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Two Popes, Catholic & Coptic, Meet To Aid Middle Eastern Christianity

Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II pose for a photo with Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, and the delegation that accompanied Pope Tawadros to Rome after the weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 10. (CNS Photo)

by Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet 

CAIRO — Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II visited the Vatican from May 9 to 14 and met with Pope Francis. The visit was the second time in 10 years that Pope Tawadros visited the Vatican; he did so in May 2013, when the two churches proclaimed May 10 as “Coptic-Catholic Friendship Day.” 

“It’s a visit of love and fraternity,” Pope Tawadros said of his latest visit to the Vatican during a meeting with journalists in Cairo. 

He met with Pope Francis to discuss ways the two churches can draw closer together. 

Pope Tawadros II then accompanied Pope Francis to the general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to give an address to the crowds. “Allowing me to give a speech to the general audience is a kind of appreciation, honor, and love that I cherish,” the Egyptian pope said. 

“It is a wonderful occasion to support and strengthen the ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches,” Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi, an Egyptian Coptic Catholic clergyman who served between April 2014 and August 2020 as the second personal secretary to Pope Francis, told The Tablet. 

Msgr. Lahzi cited the good relationship between the two leaders, saying: “I have witnessed many personal situations of sincere love that His Holiness Pope Francis and His Holiness Pope Tawadros have for each other.” 

Msgr. Lahzi mentioned that the first visit Pope Tawadros made after his 2013 enthronement was to the Vatican. Also, in April 2017, a few months after 29 Coptic Christians were killed in a suicide bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul Chapel (El- Botroseya Church) inside the cathedral compound in Cairo, Pope Francis visited the church and prayed with Pope Tawadros as he was on an official visit to Egypt. 

As a sign of welcome, Pope Francis allocated St. John Lateran Basilica for the Egyptian pope to celebrate Divine Liturgy for the Coptic Egyptians in Rome on Sunday, May 14. 

It marked the first time that a non-Catholic held a liturgy in the pope’s cathedral. “It is another evidence of the depth and sincerity of the relations between the two leaders and the passion of each of them to complete the path of dialogue and move forward,” Msgr. Lahzi said. 

“Here it must be noted that the Catholic Church, which is followed by more than one billion, two hundred million Catholics, always opens its doors to the apostolic churches, confirming its sincere desire to achieve the fulfillment of the Lord Jesus Christ’s prayer for his disciples so that they may reach unity in love, hope, and faith,” he added. 

For the Orthodox Copts, the visit is very important and a sign of openness and sincere love between the two churches. “The Vatican will talk about the Coptic Church as the mother of martyrs; this is a kind of honor and confession of our Coptic Church’s sacrifice throughout its history in the name of Jesus Christ,” Peter Magdy, a Coptic writer and researcher, told The Tablet. 

The Coptic Church is known as the “Church of the Martyrs.” 

During the visit, the memory of the Coptic martyrs assassinated by the Islamic State in 2015 in Libya was evoked, and Pope Francis announced that he was adding them to the Catholic calendar of saints. 

Pope Tawadros has been criticized by hardliners, who have posted on social media claiming he would pray a joint Catholic liturgical prayer with Pope Francis, and accusing him of diverting attention from the Coptic Orthodox Church teachings. Church spokesperson Mousa Ibrahim denied the rumors. 

“Our joint prayer in the Vatican is an unconditional love deal … such prayer isn’t liturgical. … Why do those (hardliners) accept and bless building bridges with people of other religions while rejecting different sects of the same faith?” Hanan Ferkry, a Coptic Orthodox journalist and former member of the board of the Egyptian Journalism Syndicate, posted on her Facebook account. 

When Pope Francis visited Egypt in 2017, his trip was marked by a significant step forward in ecumenical relations between the Roman Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches. That was the signing of a joint agreement under which the two churches agreed that they would not rebaptize members of one church who wished to join the other. However, that hasn’t been implemented yet. 

According to Pope Tawardros, no new agreements would be signed by the two leaders during this visit. 

The visit of Pope Tawadros to the Vatican coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between a Catholic pope and a Coptic Orthodox patriarch since the separation of Chalcedon more than 15 centuries ago. 

In 1973, Pope Shenouda III made a historic visit to Pope Paul VI, when together they launched the first dialogue between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches since 451. 

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches that for centuries were considered heretical by the Catholic Church because they insisted that Christ has only “one nature.” They broke with the rest of Christianity over the “two natures in one person” terminology adopted in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Most scholars today conclude, however, that the differences were semantic rather than doctrinal. 

In 1973, St. Paul VI gave the Orthodox Church part of the remains of St. Athanasius during the celebration of the 1600th anniversary of his death. 

Pope Shenouda III and St. Paul VI signed a Christological agreement that established a basis for an ecumenical committee to prepare joint studies around patristic science, liturgies, theology, history, and scientific programs so that the two churches could cooperate and seek a solution for their differences in a spirit of mutual respect, said Msgr. Lahzi. 

Asked about the impact of the Christological agreement on the relationship between the two churches after five decades, Msgr. Lahzi said, “Agreements take many years to become a living reality. The signing by the two churches of the Christological convention in 1973 was a historic step, which paved the way for further in-depth study. However, we must always remember that such documents open the way for people to walk with sincerity, courage, and love.” 

Msgr Lahzi added: “It’s the same for the declaration of not having to repeat baptism which was also a historic step that will take time to become a lived reality. Some people greeted this step with much joy because it heals the wounds of division that the Church of Christ suffers from. Others received it with rejection, convulsions, and criticism, which is normal because it is an important historical step. People always differ in moments that change history.”