On 25 April, as the Coptic Orthodox Church solemnly marked the fortieth day after the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III with prayers throughout the world, and a Special Service in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, the British Orthodox Church throughout the United Kingdom joined them in this solemn commemoration.
In a letter sent to His Eminence Metropolitan Bakhomious, the Patriarchal locum tenens, Abba Seraphim wrote, “As today marks the fortieth day after the death of our beloved father, Pope Shenouda III, I wanted to assure you that the clergy and people of the British Orthodox stand alongside their brethren in Egypt in prayers for his repose. He was to us a very special father when he welcomed the British Orthodox Church back to its roots in the Oriental Orthodox family of churches and gave us encouragement and support for our mission to bring the Orthodox Faith to the British people. For this reason he will always have a very special place in our hearts.
As the Church now prepares herself for the task of discerning the Lord’s will for the future and finding a new shepherd to sit upon the Throne of St. Mark, we assure you of our prayers for the heavy responsibilities you have been given, asking that Almighty God will grant you strength and wisdom in the exercise of your duties. Once again, our prayers are joined with our brethren in Egypt that the widowhood of the Church of Alexandria will not be long and that we may enjoy the blessing of a new Pope chosen by the hand of God.”
On the eve of the fortieth day, Abba Seraphim gave a special interview about Pope Shenouda, which is now available on British Orthodox TV.
The traditional services of Holy Week and Pascha were observed by the British Orthodox churches and missions during the past week and reports indicate that they were all well supported. Father Simon Smyth reported that services were held in the three South Coast communities of Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth from Palm Sunday evening to Holy Wednesday but thereafter came together at the Church in Bournemouth for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Pascha Eve. Representing the local ‘Churches Together’ Father Robin Nash, priest in charge of St. Luke Winton, joined the local congregation for the Paschal Liturgy when he read the Pauline Epistle. On Holy Pascha, Father Simon held a forenoon service and administered Holy Communion to those who had been unable to attend the late night Liturgy, before conducting the usual Memorial prayers around the Orthodox graves in Winton Cemetery.
Abba Seraphim visited the Chatham Church on Holy Thursday, where he performed the Laquan Footwashing and celebrated the Liturgy before travelling to Babingley to preside at the Good Friday prayer and the Paschal Vigil and Liturgy, which took place at sunset, earlier than at Bournemouth, Chatham and Cusworth, which all began at 10.00 p.m. Before the Paschal Vigil Abba Seraphim baptised and chrismated Richard Tawn at St. Felix Church and, dressed in his white chrisom robe and having been given the new name of George, he was joyfully able to receive his first communion and warmly welcomed to fellowship. Abba Seraphim returned to London early on Pascha morning where he took the sacrament to Father Michael Robson at Morden College and to other elderly and sick members who had been unable to attend a liturgy the previous night.
Abba Seraphim, Father Simon Smyth, Father David Seeds and Father Peter all preached on the Resurrection during their respective liturgies but in Bournemouth and Portsmouth the local deacons also took responsibility for preaching during Holy Week. Always popular is the Good Friday Burial Service, where rose petals, herbs and spices are reverently offered by the women, who assist the clergy in preparing the cross for ‘burial’ and its transfer into the sanctuary.
The services at Chatham and Cusworth were also well supported by their local congregations and all churches reported that they were joined by other ethnic Orthodox who were unable to attend their own churches. Although refreshments were provided in all churches following the Paschal Liturgy, many also brought baskets with traditional paschal dishes to have them blessed before returning with them to their homes. Dyed and chocolate eggs were distributed among all the worshippers and always prove very popular with the children.
The fact that Holy Pascha falls within the forty days of mourning for the death of Pope Shenouda undoubtedly contributed to a reflective spirit in all the churches, and the prayers which are normally made for his life were now changed to those for his repose, but also for many this highlighted the common hope of the Resurrection which we all share and the deep joy we feel in proclaiming that Christ is Risen.
A Memorial Service for His Holiness Pope Shenouda III was held at St. George’s Cathedral, Stevenage, on 24 March. Bishop Angaelos officiated and clergy of both the Oriental Orthodox and other traditions officiated. Abba Seraphim and Archbishop Athanasios (Syriac Orthodox Church) chanted the psalms; the Bishop of Southwark (The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessum) read the Pauline Epistle and a message from The Archbishop of Canterbury; Abba Seraphim also chanted the Psali Adam and gave the Final Benediction. Among the bishops present were His Eminence Archbishop Antonios (Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and His Grace Bishop Elisey (Russian Orthodox Church) whilst the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church were represented by priests. There were also a number of Coptic Orthodox priests who participated in the service. The British Orthodox Church was also represented by Father Simon Smyth, Father Seraphim Mina, Father Peter Farrington, Deacon Mark Saunders, Deacon Christopher Barnes and a number of subdeacons, readers and laity. There was a large congregation including state and civic leaders and all present were invited to sign the Book of Condolence for His Holiness.
