Featured Image
Pope Francis and Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II, May 10, 2023Vatican News/Screenshot

VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, joined Pope Francis in leading the general audience at the Vatican today, as part of an ecumenical visit this week during which he will also offer a liturgy in the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

From May 9 through 14, Tawadros II of Alexandria is making a visit to Rome, which is particularly marked by historic meetings with Pope Francis. 

On May 10, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church made history by making an address at the weekly general audience which Pope Francis holds at the Vatican. He joined Francis on the platform in St. Peter’s Square, where two seats were positioned such that they might jointly speak to the crowds in the square.

Addressing Pope Francis as “beloved brother, His Holiness Pope Francis,” Tawadros said “Christ is risen, He is truly risen!” It is believed to be the first address by a non-Catholic church leader at the papal audience.

Tawadros’ visit marks 10 years since he was welcomed by Pope Francis to the Vatican in 2013, a day which he suggested the two leaders annually mark as one of “Coptic-Catholic Friendship.”

READ: Pope Francis gives relics of Christ’s Cross to King Charles for Anglican coronation ceremony

“Despite the differences in our roots and affiliations,” said Tawadros, “we are united by the love of Christ who dwells within us, and the host of our Apostolic Fathers and saints which surrounds and guides us.”

In response, Francis thanked the Coptic patriarch for accepting the invitation to make a visit to Rome, saying “I pray that the light of the Holy Spirit will illuminate your visit to Rome, the important meetings you will have here, and especially our personal conversations.” 

“I sincerely thank you for your commitment to the growing friendship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church,” said Francis, who did not deliver his customary catechetical address.

Continuing, Francis called for an increased “communion” between Roman Catholics and Coptics, asking all of those present at the audience “to pray to God to bless Pope Tawadros’ visit to Rome and to protect the entire Coptic Orthodox Church. May this visit bring us closer more swiftly to the blessed day when we will be one in Christ!”

At the close of the audience, Francis and Tawadros blessed the crowd, with Francis doing so first, followed by Tawadros.

Tawadros and Francis marking Christological anniversary

Tawadros and Francis took the public stage together today, but tomorrow will meet privately in the Apostolic Palace, after which they will spend time together in prayer, according to the Holy See press release. Following this, Tawadros will meet with officials from the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, who welcomed Tawadros to Rome by quoting the words of Paul VI to Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III: “We welcome you here to this ancient See of Rome, as you bring us the wisdom of the ancient See of Alexandria.”

READ: Queen Elizabeth’s former chaplain explains why he became Catholic

The Coptic patriarch’s visit to Rome chiefly marks the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Coptic Patriarch Pope Shenouda III in 1973. During that meeting, Paul VI and Shenouda III signed the “Joint Christological Declaration,” heralded as a breakthrough in relations between the two churches after years of “estrangement,” and which reads in part:

We confess that our Lord and God and Saviour and King of us all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God with respect to His divinity, perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation. His divinity did not separate from His humanity for an instant, not for the twinkling of an eye.

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Coptic Church had rejected the pronouncement on Christ as having a divine and human nature. They accepted Christ as having one nature only, the nature of the Incarnate Word, which united the human and divine nature “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration.” Roman Catholics profess the human and divine nature are both distinct from one another, but are of course united in the hypostatic union.

Since the Council of Chalcedon, there had been “theological differences, nourished and widened by non-theological factors,” the 1973 declaration stated.

The 1973 statement also condemned any attempts at “proselytism” from either the Catholics or from the Coptics: “In the name of this charity, we reject all forms of proselytism, in the sense of acts by which persons seek to disturb each other’s communities by recruiting new members from each other through methods, or because of attitudes of mind, which are opposed to the exigencies of Christian love or to what should characterize the relationships between Churches.”

Pope Francis & Patriarch Tawadros II at the general audience. Credit: Vatican News screenshot

Lateran Archbasilica for Coptic liturgy

However, those Coptic Orthodox faithful governed by the Patriarch of Alexandria – which is also called the See of St. Mark or the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria – do not accept the authority of the Roman Pontiff. Members of the Patriarchate make up the vast majority of Christians in Egypt.

Despite this, and despite the fact that the Coptic Orthodox liturgies are valid but schismatic, Pope Francis has given permission for Tawadros to offer a liturgy in St. John Lateran’s basilica this Sunday, for the Coptic faithful in Italy. The patriarch will be given a “specially constructed altar” for the ceremony, said Father Martin Browne, an official at the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

Browne highlighted how Tawadros’ visit was “very particular – the 50th anniversary of the first meeting of the heads of the Churches of Rome and Alexandria after a millennium and a half of estrangement.”

“Up to 3,000 are expected to come, which is far more than could be accommodated in Pope Tawadros’ own church in Rome,” he said. “Thus, the opportunity to celebrate in the Lateran Basilica is precisely the kind of practical sharing of ‘Resources for Spiritual Life and Activity’ provided for in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.”

The Vatican official was at pains to differentiate between Tawadros’ liturgy in the Lateran and the recent liturgy held there by Protestant clergy in April, which led to outrage from Catholics. 

READ: Freemason Anglican bishop celebrates ‘Mass’ in papal basilica with Protestant clergy

An unnamed liturgy professor at Rome’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum added that “although he [Tawadros] is not in communion with Rome, there is no doubt that the patriarch is really a bishop and the celebration of a Coptic Rite will be a valid celebration.”

Yet, while Tawadros has cultivated a good friendship with Francis, his actions are not supported by Coptic Orthodox clergy, who view him as making too many concessions and engaging in dangerous ecumenism with the Catholic Church. 

Father Rafic Greiche, former spokesman for the Coptic Catholic Church – which is not to be confused with Tawadros’ Coptic Orthodox Church – stated how “there’s a lot of discretion around this visit, because a number of Copts and their bishops are against it.”

An “internal source” in the Coptic Orthodox Church argued that some Orthodox faithful feared “Tawadros II is going to hand over our Church to the Catholics.”