The global growth of Islam, and in particular the rise of Islamic extremism, have forced recent popes to set out, with increasing urgency, a strategy for engaging the religion.
Pope Francis on Friday met with Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, an encounter that brought the number of popes within the Vatican walls to three this week.
Benedict XVI, the emeritus pope, returned to the Vatican on May 2, two months after his resignation, while Tawadros is only the second Coptic pope to visit the Vatican, after the historic visit of Pope Shenouda III to Pope Paul VI in 1973.
Tawadros — on his first foreign trip since he was elected in November — is staying at the Vatican’s guesthouse where Pope Francis is also living. Benedict is now living in a revamped convent a 5-minute walk away, but there were no plans for the two men to meet.
Pope Shenouda led what many would call a biblical and spiritual life — the heartbeat of this ancient church. He loved the Bible, studying it thoroughly, memorizing vast passages, and teaching classes on its content — something unusual in the practices of this liturgical church. After becoming Pope in 1971, for many years he would teach from the Bible on a weekday night (I think it was always Wednesday) in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. He would schedule his world travels to be back in time for these Bible studies. The cathedral would be packed, and Pope Shenouda would patiently answer the questions raised by those coming to listen and learn.
When I first met Pope Shedouda in 2004, I was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, leading a denominational delegation to the Middle East. At the close of our “audience” — a time of rich conversation — I presented him with a small travel Bible which had been printed by the RCA. It was the NRSV translation. He took it gracefully, but immediately looked up a particular verse in the New Testament that was of concern, and promptly announced that the NRSV’s translation was inaccurate.
The Bible Society of Egypt, which loved Pope Shenouda’s biblical emphasis, is using the occasion of his funeral this week to reach out to the society. Pope Shenouda’s call to ministry came in 1945, when he read a passage from the Bible in the window of a bookstore of the Bible Society of Egypt. The organization has prepared a pamphlet summarizing his life and love of the Scriptures, and printed 1,000,000 copies for distribution.
Today’s funeral will provide a focus of national attention of the extraordinary life of this church leader.