By Joseph Fahim
This article is not an obituary to Pope Shenouda III, who passed away on Saturday, March 17 at the age of 88; nor is it an appraisal of his accomplishments or his position in modern Egyptian history.
It’s also not a response to the incredibly tactless, offensive and disrespectful statements of some of the nation’s most ‘prominent’ political activists, which show how completely out of touch they are with the public.
This article is a straightforward chronicle of my family’s relationship with the Pope, an up-close and personal account of my father’s closest friend.
For as long as I remember, Pope Shenouda was a central figure in our lives. Before I was born, my parents were regular visitors to the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in the Nitrian Desert, the place where Sadat forced the Pope into exile after refusing to hold the Easter mass (a daring retort to the series of attacks Coptic Christians endured in the late ‘70s).
My father was a young attorney back then, starting his own business. My father was a man of the world with an insatiable appetite for life and a foul mouth. He was not a particularly religious man, never the church-going type, but he was very spiritual, and he loved public service.
His second cousin, now Bishop Botros, was starting his clerical career back then. In the mid-‘80s, he introduced my dad to the Pope, who immediately took a liking to him. Soon after, my dad started doing some work for the Church. After scoring a number of big victories for the Church, the Pope declared my father the lawyer of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The Pope continued to push my father to abandon his private practice, yet he continued to turn him down, refusing to take a single piaster from the church for his efforts. For my father, as he always told me and my sister, he couldn’t charge God for his work.
Growing up, the Pope, for me, was my dad’s employer…his buddy. Many times, I would casually pop in the St. Mark Cathedral, say hi to the Pope and bemoan my dad for leaving me alone for hours in the car. For us, the Saint Pishoy Monastery was an annual pilgrimage where we got to spend some quality time with the Pope. He loved my mom, and was constantly in touch with her up until recent years.
My family and I were Church royalty. Everyone in Church and school knew who we were. My sister and I were thus propelled to behave accordingly, which didn’t quite suit our strong rebellious tendencies. The burden of my father’s reputation, of our well-known association with the Pope, was too heavy for us to carry.
My father’s long working hours meant that we saw little of him. The Church was the center of his life, not us. In my teenage years, the fondness I had for the Pope, who used to shower me and my sister with gifts when we were young, changed into bitterness. The Pope, I began to regard, was the man who stole my father away from us. In one heated argument with him, I admitted my resentment for the Pope.
My relationship with my father grew muddled. He was disappointed at the faithless, cynical failure I had become, while I couldn’t comprehend, or accept, his attachment to the Church, snatching every opportunity to mock his idealism in front of the outraged guests that never left our house.
But then something happened, and I’m still not quite sure what it was. Me and my father grew closer, began to share secrets and spend longer hours with each other. Frustrated with the rising rivalries between both the higher and lower echelons of the Church, he began to divulge to me the corruption that has taken over the Holy Synod, and the envy several bishops held towards his unique relationship with the Pope. A particular clash with one of the most leading bishops, who’s been shortlisted as the Pope’s successor, left my dad scarred for months. The constant fighting began to take its toll on my father, and I couldn’t tolerate seeing him in such physical and emotional pain.
I simply couldn’t regard the Church with the unquestionable reverence that informed my childhood. The Pope, I began to see him, was nothing more than the head of a dishonest institute.
In a span of few minutes, my family’s life radically changed when my ailing father, who suffered from several heart attacks along the years, had a brain stroke.
My father was paralyzed for nine months, the most nightmarish period of my life. The Church circus that constantly chased after my father was suddenly gone. The priests, bishops and numberless Church officials who never left my dad’s office were nowhere to be seen, none of whom cared to pick up the phone and ask about us.
I was 19, in my freshmen year in college, and my sister was 22. My mother was clueless about dealing with the unfinished business her husband left behind, facing clients — and later, lawsuits — who demanded their cash and documents back. We were lost and alone; fearful of an indefinite future my father had not prepared us for. My father was a tremendously generous man who rarely set a limit for his spending. The savings he had left in the bank were sufficient enough to put us through college, but not for the hefty medical expenses required for his treatment.
Without asking him to, the Pope decided to take care of all my father’s expenses, aiding us to find a nurse for him and providing us with all facilities we needed to set up a room for him in the house. When most people abandoned us — the priests and bishops, friends and some family members — the Pope never did. Every single time my dad fell sick, he was there for him, adamant on visiting him in whichever hospital he was taken to.
After my dad had his stroke, he visited him in hospital, where he looked shocked, and then at home, where he shed a tear on his way out. He took care of us, always sending a messenger to make sure we’re okay. For the first time in my life, I finally saw the Pope for what he really was: an extraordinarily gentle, humble and thoughtful man who never turned his back to anyone in need.
My father passed away on July 10, 2001. As always, the Pope rushed to our side. He conducted the funeral mass himself, gave the most moving tribute to my father, spoke of his matchless dedication to the Church and God, his exceptional work ethics and the profound friendship they had.
At the end of the funeral, he came up to me, with his tears in his eyes, kissed me on the cheeks, and said; “May God protect you, you and your family.” The next day, he printed a large obituary for him in Al Ahram, expressing his condolences for my family and thanking my father for the years of work he’d done for the Church, for God.
A few weeks later, my mom, sister and I went to meet him at the Papal Headquarters. My mom thanked him for everything he’d done to us. Still in my shy period, I was silent most of that time. My mom told him I changed my major from pharmacy to mass communication. He smiled at me, said some encouraging words, and told me that mass media is the future, the most powerful tool in the world.
He talked a bit about my dad, before my sister told him that he loved him dearly. He paused for what seemed like eternity, gazed at us, and with a look of pain in his eyes said, “We had a great deal of love for each other.” In the same week, he appointed my dad’s assistant lawyers in the Church’s legal department. Up till this very moment, they still hold these positions.
In the years since then, I met the Pope one more time. My mom, a very devout Christian, cut ties with the Church hierarchies, mainly because it brought bad memories she couldn’t confront. My sister and I parted ways with the Coptic Church, unable to overcome the bad history we’ve had with its officials during my father’s sickness.
I grew more critical of the Church since beginning my career as a journalist, attacking the Church, and the Pope, in the few opinion pieces I wrote for this paper. I rarely agreed with the Pope’s politics, condemning his support for the Mubarak regime that was responsible for the Coptic troubles, and I questioned the virtues of his leadership in his last years. I hailed my fellow Christians for standing up to the system during the revolution and defying the Church’s orders.
But this is not the time or the place to assess the Pope’s politics, nor do I believe that people have the right to judge him and his legacy in simplified black and white terms.
My personal memories of Pope Shenouda III have little to do with politics. What I remember him for is his graciousness, his contagious sense of humor, his deep compassion and his beautiful soul. I will remember him for the joy he brought to every single convention he graced, for the countless poor and sick he saved through his thriving social programs, and for the hope he gave millions of hopeless Egyptian Christians like my family for 42 years.
Joseph Fahim is the Arts and Culture Editor of Daily News Egypt.