It was not a bad idea to skip church last Sunday morning, and to just relax at home watching the service on SAT-7, a Middle Eastern satellite TV channel. Particularly so, when I found out that there was special coverage of the historic visit of the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, to the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, in the Vatican. As I was listening to the inspiring conversation on SAT-7 between two special guests, Rev. Refaat Fekry (Chairman of the Council for Dialogue and Ecumenical Relations, Synod of the Nile) and Father Milad Shehata (Director of the Franciscan Cultural Center), one main question came to mind: What can we as evangelicals learn from such a historic event? What follows is a personal reflection in response to the stimulating conversation between the two.
This visit marked the 50th year of the Historic Christological Agreement established on May 10, 1973, between the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic Churches. That agreement ended a 1,500-year-old theological dispute since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. Since Pope Tawadros’s visit to the Vatican 10 years ago, a journey of deeper friendship has been developing between the two churches, and May 10 of every year is celebrated as a “Day of Coptic-Catholic Friendship”.
The theme of “a journey of friendship” is the first point that caught my attention in this historic visit. I thought this process of reconciliation would start with a theological dialogue to “solve” the disagreement around the old theological disputes. Instead, Pope Tawadros presented a road map of four points along the pathway of reconciliation: friendship and love; studying and learning about the other; dialogue; and prayer. As we can see, the dialogue is founded, not on a discussion of theological disagreements, but on an authentic friendship and understanding of the other, crowned by prayers.
This particular friendship is expressed through a yearly phone call on May 10 between the two friends. Pope Francis comments on this occasion with a sense of humor, saying: “We have been talking to each other for 10 years now, and we are still friends.”
Pope Francis also calls for a healed collective memory of both communities of faith, as a necessary part of the reconciliation journey. This requires not only a new reading of our past, but also planting new seeds of love and understanding that shape the collective memory of the new generation.
Pope Francis, moreover, invites us to a journey of pilgrimage to the book of Acts. There, we first learn how the first church dealt with conflict, he states: “It reminds us that the ecclesial method of resolving conflicts is based on dialogue through careful and patient listening and discernment in the light of the Spirit.” Second, this journey of friendship is founded and led by “the surprises of the Holy Spirit,” as we do not know what we may face down the road, nor we know how this dream may come true. As we hear Pope Francis, we can sense the deep conviction for dependence on the Holy Spirit as both walk this journey into the unknown. Thus, this journey of friendship is grounded in Scripture.
This journey of friendship also marks “a new era of evangelism,” states Father Milad. Such a statement struck me for a moment. But as I thought more about it, I discovered that it very well translates Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). As the world witnesses this new sign of authentic friendship among the people of God, they will glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
This authentic friendship has also been expressed through two practical actions: Pope Tawadros was invited by Pope Francis to speak at the weekly Wednesday General Audience on May 10, 2023, which was the first time the head of another church addressed the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Second, the Archbasilica Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s official cathedral, was opened before Pope Tawadros to preside the Sunday mass.
We need this “spirit of catholicism,” states Rev. Fekry. “The heart of Pope Francis was open before the opening of the building,” he continues. Then, he asks: Will the day come when we open our churches for other denominations to hold their worship meetings, rather than opening a new church on the same street?
Indeed, the journey ahead for the two churches is not that easy. It is obvious that they will face many obstacles; some have already challenged and questioned this historic moment. For example, when such events take place, we hear some voices question their validity, weighing the value of unity vs. fidelity to doctrine. When we face resistance and go through a moment of discouragement, Pope Francis encourages us to remember “to rejoice in the path already travelled and to draw on the fervour of the pioneers who have gone before us.”
As we can see, there is a lot to be learned from this historic reconciliation, mainly that it takes prophetic leadership to break through centuries of division and to pave the way before a new generation.
The question then is: How can we evangelicals take part in this journey? One key area is to bridge the gap between the actions and statements of the officials, and the common convictions and practices of the common Christian community. In other words, how can we translate this historic moment into our daily lives?
As someone involved in Christian theological education, I think our seminaries, for example, have a major role to play in shaping the memories of the next generation. We can do this by, first, providing a space for similar conversations between leaders and future leaders from different denominations and by, second, providing enough space in our curriculum for our students to learn about other denominations from their leaders. Where should such conversations take place other than at our theological academic institutions, places where we prepare and equip the next generation of church leaders in the Middle East?
As we await the Holy Spirit’s surprising work, let our prayers be that this model of prophetic leadership will be followed not only by the leaders of our denominations but also by the leaders and authorities of our countries in the Middle East. Indeed, our region longs for such prophetic leadership that can lead our exhausted collective memory through a process of recovery and healing.
And let us also pray with Pope Tawadros that this journey of friendship between the two churches “never stops growing.” May our evangelical community soon join in this journey of friendship as well.
Emad Botros is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at ABTS.