Tuesday, March 20, 2012

There's another Pope?

Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch and
Pope of Alexandria,
+ March 17, 2012
  So the Pope died this Saturday past.  Well, not that pope—but the Pope of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III.  Who knew there were two popes?  Pope is, or at least was, used by some village priests among the Greek Orthodox Christians of Asia Minor and various islands in the Aegean Sea.  While this was common in the days of the Ottoman Sultanate, the persecution of Asiatic Greeks by the Ottomans and the destruction of most of those communities in the 19th century along with the modernization that has come to Greece with its independence from Turkey have made this title obsolete.  The title survives chiefly for two of the five Great Patriarchs of Christendom—the Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt and the Patriarch of the West, the Bishop of Rome.  The title has been used for the Patriarch of Alexandria since the time of Pope Heraclas of Alexandria in the middle of the third century. By comparison, for the Roman Pontiffs, “Pope” is somewhat of a modern affectation as the Bishops of Rome have used the title only since John I in the second decade of the sixth century.  The Greek Orthodox claimant to the Patriarchate of Alexandria also makes claim to the title, asserting that as an Orthodox (i.e. Chalcedonian) Christian he is the authentic heir to the See of Saint Mark.

The See of Saint Mark—this is what gives Alexandria its importance. 

One of the first places to which Christianity spread was Alexandria in Egypt, most likely being brought back to Alexandria by Alexandrian Jews who had been in Jerusalem that Pentecost and heard the preaching of the Apostles and accepted faith in Jesus as a fulfillment of their Messianic hopes as Jews.  There were strong ties between Jerusalem and Alexandria and Judaism was strong in that ancient Egyptian city with pilgrims regularly going to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimage feasts each year.  The See (or Diocese) of Alexandria is usually attributed to Mark the Evangelist, the author of the Second Gospel but it is clear that there would have been a Christian community there from the beginning—the very beginning, making the Alexandrian Christian community perhaps the second oldest only to Jerusalem—Church in Christianity. 

While the foundation of the Church of Alexandria by Saint Mark would be an overstatement of historical fact, the identification of Mark with the Church of Alexandria is from the earliest days.  The patristic sources and Alexandrian legends differ.  The Alexandria tradition puts Mark in Alexandria as early as the mid ‘40’s—just ten years or so after Pentecost.  The patristic tradition which roots the Gospel of Mark in the preaching of Peter claims that Mark was with Peter in Rome until after Peter’s martyrdom in AD 67.  There are also stories of Mark having served as first bishop of Aquileia.  These stories of Mark preaching up in the Venetian lagoons and marshes along the Adriatic are almost certainly spurious but the Patriarchate of Venice claims descent from Saint Mark as the See was translated from Aquileia to Grado and then to Venice when the Archdiocese of Venice was formed from the old dioceses of Grado and Castello. 

In any event, the traditions merge with Mark arriving in Alexandria at some point and leading the Church there.  The cultural and economic prestige associated with this ancient city was certainly as important as its connection with Mark the Evangelist in establishing it as a leading center of Christian thought and practice. 

While we Catholics usually think—naively—of the papacy as dating back to the Apostle Peter and his ministry at Rome, the fact of the matter is that the papacy as we know and would recognize it is the product of a long evolutionary process that is continuing even today.  The Church of the first centuries did not see itself universally as subject to the oversight of the Bishop of Rome.  In fact there was no Church (in our sense) in the early centuries.  There was a communion of Churches, hundreds of local Churches corresponding somewhat (operative word: somewhat) to what we would think of as a diocese.  These churches maintained communion with one another—that is they held each other in mutual respect and love, praying for and with one another, and assisting one another at times of need.  The unity of faith permitted them to share the Eucharist with one another as a sign both of mutual love and conformity of doctrine.  Quite early on, by the end of the first century, an unofficial pattern of leadership among these churches began to emerge.  Rome as center of the Empire began to exercise more and more authority, particularly as Christianity spread out westwards from Rome into what is today France, Spain, England, Ireland, and the western reaches of North Africa.  Antioch and Alexandria, two cities with somewhat different theological traditions but each centers of theological reflection and evangelization—as well as economic (and for Alexandria, cultural) influence began to exercise importance.  Alexandria achieved leadership in the African Church—both along the Mediterranean seaboard and southwards along the coastal regions along the Red Sea.  Antioch’s influence spread eastwards down into what is today Iraq and Iran and beyond into India. When the Emperor Constantine established a new Imperial Capital in Byzantium and named it Constantinople (Constantine’s City), the imperial connections gave its Church and Bishop added importance, great importance.  And finally Jerusalem, always the heart of the Christian world, achieved a prominent respect and honor once Christianity became the religion of the Empire.  By the early sixth century these five Sees became the “Pentarchy” officially recognized both by Imperial decree and Church ordinance as the leading authorities in Christendom—equal in governance but ordered in dignity with Rome first, followed by Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Apostolic foundations were ascribed to each of these Sees: Rome claiming descent from Peter and Paul; Antioch from Peter (before he move on to Rome); Constantinople from Andrew, Peter’s elder brother;  Alexandria from Mark;  and Jerusalem from James, brother of the Lord. 

Infighting among the Patriarchs over jurisdiction and honors due as well as some doctrinal squabbles led to a breakup of the Pentarchy.  Jerusalem, due to the pressure of Imperial control from Constantinople, never achieved any real independence from Constantinople but Antioch and Alexandria each dissented from the Council of Chalcedon and their independence led to the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church respectively as these Patriarchs and the Chalcedonian Churches—Rome and Constantinople—parted ways.  Pope Shenouda, as Pope and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church has sat in the Chair of Saint Mark and served as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church since 1971 until his death this past Saturday, March 17, 2012.  Future postings will tell more of the Coptic Church and its late Pope.

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