I was sad to receive a message on Facebook with a link to a story about the passing of Pope Shenouda III. The inquirer wanted some clarification regarding the use of the term “pope” in this context, and I’ll be happy to provide that. I want first of all to express my condolences to anyone in the Coptic Christian community who may read this.
For those who haven’t encountered mention of him before, Pope Shenouda was the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is the main Christian church in Egypt. It is not a Catholic church, but it is very close to the Catholic church in doctrine and outlook. In recent times there have been significant steps toward restoring full Christian unity, and Pope Shenouda was a leader in that effort.
Although full communion has not yet been achieved, one of the notable steps taken during Shenouda III’s reign as a 1973 joint declaration which he signed with Pope Paul VI.
This decree is so significant because in it the leaders of the two churches profess a common faith in the doctrine of Christ, which had previously been a source of division. After the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, the two churches articulated their faith in Christ differently, with Coptic Christians frequently be characterized as “monophysites,” meaning that they understood Christ to have only one nature rather than two distinct but inseparably united divine and human natures. (More on monophysistism here.)
More recent discussions, however, led the two churches to conclude that, although they historically articulated the doctrine of Christ using different language, today they are able to make a common confession, which the document expressed in the following terms:
In accordance with our apostolic traditions transmitted to our Churches and preserved therein, and in conformity with the early three ecumenical councils, we confess one faith in the One Triune God, the divinity of the Only Begotten Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, the effulgence of His glory and the express image of His substance, who for us was incarnate, assuming for Himself a real body with a rational soul, and who shared with us our humanity but without sin. We confess that our Lord and God and Saviour and King of us all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God with respect to His Divinity, perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation. His divinity did not separate from His humanity for an instant, not for the twinkling of an eye. He who is God eternal and invisible became visible in the flesh, and took upon Himself the form of a servant. In Him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of the humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.
Now, about the term “pope.” This term is based on the Latin and Greek word for “father,” which is pater. It’s pronounced and spelled a little differently in the two langauges, but that’s the term.
Based on the example of the apostles, who in their writings describe themselves as the spiritual fathers of those in their flocks, who they also describe as their children (St. Paul and St. John do this repeatedly), it has been natural for the term “father” to be applied to Christian leaders, with due reverence for the unique Fatherhood of God.
Today in many parts of the world, priests are often called “Father,” but in early times it was common to use this title for higher religious leaders, which is how the bishop of Rome became called “pope” in the first place.
The title was not unique to him, though, and it was also used for certain other leaders, including the patriarch of Alexandria, which is what Pope Shenouda was.
In this case the term “pope” does not mean “successor of St. Peter.” Alexandria is known as the see of St. Mark, who founded it, and the Coptic pope is regarded as the successor of St. Mark.
The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church thus is not a pope in the same way that the head of the Catholic Church is, and his title does not imply that he is. It’s the same word, but it’s being used in a different way, with a different meaning.
This is why official Catholic documents use the title “pope” for the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. It isn’t attributing to him the idea that he’s the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome, or the head of the Church on earth. It’s simply a use of the term “pope” that has been retained from a time before this term became associated exclusively with the bishop of Rome in the popular mind.
Thus the joint declaration between Paul VI and Shenouda III is titled “COMMON DECLARATION OF POPE PAUL VI AND OF THE POPE OF ALEXANDRIA SHENOUDA III,” and it begins by saying:
Paul VI, bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, and Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark, give thanks in the Holy Spirit to God that, after the great event of the return of relics of St. Mark to Egypt, relations have further developed between the Churches of Rome and Alexandria so that they have now been able to meet personally together.
While it’s natural for westerners to be a bit startled by the use of this title given their experience of it, they need not be concerned that it is being used in the same sense that they are familiar with. It’s not, and in fact the Holy See itself uses the term this way.
In fact, within a day or two it is certain that the Holy See will issue a communique expressing Pope Benedict’s condolences on the passing of Pope Shenouda.
Ah, I was right. Before hitting “Publish,” I checked the Vatican’s news site and found this statement already online:
Press Office Statement on the death of Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria
The Catholic Church shares in the grief and prayers of Coptic Christians in mourning the loss of their spiritual leader, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria. Pope Benedict XVI was informed of the news and he is united spiritually with prayers of suffrage. We will never forget the meeting of Pope Shenouda in Cairo with Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Mount Sinai during the Great Jubilee. The occasion marked a high moment in dialogue and fellowship witnessing to our common faith in Christ. May the Lord welcome this great shepherd and give him the reward he deserves for his service.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office