It is the 17th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 2012.
The location was Egypt. And if you remember your international news for the year, you may identify this as one of the most turbulent years in modern Egyptian history. The year prior, the Arab Spring broke out across the Middle East. Egypt would be significantly affected by the revolution as Hosni Mubarak was forced out in favor of Mohamed Morsi, who was then overthrown in favor of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. However, this Egyptian Crisis was not just politics as these years saw the Coptic Orthodox Church involved. And amid it all, one of the most influential figures in the Egyptian church and society died. He was born Nazir Gayed Roufail in 1923 and died on this the 17th of March in 2012 as Pope Shenouda III. His full title was the Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Let's unpack this and center in on one of the most critical Coptic Christians in the 20th century.
First, yes, he is a Pope. It's why we sometimes call the guy-usually-in-Italy the Roman Pontiff or Bishop of Rome. Shenouda III was the 117th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church. They trace their lineage back to St. Mark. So, while this church has had 117 (now 118) popes, the Roman Catholic Church has had 260 Popes. Or so they recognize, there were more. And while a Roman Catholic might make a big deal about the "Great Schism of 1054," the Coptic Orthodox Church refers to the "Great Schism of 451."
The Copts were based out of Alexandria. Alexandria was the center of intellectual life in the 1st century Mediterranean, and the "Alexandrian" school was one of the two premier theological schools in the Early Church. Essentially the Great Schism of 451 saw the Coptic Orthodox Church rejecting being called "Monophysite" and instead called themselves "Miaphysite." It involves a distinction over the two natures of Christ. And the is a short show, so pardon me for skipping this entirely for today.
In 1971 the Coptic Orthodox Church was struggling to find its identity both as Egyptians and as Christians. There had been something of an ethnic revival of Coptic identity under Pope Cyril VI, but his early death crippled his reform project. Enter Pope Shenouda III.
Fun fact: in the Coptic Orthodox Church, three candidates for Pope are selected, and the ultimate decision is made by having a blindfolded child choose between three cards with the candidates' names on them. This ancient practice dates back to, well, 1957—a story for another day.
Pope Shenouda III had earned his BA in History from the University of Cairo and had spent time as a teacher before becoming the Bishop of Christian Education in 1962. Elected Pope at 48, he would guide the church from 1971 to his death. Shenouda has been described as: conservative, ecumenical, and international. Let's break those down.
He was considered conservative because of his usual insistence to stay out of politics, condemn cultural practices such as bigamy, and assert that the Bible was the only rule of faith. His refusal to condemn the Coptic protests of Anwar Sadat led to his exile from the position in 1981. He was reinstated in 1985 by Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim who nonetheless sought to foster intra-religious harmony.
While some condemned him for his closeness to Mubarak, this was part of his ecumenical streak. He was known as the "Pope of the Arabs" despite the clash between Arab culture and Coptic culture. He was the first Pope of Alexandria to meet with the Pope at Rome since 451. He was international in that he oversaw an explosion of Coptic Orthodox churches in America, Australia, and Europe.
Ultimately, this Pope of Alexandria was catechetical. His background as a teacher and his being the Bishop of Christian Education served him as he wrote over 100 books, and his popular sermons are still widely shared today. He served as Pope for over 40 years (for reference, that beats any Roman Pope by a decade). Pope Shenouda III died at the age of 88 on the 17th of March in 2012.
The reading for today comes from the Prayer of St. Patrick (we haven't forgotten the date!)
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite Copt was Boutros Boutros Ghali. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis whose favorite cop was McGruff, the Crime Dog. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.