made our a parish a pleasure to be a part of. The faith that was both encouraged and practiced was (and is) a real faith, a living faith, rather than a “pie in the sky” faith. People in general felt comfortable to be themselves around Fr Mina, and felt freed to express their love for God through the rites of the Church. Being themselves of course meant that again that one saw both the best and the worst of people; but isn’t that a better way of being Christian?
Fr Mina, you are fondly remembered. Pray for us.