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Historic Meeting between Pope Francis and Coptic Patriarch, Tawadros II, Fosters Christian Unity

By Michael Terheyden
May 18th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When unification among Christians is achieved, all of heaven will rejoice and the world will change. This is our time, our moment in history. God created us for this precise moment. Let us not fear it, but embrace it in faith, hope and love.

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - When it comes to the news, it seems like ecumenical efforts directed at restoring full Christian communion are taking place under the radar. Even so, I suspect it is a sleeping giant, for when unification is achieved, all of heaven will rejoice and the world will change.

The historic meeting last week between Pope Francis and Tawadros II, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is the latest example of efforts directed at Christian unity. Their words were filled with generosity and hope.

Tawadros II congratulated Francis on his appointment as Pope and Bishop of Rome. "I am honored and very glad to be here in the Vatican. Despite its being the smallest country in the world, it is the most important country for its great influence and Holy Service." 

He wanted this meeting to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Shenouda III, which took place on May 10, 1973. That was the first visit ever by a patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria to the Vatican. It began the process to heal the old wounds of distrust opened centuries ago. Paul VI and Shenouda III signed a joint statement pledging to search for reconciliation and unity between the two Churches.

That meeting was followed by Pope John Paul II's visit to Egypt in 2000, during his Great Jubilee pilgrimage to the places where Christianity began. John Paul II pictured the unification of the Eastern and Western Churches as breathing with two lungs. As I understand it, the image represents the importance of uniting the West's more rational and organizational approach with the East's more intuitive, mystical and contemplative approach.

Tawadros II then spoke of his love for Egypt and his Coptic heritage. He called Egypt '"the Nile Country,' a huge land with a wonderful geographical location. . . where the most ancient culture in the world was born, the Pharaonic Civilization." He also referred to Egypt's intimate connection with the Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic civilizations.

The Patriarch added, "Egypt has witnessed divine signs like no other place on earth. As the Prophet says, "Out of Egypt, I have called my son" and "Blessed be Egypt my people." He spoke of the Holy Family's three-year sojourn, that they blessed the whole country "with the sign of the Holy Cross" and that Jesus made its soil sacred.

He spoke of Saint Mark the Evangelist, who spread Christianity throughout Egypt and was martyred in the great city of Alexandria; and of Saint Anthony, who initiated monastic life; and Saint Athanasius, also known as the "Protector of the Faith" and the youngest pope of the Coptic Church.

He also emphasized the Copt's feelings toward Italy. He said "that the relationships between Italy and Egypt are utterly solid and long established, spanning over more than two millennia. The two countries can boast marvelous Mediterranean civilizations and human heritage that make them unique in the world. Therefore, Italy has a great place and worth in our hearts."

The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church are strongly interconnected, he said. "They have always worked together since the early ecumenical councils (going back to the first Nicaea Council in 325 A.D., when the 'Nicene Creed' was formulated in the fourth century. . . )." Both Churches, he added, "the Catholic and the Coptic, have always worked together in the Middle East and in the Western World to make peace prevail."

It was Tawadros II's wish "that the excellent relationships between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic [Church] may become stronger and more prosperous." In recognition of these historic meetings beginning with Paul VI and Shenouda III,  Tawadros II proposed that every year on May 10th "should be considered as a celebration of brotherly love between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church."

Pope Francis' opening remarks also reflected the growing friendship between the two Churches. He said, "Today's visit strengthens the bonds of friendship and brotherhood that already exist between the See of Peter and the See of Mark, heir to an inestimable heritage of martyrs, theologians, holy monks and faithful disciples of Christ, who have borne witness to the Gospel from generation to generation, often in situations of great adversity."

He noted that the Commission for Theological Dialogue, a result of the Common Declaration from 40 years ago, had "yielded good results and prepared the ground for a broader dialogue between the Catholic Church and the entire family of Oriental Orthodox Churches."

He added, "In that solemn Declaration, our Churches acknowledged that, in line with the apostolic traditions, they profess 'one faith in the One Triune God' and 'the divinity of the Only-begotten Son of God ... perfect God with respect to his divinity, perfect man with respect to his humanity.' They acknowledged that divine life is given to us and nourished through the seven sacraments and they recognized a mutual bond in their common devotion to the Mother of God."

"We are glad to be able to confirm today what our illustrious predecessors solemnly declared, we are glad to recognize that we are united by one Baptism, of which our common prayer is a special expression, and we long for the day when, in fulfillment of the Lord's desire, we will be able to communicate from the one chalice."

Francis also recognized Tawadros II's many contributions of fraternal charity to the Catholic Coptic Church, to build communion among Christians, and his efforts to secure a role for Christian communities within Egyptian society. It finds "a deep echo in the heart of the Successor of Peter and of the entire Catholic community," Francis said. "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor 12:26).

"This is a law of the Christian life, and in this sense we can say that there is also an ecumenism of suffering: just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity. And this also applies, in a certain sense, to the broader context of society and relations between Christians and non-Christians: from shared suffering can blossom forth forgiveness and reconciliation, with God's help."

On May 12, just a couple days after their historic meeting, Pope Francis canonized over 800  martyrs of Otranto. He prayed, "As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, in these times and in many parts of the world, right now, still suffer violence, and give them the courage and fidelity to respond to evil with good."

Otranto is a coastal city in southern Italy. In 1480 it was attacked by Muslim-Ottoman armies as part of an overall invasion of Italy. The day after the Muslims conquered the city, they beheaded over 800 Italian Christians who refused to convert to Islam.

Pope Francis' prayer, inspired by the martyrs of Otranto, for Christians still suffering violence today reminds us that the Copts, and Christians throughout the Middle east, Africa and the East, are suffering at the hands of Islamists and oppressive authoritarian governments. Even the free nations of the West are becoming hostile toward Christians as secularists amass greater power. 

But we need not fear. This is our time, our moment in history. God created us for this precise moment. Therefore, let us embrace it in faith, hope and love; and let us follow the lead of Pope Francis and Patriarch Tawadros II, trusting that God will give us the courage and fidelity we need to respond to evil with good. Let the sleeping giant rise!

 
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Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.

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