Reflections on the Passing of H.H. Pope Shenouda

Reports sent back from Cairo by Abba Seraphim

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III died in Cairo at 7.15 p.m. (local time) and Abba Seraphim and His Grace Bishop Angaelos arrived on the same flight at Cairo airport at 5.15 a.m. local time. Abba Seraphim was met at the airport by Shenouda Mamdouh, his secretary in Egypt.

18 March 2012

Although there has never been any doubt about the affection of the Copts for Pope Shenouda, the extraordinary manifestation of grief seems to have caught many by surprise. Tens of thousands of Copts have flooded to the Papal compound at Amba Rueiss in Abbeseya and are queuing for hours to catch a last glimpse of their “Baba” seated on his throne. The genuine grief, however, is widespread and not just restricted to Copts. As I was leaving the plane on Sunday morning, a Muslim stewardess beckoned me forward to meet the captain so they could both express to me their condolences. The same happened at Passport Control where the officer, although not a Christian, expressed his sorrow at the loss of “our Pope”. Yesterday at the Patriarchate, when I entered the grand salon, so often used for receptions and banquets, I noticed my brother bishops sitting quietly waiting for our scheduled Synod meeting. The atmosphere was subdued and calm and there was a profound sense of bereavement. I was always struck by how the Patriarchate – which was always a bustling, expectant place when His Holiness was in residence – fell strangely silent the moment he left the building. Now it was busy, but it seemed empty, although reminders of its late occupant were everywhere to be seen. Chatting to individual bishops provided many insightful personal reflections of the Pope and caught the generally reflective mood of the gathering. Among these were the ordinary staff of the Patriarchate, many of whom had served the Pope for years. His personal servant, Wadee (who had served his predecessor, Pope Kyrillos VI), although frail and still using a crutch whilst recovering from surgery for a hip replacement, was still weaving among the bishops offering tea on a silver tray.

We entered the Cathedral to pay our respects to His Holiness. Temporary barriers were erected to conduct the crowd round the Cathedral in an orderly way, but it was such a heaving mass that it was proving difficult to control. The boy scouts were acting as stewards, but they were clearly overwhelmed. As always there was a huge amount of respect at the sight of the clergy but the boisterous show of affection was sometimes at risk of knocking clergy over as worshippers tugged to kiss a hand or touch a cross. The sight of His Holiness seated on the Throne of Saint Mark, vested in his pontifical vestments, was a familiar one, and in the sleep of death he looked calm and peaceful, but it stirred deep emotions in all who approached. Standing quietly besides the throne, deep in thought, his face strained with grief, was the Pope’s faithful driver, Yehya, watching over his master with the same care and concern he has shown for many years. Bishops and priests, dressed simply in their white tonias, took turns to stand guard beside the throne, while the sea of people, in great waves of emotion, swept up to the brass railings at the entrance to the khorus, or deacons’ choir area.

On leaving the Synod yesterday it took us over an hour to get back to where we had parked our car. The crowd was vast and filled every inch of the street, but good natured. As we struggled forward, Coptic youth encircled us in a protective ring with linked hands, the leading one pushing his way forward, though facing backwards, and in this strange manner we made our journey home. We later heard reports that three people had died in the crowd, but the cause was attributed to heat stroke rather than violence. Once returned to our car, we crawled at a snail’s pace to get away from the crowded streets. At one point we passed closely a group of nuns from St. George’s Convent and were able to greet Mother Koria on her way to the Cathedral. This morning I spoke on the ’phone with the Anglican Bishop Mounir, who anxious to pay his respects to Pope Shenouda, admitted that although he had set out for the Cathedral yesterday he had been obliged to turn back by the huge throng blocking his way. The bishop’s taxi driver tearfully spoke of his love for the Pope.

That same evening we went to visit Miss Effa, a frail ninety-three year old, who was one of the first deaconesses ordained by Pope Shenouda when he restored that ancient ministry. She had known him as a Sunday school teacher, before entering the monastery, and they remained firm friends all his life. She still cherishes letters he wrote her from the monastery. When she was quite ill a few years back, the Pope had personally visited her at home to check on her well-being. Now cared for by deaconesses in her own ground floor apartment, with the rest of her house given over to accommodate Coptic girls studying in Cairo, she had taken the news of the Pope’s death badly, but we were able to comfort her.

The visit yesterday to the Patriarchate of Field-Marshall Tantawi. the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the effective Head of State – was an historic moment in church-state relations. Received by Metropolitan Pachomios and other senior bishops, he had come to offer condolences after having already spoken about Pope Shenouda with deep respect and granted a three day holiday to Christians for them to mourn. The Field-Marshall now offered to provide a military ’plane to transport His Holiness’ coffin to St. Bishoy’s monastery after the funeral ceremony in Cairo. Also hugely significant was the request by the church for government support in regulating the crowds and the entry into the Papal compound of soldiers is previously unknown. The presence of young soldiers in their red berets, lining the entry to the khorus, brought much needed calm and order to the Cathedral and possibly represents a gesture intended to redress the appalling tragedy of Maspero.

