Selecting the Next Pope

From Left: Makram Ebeid, Hulsman, Windfuhr, Casper, Labib

Near thirty journalists gathered at the Cairo Foreign Press Association headquarters to gain insight on the process involved in selecting a successor to the recently deceased Pope Shenouda. Arab West Report presented its research on the subject, accepting also further inquiries.

The March 27 meeting was opened by FPA board member Sayid Ghuriyat, and presided over by FPA chairman Volkhard Windfuhr.

AWR Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman began by mentioning the 1957 regulations which govern issues concerning papal selection. AWR published a translation of these regulations into English on the internet for the first time in history, which can be accessed here.

The 1957 regulations make it clear that all papal candidates must be a minimum of 40 years old and have at least 15 years of experience living as a monk in a monastery. Yet other questions of eligibility can be perplexing.

For example, until the 20th Century only monks were eligible for selection as pope, not bishops. This changed for the first time in the 1920s when a diocesan bishop was selected, breaking with church tradition going back to the Nicene Council. The influential but controversial Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun supports the idea of returning to this ideal.

Hulsman noted another eligibility interpretation allows for the election of general bishops who do not serve in a diocese but rather in specific fields like education. Then Bishop Shenouda was the first general bishop in Coptic history, and was elected as pope from this position. Given the legitimizing popularity of Pope Shenouda, current Coptic consensus would allow for the election of another general bishop.

Finally, a minority position in the Coptic Church believes it is acceptable for a diocesan bishop to be elected pope. Though done in the past, it is widely believed such an action would contradict the 1957 regulations. The number two man in the church, Bishop Bishoy, is general secretary of the papal council, but also the bishop of Damietta, thus disqualifying him in the process.

Hulsman concluded his presentation by summarizing the research of AWR Managing Editor Hany Labib, introducing the leading candidates for the papacy from the community of bishops. Details of this research can be accessed here.

AWR Researcher Jayson Casper then presented the influence of expatriate Copts on the selection process. Though the population of Copts both within Egypt and abroad is disputed, both high and low estimates establish that between 10-25% of Coptic Orthodox Christians live outside of Egypt.

Many expatriate Copts logically complain they have no voice in the process of selecting the next pope, given the 1957 regulations reflected a situation before widespread Coptic emigration. Two factors limit this complaint however. First, ordinary Copts in Egypt also have little to no voice in the selection process, as it is a largely internal process conducted by the church, and explained further below.

Second, the most influential voice in the electoral process belongs to the bishops of the church, of whom roughly 20% preside over foreign dioceses. This is in approximate accordance with the population of Copts living abroad, so through their bishops they maintain an influence.

Casper provided statistics for these bishops, mentioning them by continent:

  • Africa: 4 bishops in 14 countries with 90+ churches and three monasteries, most of which are indigenous
  • Asia/Australia: 3 bishops in 11 countries with 70+ churches and two monasteries
  • Europe: 10 bishops in 10 countries, including the indigenous dioceses of England and France
  • North America: 5 bishops serving 240+ churches and two monasteries
  • South America: 2 bishops in 2 countries, including an indigenous movement in Bolivia

Nevertheless, foreign Copts have put forward a proposal to have each overseas bishop present ten or so lay members of his diocese to serve on the committee selecting the pope. Approximately half of these bishops are conservative and traditional say these Copts, and ignore the issue. The others have at least sympathetically listened, but it is not anticipated this proposal will be adopted.

Finally, Casper noted that among the often overlooked achievements of Pope Shenouda’s reign was his ability to institutionalize the Coptic Orthodox Church around the world. Not only may this extension of the hierarchy prevent Copts from dissolving into their adopted culture, but positively may result in a revival of Orthodox Christianity around the world, fitting with the church’s original missionary posture.

AWR board member Amin Makram Ebeid, from a prominent and historical Coptic family, then briefly provided his personal reflection on the process. He hopes the next pope will be transitional, so as to eventually return the church to its traditional spiritual role. He nevertheless noted that the sacred and the secular have been mixed in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, noting the difficulty of the task.

Finally, Labib provided the details of the selection process through the forum of questions and answers. Specifically, those who will select the pope are constituted from the Holy Synod (the presiding bishops), the Community Council (20+ lay members who tend to administrative affairs), and the managing group for Coptic properties. In addition to these are a select number of public figures, journalists, and politicians.

This group of over 100 members first selects a nomination committee of 18, to be composed of nine clergy and nine laity (their names have been made public here). These will tend to all proposed candidates, of whom either five or seven will be accepted. These names return to the larger group for the official vote, and the top three names will then be put forward by ecclesiastical lot, with the final choice made by God.

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the process should take between two to three months.

Labib noted that interim chairman of the Holy Synod Bishop Pachomius insisted the 1957 regulations will remain unchanged. New interpretations, however, will be considered. Some journalists present believed this would open the process up to undue controversy, but Labib and others disagreed. They found it to be an appropriate adjustment to changed circumstances as well as favoring greater transparency.

For example, Labib returned to the question of whether or not a diocesan bishop could become pope. Though often reported as ‘no’ in the media, the 1957 regulations stipulate that any bishop may become pope. Regulations stipulate also the candidate must be celibate, but herein lies the rub. In traditional Coptic understanding, a bishop is ‘married’ to his diocese. Should this then preclude eligibility for the papacy? Traditionally, yes, but the question is open for reconsideration. Labib echoed church voices, however, in insisting the church is not Tahrir Square. It is an ancient institution not subject to the whims of the street.

Labib was asked about the different trends present in the church. He described two, suggesting the choice of pope might be determined as a choice between these two trends.

One trend he labeled the rigid, almost confrontational. Labib believed this trend was growing due to tensions over the emergence of Islamist groups. Bishop Bishoy is at the head of this trend, as is Bishop Armiya.

The second trend he described as moderate, seeking consensus and conciliation. Bishops such as Musa, Yu’annis, and Marcos represent this trend.

In answering a separate question Labib noted Pope Shenouda was between the two trends, especially over time. While very confrontational before his banishment to the monastery in 1981, he became much more conciliatory after his return. Thereafter his conduct varied issue by issue as he deemed best.

Another question concerned whether or not these trends pertained to intra-church issues such as divorce and relations with other denominations. Another pertained to whether or not ordinary Copts are putting pressure on the selectors for their papal preference.

Labib stated that social issues are not a resonating factor and do not serve to be discussed by the church at this time. These intra-church matters must wait until the election of a new pope and then probably about six months or so afterwards, before they re-emerge for discussion or decision. In any case, if there is a semblance of popular pressure, it consists in the fact that the ordinary Copt is fearful the community no longer has a representative or protector in front of the state and/or Islamists.

One question wondered if the current constitutional crisis and threatened Islamist dominance affects Coptic concerns over the selection of the pope. No, Labib replied, as the selection is a wholly internal matter unaffected by parliament or the constitution. If the church purposed to amend the 1957 regulations this would have needed ratification in parliament, which could have complicated the issue.

To close the press conference after this note Windfuhr remarked that which binds Egyptians together is much stronger than that which divides them, believing Egypt would ultimately succeed in its transitional phase, however difficult it may be. Along these lines he noted that the great majority of all Egyptians received news of Pope Shenouda’s death with emotion and sympathy. Even those who made a show of their rejection in parliament by failing to stand for a moment of silence probably went home and regretted it, he remarked. If not, they were surely rebuked by their families upon arrival.

In appreciation, the Foreign Press Association ended the press conference with everyone standing for a minute of silence.

 

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