On 21 March Abba Seraphim visited His Grace Athanasios of the French Coptic Orthodox at St. Mark’s Centre, Nasr City, to greet him and discuss matters of common interest for the church in France and the British Orthodox Church. Abba Athanasius extended a warm welcome to Abba Seraphim to visit France later this year and Abba Seraphim reciprocated with an invitation to the United Kingdom.
At the Patriarchate in Anba Rueiss Their Eminences Metropolitan Bakhomious of Beheira and Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette (General Secretary of the Holy Synod), supported by a number of bishops, spent the whole day receiving a stream of visitors who had come to offer condolences on the death of H.H. Pope Shenouda.
On 22 March the Holy Synod, the Maglis Milli (Coptic Community Council) and Council for Church Endowments (Al Awkaf) will meet together at the Patriarchate to begin the process leading to the election of a new Pope.
On 20 March Abba Seraphim, along with other members of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, representatives of Christian Churches, Islamic religious leaders, diplomats, high Egyptian state and military officials, politicians and thousands of ordinary people, attended the Funeral of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Abbeseya. An official day of mourning had been declared throughout Egypt. with flags flying at half-mast whilst the streets around the cathedral were lined with hundreds of soldiers. Loudspeakers broadcast the service into the surrounding streets. His Holiness’s body, which had been transferred the previous evening from the Throne of St. Mark to an impressive white casket, lay in front of the sanctuary in the midst of the khorus with the lid opened to reveal his face. This image of him, looking peaceful in death, had already become familiar as it had appeared on the front page of most national newspapers as well as having been widely viewed on television during his public lying-in-state, when thousands of mourners had passed through the cathedral to take their leave of a beloved father.
The funeral was preceded by another celebration of the Divine Liturgy, by members of the Holy Synod, presided over by His Eminence Metropolitan Bakhomious of Beheira. New carpets had been laid at the entrance to the khorus and the steps to the sanctuary were lined with an abundance of fragrant white flowers. Although the cathedral was packed, guests continued to arrive throughout the service. While the crowd waited a huge wave of clapping spontaneously burst out among the congregation as a bird, which had flown into the cathedral, soured above them. For many this symbolised the passing of the Pope’s spirit to the heavenly realm.
The funeral service commenced with prayers and a chant in Ge’ez by His Holiness Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia, who also spoke movingly of Pope Shenouda’s great legacy to the church. After this His Holiness Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch, frail and confined to a wheelchair, also spoke in a powerful voice about the Pope and led the chanting of funeral hymns by accompanying Syriac bishops. Many of the officiating clergy and those in the congregation were visibly moved. When the dignified figure of Metropolitan Bakhomious addressed the congregation in a hearfelt tribute to the Pope’s work and enduring legacy, the crowd heard him in rapt attention, but his spontaneous sentiments so eloquently expressed so perfectly captured the feelings of many and roused them to deafening applause. The service concluded as the casket was carried into the sanctuary by priests and then, assisted by soldiers down the north steps from the cathedral to a waiting white ambulance. This was conducted by outriders and police cars to a military airfield in the suburbs of Cairo. As it left the Patriarchate many of the awaiting crowd surged forward to be near it and the frenzied worshippers chased out of the precincts, beating following cars in an expression of their sadness and grief. It had been intended to fly members of the Holy Synod in an additional military plane accompanying the one used for taking His Holiness to an airfield in the Wadi Natrun, but at the last minute these plans were changed, so only about a third of the members attended the burial at St. Bishoy’s monastery.
Abba Seraphim accompanied His Grace Bishop Angaelos by car to the monastery, where they joined just over a hundred monks in the small building in the ancient precincts, which had been constructed in 2003 to serve as a monastic museum, but which had now been transformed into a tomb. Built in the shape of a cross, with four semi-domes in each apse containing traditional Coptic ikons, a white marble sarcophagus had been erected in the centre. The waiting monks had already dropped fragrant herbs and spices into the tomb and those crowded outside the tomb were passing small folded slips of papers containing prayer requests, which the monks also dropped into the sarcophagus. While everyone waited the monks lustily sang Coptic hymns, proud that their Pope, always first a simple monk, was finally coming back to be with them. Soon after dusk had fallen the casket, accompanied by Metropolitan Bakhomious and other bishops, who had travelled on the plane, was brought into the monastery. Overwhelmed by grief the crowd outside exploded into shouts and wailing and many others pushed forward behind the cortege so that the previously still tomb, where those inside had probably risen to two hundred, burst into frantic activity as the soldiers and monks attempted to lower the casket into the sarcophagus and place the great marble slab on the top. Flowers and fragrant oil was poured on the top and the sarcophagus received the first of many anointings, while mourners lovingly kissed the resting place of a most beloved Pope. This will surely be a foremost place of pilgrimage for Copts and all who respect the memory and legacy of Pope Shenouda and will also be a source of many blessings for generations to come.
Photograph Sources: Facebook and OCP