A day we have all been dreading has finally come upon us. After a long battle with illness, HH Pope Shenouda III has left this world. Shall we ever see another like him?
Many years ago, a relatively young Nazir Gayed left behind a promising career both within and outside of the Church and found a cave in the Egyptian desert in which, as a monk, he could pursue his chief passion: his love for God. But he was dragged away unwilling from his little heaven on earth, and thrown into the responsibilities of first the Bishopric of Education, and then the papacy. This he accepted, if unwillingly, putting his own desires second after the needs of others. Given a free choice, there is little doubt he would have chosen to live out his life in that cave, and the Church would have been blessed with one of those little known hermits who support us all with the purity of their prayers. But no, he acquiesced to the call and devoted his days instead to solving the problems of others. I wonder how many people really understand the magnitude of that sacrifice? And yet he never complained, never grumbled, never showed in the slightest way that he was unhappy with the path that God had chosen for him. And now, at last, after 88 years on this earth, after seven decades of faithful, self-sacrificial service, God has given him his heart’s desire. This time, he has left the world to pursue his chief passion, his love for God, and no one can drag him back.
At times like these, people are wont to list all the achievements of the person who has passed away. That will no doubt make for a very substantial inventory in this case. But for me, these are not the things that matter. This list will probably include the number of churches that were established during his reign and the number of schools and theological colleges, the number of honorary degrees he received, and so on. But for me, this is not the Church, and so this is not the measure of the man or his service. The real Church is not made of buildings and institutions. Those things are just tools we use to build the real Church, which is made up of the hearts and lives of every member of the Church. Where there is love, where there is truth, where there is wisdom, and nobility, integrity and honour, kindness and compassion – that is the real Church. These are not things you can put numbers to, yet they are the things that really matter. And they are the things that Pope Shenouda had a very special way of nurturing and inspiring in others.
Elsewhere I wrote about a personal experience I had with His Holiness when I was a young and newly ordained priest. He had a way of making an unimportant stranger feel important, a way of giving you his attention in a way that said, “At this moment in time, you are more important to me than anything else”. I only had the blessing of meeting him in person on a limited number of occasions, but each one of those occasions is more precious to me than gold and has left its mark on my life.
What I loved about him was the way he remained a very real human being in spite of all the trappings and requirements of the high office he held. I loved that he loved his dogs at his cell in St Bishoy Monastery, and treated them with such kindness and gentleness. I loved the way he connected with children and young people, across all barriers of culture. I loved his kind smile that was never forced or put on, and always came accompanied by kind words and kind actions. I loved his integrity, the way he always insisted on the truth, even to his own hurt. I loved his compassion for the underdog, the way he would stand up for those that others put down. I loved his profound knowledge of Bible and the Fathers, and more importantly, the measured and balanced way in which he interpreted them. I loved his determination to do things right, not to cut corners, even if he could get away with it. I loved that he was from the Upper Egyptian town of Asyut (my origin too) and that he reminded me so strongly of my own father and my uncles, so calm, so patient, so pleasant in an old-world gentlemanly sort of way. I loved his sense of humour, the way he would tell a joke in his more casual moments and really care whether or not it made you laugh. I loved his own unself-conscious laugh and those little creases at the corners of his eyes. I loved that his sensitive soul had trouble coping with anyone who cried in front of him. And there is so much more…
How shall the Coptic Church cope without him? Of course, the Church belongs to Christ and He alone is its true keeper and preserver. But His Holiness was just such a clear living example of what it means to be Christ-like. May God protect the Church and especially the Copts of Egypt in these difficult and uncertain times.
The world is a poorer place for his passing from it.
Shall we ever see another like him? I hope we shall. I hope we shall see millions like him. If we truly want to honour him, the best way is not with words or tears. It is by taking up the baton he has passed to each and every one of us. It is by being faithful to his example, and following in his footsteps, he who faithfully trod in the footsteps of the Lord he loved with every fibre of his being.