Yesterday marked the four year anniversary of the departure from this world of a true spiritual giant, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. I therefore thought it fitting to honor this saintly man with a post I wrote back in 2012, just days after his death, speaking about some of my experiences with the departed Pope and some lessons learned as well. May the Lord accept the prayers of this righteous man on behalf of us all and on behalf of His Beloved Church.
Over the past few days, a lot has been written about the life and legacy of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. As is often the case with a righteous man, it isn’t until after his departure from this world that we realize the true greatness of the man that was in our midst.
Unlike so many others, I can’t say I had a lot of personal experiences with His Holiness. The number of times I had significant interactions with him could be counted on one hand. However, even though the interactions weren’t many in number, the few that did take place left powerful marks in my life.
"Powerful" is actually the best word I can use to describe him. He was a powerful man. Not powerful in a worldly sense, but powerful in a godly authority kind of way. Just one look from his eyes or just one word from his mouth was always accompanied with the kind of godly authority that I always imagined Moses the Prophet speaking with in the Old Testament. One minute in his presence and you knew you weren’t talking to an ordinary man, but rather a man who is empowered by the Living God.
I’ll talk about just two of those interactions that I had with our departed Patriarch – the first one and the last one. Let’s start with the last one and move backwards.
First, the establishment of St. Timothy & St. Athanasius church [which I actually wrote about in my very first blog post – there’s some trivia for you]. On December 11, 2011, I met with His Holiness in Cleveland, OH to discuss the idea of starting a new church in the DC metro area – one that I would be shepherding under the supervision of His Grace Bishop David.
’ll be honest, I was nervous when presenting the idea to him. Why? Because the idea of St. Timothy & St. Athanasius church is that it wouldn’t be a Coptic church like all others. It would be one that really focused on reaching out to community around us and removing the cultural barriers that sometimes exists in our Coptic churches [yes, in case you haven’t noticed, we have a bit of a STRONG culture right?].
How would he respond? Would he like the idea or not? Even if he did like the idea, would he trust a new church like this into the hands of a young, inexperienced priest like myself? Especially one who he doesn’t really know all that well?
Well, the answer to all of those questions was an emphatic YES! Not only did he approve but he encouraged me and told me to proceed forward FULL SPEED AHEAD! [or at least, that’s my best translation of what he said].
Why such an enthusiastic answer? The answer isn’t in anything I said or did. In fact, I kept my mouth shut for most of the time. And when I did open my mouth, I actually probably did more harm than good.
FUNNY ASIDE: At the end of the conversation, I decided that I was going to thank the Pope for his encouragement and the way he believed in me. I told him how much I appreciate his fatherhood and his care. I told him that I have the utmost of love and respect for him. I figured I had been silent long enough – now I need to step out of my comfort zone and speak from my heart to His Holiness. This was my one shining moment where I stepped up to the plate and spoke boldly in the face of nerves and fear. I spoke directly. I spoke candidly. I spoke confidently.
His response? After listening intently to the outpouring of my heart, His Holiness responded by looking directly at me for a few seconds, then turning to everyone else in the room, with a smile on his face, and saying in Arabic “What did he say?”
No one could keep a straight face when that happened. It was one of the top 10 funniest moments of my life. Here I am – pouring out my heart and soul and overcoming all my fears – and the Pope looks at me the same way that you would like at a 3 year old child that is speaking to you in Japanese and said “What did he say?” It was a hilarious moment!
But anyway, back to my earlier question – what made His Holiness approve the idea of St. Timothy & St. Athanasius church? If it wasn’t me, what was it? When we first pitched the idea to him, you could tell that he didn’t fully understand the concept of what we were trying to do – not just a regular church but one without the cultural barriers. But God arranged it that our discussion would be attended by another Coptic priest visiting from Los Angeles and his wife. They were both in attendance during our informal meeting.
When that priest heard the idea and could see that His Holiness was struggling to grasp it, he told a story of his own. He spoke about a man back in his church in LA that wanted to join the Coptic church but never did. The man read all the books, knew all the history and studied all the dogma. The man attended Liturgical services and enjoyed them even before he was baptized. The man even started serving in the church and helping with various ministries.
So why didn’t the man join the church? The priest went on to say that the man came to him after almost one year and said “I’ve been here for almost one year and only one person has gone out of their way to speak to me.” Of course the man was offended by that and came to the conclusion that he just didn’t fit with this group of people. The cultural barrier was too much for him to overcome so he decided to leave the church and join another church.
The Pope heard that story and his decision was made after that – we have to start more churches without the cultural barriers. Once the Pope saw what’s at stake and that action needed to be taken, he moved swiftly and powerfully in order to do what’s right. One story about one man in one city on the other side of the country – but that was all it took.
I learned a lot from that. I learned that leaders can’t be afraid to do what’s right – even if it means taking risks.
Some leaders worry too much about maintaining the status quo and keeping everyone appeased and happy. But His Holiness took a chance on this new idea suggested by this young priest – why? Because he felt it was the right thing to do and he was willing to take a risk.
Our Lord Jesus didn’t live a “status quo” life and He doesn’t expect us to either. Sometimes we have to take some chances and risks.
His Holiness took a chance on me twice in my life – the first time was my first interaction with him back in 2001, when he embraced the idea of turning a little known, 25 year old, newly married, American born young man into a priest in the Coptic Orthodox church. It was a risk. No doubt about it, he was taking a chance – especially since I later discovered that apparently I was the first Coptic priest of Egyptian descent born outside of Egypt [there’s another piece of trivia for you].
My point is this: he took a risk on me and I am thankful that he did. And if you’ve benefited from anything I have ever done in my ministry, then you should be thankful that he did as well.
If you want to do great things in life, you have to be willing to take chances. That doesn’t mean we live foolishly – but it means that we don’t live fearfully.
Two quotes to wrap up with – one from the Bible and one from Michael Jordan [I’ll let you guess which one is which]:
“I CAN accept failure, but I CAN’T accept not trying.”
“But without faith it is impossible to please Him” Hebrews 11:6
Discussion: What lessons have you learned from the life of Pope Shenouda III?