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It was 50 years ago. On May 10, 1973, Pope Paul VI invited Patriarch Shenouda III, Coptic pope from 1971 to 2012, to Rome. The occasion was the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Doctor and Father of the Church venerated in the Orthodox, Coptic, and Catholic Churches. During the meeting they signed a very important Christological agreement that put an end to a long controversy between Copts and Catholics about the Council of Chalcedon (451), at the root of the rupture between Rome and the Eastern Churches. For the first time, the two religious leaders affirmed that they shared the same faith in Christ, recognized as true God and true man. This rapprochement paved the way for other powerful and significant ecumenical gestures between Rome and the Syriac, Armenian, and Syro-Malankara Churches.
By coming to Rome to meet with Pope Francis on the same day as the 50th anniversary of this meeting, Patriarch Tawadros II is emphasizing the importance of this rapprochement. His visit will also be an opportunity to commemorate another anniversary: that of his coming to Rome in 2013 for his first trip outside of Egypt, to meet with the then newly elected Pope Francis. On that occasion, May 10 was designated as the Day of Coptic-Catholic Friendship.
Then Pope Francis visited Egypt in 2017, a visit that constituted a real step forward with the signing of an agreement on the recognition of baptisms.
By returning 50 years after Shenouda III and 10 years after his previous visit, Patriarch Tawadros II is taking another ecumenical step that Pope Francis was keen to honor. For this reason, in an unprecedented gesture he asked him to participate at his side in the general audience on May 10. After the Pope’s traditional catechesis, the patriarch will speak.
“This will be a first,” explains Fr. Hyacinthe Destivelle, a member of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. In 2008, the Armenian Catholicos Karekin II was invited to an audience by Benedict XVI, but was not given the opportunity to speak.
The largest church in the Middle East
This rapprochement also shows Rome’s recognition of the strong ecumenical gestures made by Patriarch Tawadros II in the last 10 years, such as the creation of an ecumenical council with a rotating presidency, or his presence at the enthronement of the Catholic Coptic Patriarch Sidrak in 2013 — also a first.
His church, which represents 10% of the Egyptian population, is the largest in the Middle East, but he has shown a real openness towards Catholics, who number only about a hundred thousand.
The patriarch, who will stay in Rome from May 9 to 14, will meet privately with the Pope on May 11. An exchange of speeches is expected to take place, during which the “ecumenism of blood” — the bringing together of Christians through the same suffering of martyrdom — could be discussed.
Often described as the church of martyrs, the Coptic Church is still affected by the killing of Coptic faithful by the Islamic State organization in Libya in 2015 and by several attacks on churches.
Tawadros II will conclude his visit on Sunday with a liturgy in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in the presence of the Coptic faithful of Italy.