Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and a holy man
who has held office longer than any Catholic pontiff, will visit
Ambridge tomorrow to consecrate a new church building for his growing
"For the pope himself to come and consecrate the church is absolutely
huge," said Mark Matta, 30, of Shadyside, a medical resident and a
deacon at St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church.
"He has been the pope for my entire life."
Now 83, his 36-year tenure outstrips the 31 years of Pope Pius IX --
the longest-reigning Catholic pope whose dates are documented -- and
even the best estimate of 35 years for St. Peter, the first bishop of
The Coptic Church is Egyptian -- "copt" is a form of the "gypt" in
Egypt. It is one of the most ancient in Christianity. Many scholars
believe the bishop of Alexandria was called "pope" before the bishop of
Rome was. The church is said to have been founded by St. Mark in 61
A.D., but the New Testament refers to Christians in Egypt even earlier.
"Egypt became Christianized more thoroughly and before Rome did," said
the Rev. Mark Gruber, a Catholic priest at St. Vincent Archabbey in
Latrobe, who has studied in Pope Shenouda's monastery.
Alexandria was the center of early Christian scholarship and the birthplace of monasticism, he said.
The Coptic Church isn't part of either the Roman Catholic Church or the
mainstream Orthodox churches represented by the ecumenical patriarch in
Constantinople, but has good relationships with both. In the fifth
century, it split from the main body of Christianity over the nature of
the Trinity. That theological issue has since been resolved with the
Vatican and the major Orthodox churches, but the Coptic Church is not
in full communion with either.
"It may well compromise an Egyptian national church in a sea of Islam
to be too tightly configured to international Western church bodies.
The inherited divisions of the churches are essential to their future
survival in the equilibriums of modern history," Father Gruber said.
In the 19th century, the Copts survived the efforts of both Catholics and Protestants to convert them, but learned from both.
"They adopted the Sunday School Bible study and prayer services of the
Protestants, and sent all their best and brightest children to Catholic
schools. Aside from losing a modest percentage of their numbers to both
groups, they emerged in the 20th century as remarkably renewed," Father
Pope Shenouda embodies that history. Born Nazeer Gayed, as a teen he
was active in the Sunday School movement, which sought to improve
Christian education. Upon graduation from seminary, he was named to its
At 30, he became a monk, taking the name Antonius El-Syriani. For six
years he lived as a hermit in a cave, until then-Pope Cyril VI called
him to be a bishop and president of the Coptic Orthodox Theological
Seminary. He took the name Shenouda as a bishop.
The number of seminarians tripled under his leadership, and in November 1971, he was consecrated pope.
He still lectures at the seminary, and created branches as far away as
Australia and the United States. He spends three days a week in a
monastery, has written 101 books and gives a weekly address to 7,000
people in Cairo.
As pope he has built good relationships with other Christians,
strengthened youth ministry and revitalized Coptic monasticism. One of
his greatest challenges is ministering to Coptic emigrants worldwide.
When he became pope in 1971, there were four parishes in North America;
now there are more than 100.
Although estimates vary, Father Gruber believes there are 8 million
Copts in Egypt, 2 million in the West, with another 25 million
Ethiopian Copts in communion with them. Historically, Copts often had
good relationships with their Muslim neighbors in Egypt, but the rise
of radical Islam has led to persecution by extremists.
"The Coptic diaspora, locally and nationally, is growing," he said. "The situation of the Copts in Egypt is precarious.
"Pope Shenouda needs the wisdom of Solomon to negotiate the problem. If
he encourages or even assists the Copts to emigrate, he weakens the
place of a fragile minority in Egypt. If he alienates those who have
left, he loses a necessary alliance by which he may seek assistance for
his people at home. He manages this difficulty with grace."
St. Mary parish in Ambridge reflects that reality. Founded in the early
1970s, the parish of 125 families outgrew its building and moved to a
former Catholic parish, which the pope will consecrate tomorrow.
"We've had some converts, but most of the growth is due to immigration," Dr. Matta said.
"Most of them left for a better life outside of Egypt, because of the persecution."
It is the only Coptic parish in the region, and draws faithful from as far as Youngstown, Ohio, Morgantown, W.Va., and Latrobe.
Pope Shenouda was due to arrive today, and is scheduled to consecrate the church at an 8 a.m. service tomorrow.
He is beloved and well-known to Copts here, Dr. Matta said.
"A lot of the immigrants here have satellite dishes with Arabic
channels, and we hear his messages every Easter and Christmas. He has
written so many books, and many of us have read them.
"We feel that same connection to him that Catholics felt to Pope John
Paul II -- and there is a great picture of the two of them together,"