Being with Copts, with Coptic TV channels broadcasting news and archives about His Holiness non-stop, it might appear that one has a very Coptocentric view. However, even the non-Coptic Egyptian Television has announced for the next three days it has replaced light entertainment with more appropriate programmes. The truth, however, is that the Pope’s passing has genuinely touched the hearts of many Egyptians, whatever their religion. He is viewed as a great Egyptian, deeply patriotic (having served himself in the military) and with a profound sense of justice and truth. His personal integrity, great charm and incorrigible sense of humour (often mischievously directed at Upper Egyptians, of whom he was one) made him a deeply attractive personality; whilst his approachability and direct contact with people through his weekly public addresses brought him into direct contact with Egypt’s teeming millions.

19 March

Cairo is entering its third day since the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on Saturday. Thousands of people flocked to Cairo to pay homage to their departed Father.

At the joint meeting of the Holy Synod held today it was announced that Metropolitan Mikhael had asked to be excused from presiding because of his advanced age and had proposed that Metropolitan Pachomios should preside instead. Also attending were members of the Maglis Milli, the Coptic community council.

Reports from Cairo this morning say that two months ago, His Holiness sensing the nearness of this departure, ordered Metropolitan Pachomious to start construction of his tomb at St. Bishoy’s monastery. This was completed three days ago. The burial place at St. Bishoy’s monastery was originally constructed as a museum for the monastery’s historic artefacts but was awaiting His Holiness’ instructions before opening it. In consultation with Bishop Sarabamoun, Abbot of St. Bishoy, Metropolitan Pachomios decided that it would be a fitting resting place for the Pope and the necessary changes were commenced. It is reported that large numbers of monks from surrounding monasteries in the Wadi El Natrun are converging on St. Bishoy’s monastery and that people are already erecting tents in the monastery’s vicinity in expectation of Tuesday’s burial of His Holiness.

The army, having been invited to assist with crowd control, have soldiers inside St. Mark’s Cathedral this morning guarding the entrance to the sanctuary. As a result, things are much calmer than yesterday. This is the first time that the army has entered the Patriarchate’s precincts, previously they were confined to guarding the entrance. This historic decision shows the concern of the Holy Synod for the health and welfare of mourners and it’s desire to ensure that the solemnities are conducted respectfully and with order.

It is reported that Gamel Mubarek, son of the former President, and himself imprisoned, has requested his wife to offer condolences on his behalf at the Pope’s death.

20 March

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, I 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 Pachomios 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 Pachomios 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.

I accompanied His Grace Bishop Angaelos by car to the monastery, where we 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 whitemarble 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 Pachomios 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 cortège 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 for all who respect the memory and legacy of Pope Shenouda. It will also be a source of many blessings for generations to come.

21 March

I 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.

At the Patriarchate in Anba Rueiss Their Eminences Metropolitan Pachomious 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.

22 March

The meeting of the Holy Synod which was held today was memorable for a number of reasons. In fact it was a joint meeting of the Holy Synod, the Maglis Milli (Coptic Community Council) and the Al Awkaf (Council for Church Endowments), so there were also a number of laity present. The session was opened by H.E. Metropolitan Bishoy, General Secretary of the Holy Synod, who spoke respectfully of the church’s loss of H.H. Pope Shenouda and, having circulated the 1957 Statutes governing the procedure to be followed after the death of a Pope, reminded us that our first task was to formally elect a locum tenens (sometimes called an Acting Patriarch) for the Church. By seniority this would fall to Metropolitan Mikhael of Assuit, but as he is a nonogenerian, he had humbly waived all rights and proposed that Metropolitan Pachomious should preside. Whilst seniority is respected, the Synod is free to chose whoever it wishes from among its number. However, the unanimous choice of Metropolitan Pachomios which followed owed nothing to his seniority and everything to the respect and affection in which he is held by those present. This election was made by 86 bishops and 20 members of the laity. As locum tenens, he will enjoy all the powers of the Pope with the exception of ordaining new bishops during the interregnum.

Assuming his position, the Metropolitan thanked the Synod for its confidence in him and expressed his unworthiness. He spoke of the critical times through which the church is passing and read from Ephesians IV: 1-6. He emphasised the necessity of living according to these verses and desired that we might live in love, peace and unity as we desire to know the will of God and to discover where the Lord is leading His church. Accordingly he encouraged everyone present to speak and be heard in that same spirit. There could be no room for individual interests, Pope Shenouda has left us with a precious treasure. The Church places us in a unique position; we cannot disappoint the people and we carry the responsibility together. It is our task to steer the ship of the church safely into the harbour.

The Synod lasted for five hours, 25 minutes, the longest session in recent memory, and many bishops and laity spoke constructively of their vision for the church’s future and addressed the many issues needing to be considered. It was a long, but fruitful meeting and there was a refreshing openness of debate. The next meeting of the Synod will be held on 27 March and Metropolitan Pachomios indicated that, if necessary, it would meet twice a week to deal with all the required business. The public will be kept informed of its decisions and progress in the preparations for electing a new Pope by official statements issued from the Patriarchate.

Abba Seraphim returned to London late on 23 March. 

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