(Speech delivered by Fr. Dr. Jacob Mathew, St. Paul’s Orthodox Church of Greater Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at the 40th day of the demise of HH Pope Shenouda III at St. Mary’s and St. Michael, The Archangel’s Church, Oviedo, Florida)
Dear and respected Fathers, dear brethren in Christ as well as my beloved friends,
The peace that we inherit from Holy Resurrection of our Lord, defeating death and donning eternal life to all of us be upon you all from now on for ever and ever, Amen!
I am asked to speak on my experiences with Pope Shenouda III. I think I have to classify my experiences with HH Pope Shenouda III two fold. On one hand, I shall refer to the Holy Man of God from my readings and interactions with people, which I call ‘gathered experiences’. On the other hand, my own personal experiences, which I call ‘acquired experiences’. Let me begin with the gathered experiences.
I. It is very difficult to establish oneself as a leader after a very strong predecessor, who reigned for a longtime. HH Pope Shenouda III succeeded HH Pope Kyrill VI. HH Pope Kyrill VI was a great spiritual leader, reviver of Orthodoxy and especially the monastic vigor among the Coptic Christians and was a very powerful person. We all knew that HH Baba Kyrill did not want the position of Pope. He just wanted to continue in the Monastery of Mena in Greater Alexandria as Father Mena. However, once he became the Patriarch, he could pull a number of learned men and women to monastic life as well as to priesthood. St. Mary appeared in Egypt many times during his reign. He established himself so well as an unquestionable figure until he passed on to the Lord on March 9, 1971.
Succeeding a person like Pope Kyrill VI was the most difficult task for Pope Shenouda III. We know that people would simply compare the new man with the old for need and needless. However, with his strong personality, will, courage, focused and responsible nature, knowledge of his own strength and weaknesses, vision for the future, confidence in the self as well as in the people around him, ability to filter away elements that were contra productive to the best goal that one envisages for the future, steadfast nature, sound and au courant theological depth in Oriental Orthodoxy as well as in all forms of theological endeavors, being a very strict and serious monk, solid love for his own Church, his own culture and language, being proud to be a Coptic Egyptian (that is why, I think he did not attempt at all to go out of Egypt once he was in exile in 1981) Pope Shenouda III could remain a man of God to his last breath. No one else than Fr. Anthony El-Souryani, who was among the personal staff of HH Pope Kyrill VI and had been elevated to the bishopric by HH Pope Kyrill himself as Metropolitan Shenouda would fit for the highest ecclesiastical order of Coptic Orthodoxy. There had even been predictions by Pope Kyrill VI that Metropolitan Shenouda would become the next Pope. Therefore, every bishop, monk, priest as well as faithful of Coptic Orthodox Church unconditionally and unquestionably deemed him as their father after the Father in heaven. He was totally a person, who maintained in the heart that he was responsible for the souls of all Coptic Christians all around the world and was accountable/ answerable to God for them. That was HH Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory.
Nazeer Gayed Roufail was born on 3 August 1923. After school education, he joined the Cairo University for his bachelor in History and English. He served the military as well as had been a writer and journalist, before he laid down the monastic vow in 1954 with the name Anthony El-Souriyanee after joining the Syrian Monastery of the Ever-Virgin Mary the Theotokos. In 1958, Monk Anthony was elevated to the priesthood. In 1962, Pope Kyrill VI consecrated him as Metropolitan Shenouda. His first assignment was as the General Bishop for Christian Education and as Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. Two previous Popes carried the name Shenouda, Shenouda I (Episcopate 859–880) and Shenouda II (Episcopate 1047–1077).
People, who have known HH Pope Shenouda often times have vouched for the humor sense of the Pope. One famous joke that the Pope cracked is the following. “When I joined the monastery to become a monk, I had to give up a number of things. The one thing that I completely failed to give up was laughter”! Pope Shenouda III always enjoyed a great sense of humor and that made him so an attractive figure among the Copts all around the world.
An experience that may touch us deeply was from a deaf girl from Oviedo, Florida. Once her mother took her to visit the Pope at Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, and the Pontiff was recuperating there after treatment. The girl through an interpreter told the Pope to pray for her. Happily the Pope did it. However, right after that, the Pope surprised everyone, to the greatest amazement of that girl herself, by asking the girl with a natural inability to speak to pray for him. She had goosebumps to narrate that event. After that, she has started speak, although little by little. The Pope had the profound blessing from heaven to touch the souls of many, no matter great or little!
II. Personally speaking: I met the Pope for the first time on Friday, April 24, 1998 at the Castle of Schallaburg near Melk in Lower Austria. The Pope was visiting Austria and on that day he was inaugurating an exhibition. The exhibition was on the Coptic Archeology and was named ‘Egypt – Early Christianity on the Nile’. It was there that I understood for the first time about the origin of the word ‘Christmas’ in a Coptic perspective. ‘Mice’ in Coptic means ‘to give birth’ and Christmas is the combination of Christ and mice! Christ is born! And the Pope said it!
It was Metropolitan Damian of Germany, who was translating the Pope into German. Metropolitan Damian spoke in the best flowery German, so to speak ‘in bluemiger Deutschen Sprache’. However, Metropolitan Damian got corrected time and again by the Pope for a more precise translation. What do we understand from that? The Pope knew German language! To be precise, HH Pope Shenouda III was the first Coptic Pope, who would speak German!
I visited Egypt in February 1999. I travelled far and wide, from East to West and South to North. One statement that I remember fondly from one of the elderly priests, whom I met in the St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiyah, Cairo, was this: “Do you know, we all venerate our Pope. I have seen often times HE Butros Butros Ghali, the former UN Secretary General throwing himself down at the Pontifical Audience. Now, know, yourself young deacon from India, how much we all love our Pope”. That strong was the impression of the Pope among people of all walks of life in Egypt!
When I was attending the ‘Pro-Oriente Foundation’ consultations between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church in the 90s, it was Metropolitan Amba Bishoy, who used to lead the Coptic delegation. Every day Metropolitan Bishoy personally used to brief to the Patriarch, what had happened on that day. Such strong was the interest of the Pope on Ecumenical endeavors. Pope Shenouda III wanted to see the Christian world united, at least the Oriental Orthodox Churches more than what they are today. Being an Indian Orthodox priest, that is my impression on the Pope. Let us all pray that the vision of the Pope on ecumenism come true.
The Pope was laid to rest at Beheira in the 4th century monastery of St Bishoy, which is located at the valley ‘Wadi El Natrun’. Wadi Natrun means literally the valley of salt. The Lord said to his followers in St. Matthew 5:13, ‘you are the salt of the earth’. Through his burial in the Wadi Natrun, the valley of salt, the Pope became an integral part of salt of the earth and fulfilled the commandment from his Lord! May his soul rest at peace in the courts of his Lord, among all the children of light!