Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Pope Francis fraternally addressed one another in an historic meeting, Friday, at the Vatican. May 10, 2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of a meeting between their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III. This is the first time since that meeting that the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch has visited the Vatican. Blessed John Paul II also visited Pope Shenouda III in Egypt, February 2000.
At that historic meeting, forty years ago, a Common Declaration was signed professing “one faith in the One Triune God” and “the divinity of the Only-begotten Son of God … perfect God with respect to his divinity, perfect man with respect to his humanity”. This was significant because Alexandria and the Oriental East broke communion with Rome and Constantinople in the fifth century over the Greek language of two ‘physis’ in Christ. St. Cyril wrote of one ‘physis’, while Pope St. Leo wrote of two ‘natures’ (duabus naturis)in Christ. ‘Nature’ was translated into ‘physis’ at the A.D. 451 Council of Chalcedon and the rest is history, as they say, until 1973.
Pope Francis recalled how the meeting forty years ago “prepared the ground for a broader dialogue between the Catholic Church and the entire family of Oriental Orthodox Churches, a dialogue that continues to bear fruit to this day… They acknowledged that divine life is given to us and nourished through the seven sacraments and they recognized a mutual bond in their common devotion to the Mother of God.”
Pope Tawadros II noted in his address the importance inter-religious dialogue has become in this “current historical phase” and proposed “that the 10th of May of each year should be considered as a celebration of brotherly love between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.” The Coptic Patriarch spoke of the great love he has for his country and recounted a little of the rich history of the Church in Egypt:
Over a span of time of more than three years, the Holy Family visited Egyptian villages and governorates moving from East to West and from North to South, thus making the whole country blessed with the sign of the Holy Cross. And Jesus Christ made its soil sacred by treading on it. Later on, in the early years of Christianity, St. Mark the Evangelist spread the Christian doctrine through Egypt and was martyred in Alexandria, the city of Alexander the Great, also known as “the Mediterranean Spouse”.
My Coptic Church is a very ancient one, with a history that spans over more than nineteen centuries. It was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the 1st. century and in the course of time it has been irrigated until now with the blood of numerous martyrs, thus becoming stronger and stronger.
Christian Monasticism originated in Egypt by the great St. Anthony, the so-called Father of all monks, who established the practice of monastic life. Later on, the practice of common life established by St. Pachumius, who was born in Upper Egypt in the middle of the 3rd century, was extended from Egypt to the rest of the world (e.g. France and Ireland). Monasticism was instrumental in the formation of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Copts have grown in the world, as a solid religious entity with a clear Christian character. Doubtless the contribution of the Coptic Orthodox Church is great and many. The patriarchs and popes of Alexandria (Sts. Mark, Alexander, Athanasius, and Cyril) played a leading role in the Christian theology.
Pope Tawadros II went on to speak of the long standing solidarity between Coptic and Catholic Christians and again reiterated the importance of ecumenism in this age:
Both Churches, the Catholic and the Coptic, have always worked together, in the Middle East and in the Western World, to make peace prevail. The most important aim for both is the promotion of ecumenical dialogue in order to get to the most pursued goal, unity. Therefore and for the ﬁrst time ever, I insisted to participate personally in the Enthronement Ceremony of the Patriarch of the Catholic Church in Egypt, Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac… Working together to promote ecumenical dialogue and peace on earth will be our mutual aim. May our Lord help and support Your Holiness in Your Holy mission.
Pope Francis responded to Pope Tawadros II with equal desire for unity:
We are glad to be able to confirm today what our illustrious predecessors solemnly declared, we are glad to recognize that we are united by one Baptism, of which our common prayer is a special expression, and we long for the day when, in fulfillment of the Lord’s desire, we will be able to communicate from the one chalice.
Of course we are well aware that the path ahead may still prove to be long, but we do not want to forget the considerable distance already travelled, which has taken tangible form in radiant moments of communion….
I am convinced that – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – our persevering prayer, our dialogue and the will to build communion day by day in mutual love will allow us to take important further steps towards full unity.
The institution of a “National Council of Christian Churches”, which you strongly desired, represents an important sign of the will of all believers in Christ to develop relations in daily life that are increasingly fraternal and to put themselves at the service of the whole of Egyptian society, of which they form an integral part.
Recognizing the human suffering in Egypt, Pope Francis assured Pope Tawadros of his support:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). This is a law of the Christian life, and in this sense we can say that there is also an ecumenism of suffering: just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity. And this also applies, in a certain sense, to the broader context of society and relations between Christians and non-Christians: from shared suffering can blossom forth forgiveness and reconciliation, with God’s help.
I invoke the protection of both Saint Peter and Saint Mark: may they who during their lifetime worked together in practical ways for the spread of the Gospel, intercede for us and accompany the journey of our Churches.
Pope Tawadros II is on a five day visit of Italy where he also plans to visit the Coptic Orthodox community in diaspora which has two diocese, one in Turin and another in Milan.