Plough: “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” wrote the apostle Paul (Eph. 4:1). What is this vocation?
Archbishop Angaelos: We all have a vocation: to be the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth”; to be contributing members of our communities and of the Body of Christ. God gives us gifts so that we can use them as the faithful stewards did in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when they came and presented their Lord with the profits of what they had been given. To faithfully follow God is a vocation.
Of course, vocation can also more specifically mean calling to Christian ministry. That might be the offices of bishop, priest, and deacon, or it might be those who teach in Sunday schools, those who feed the homeless, or those who do other kinds of outreach.
There is also the calling, as was mine, to be a monk. Monasticism was established in the fourth century by Saint Anthony in the deserts of Egypt, and it is one of the pillars of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Today, we have vibrant monasteries and convents, where committed men and women follow their special vocation of praying for the church, praying for the world, and obeying the call to “leave all to be with the One.” But they do not abandon the rest of the church, or the world: they serve the church and the world through their prayers. Our parish priests, on the other hand, are ordained as married men, while our monks and bishops are all celibate.
You yourself lived in a monastery. What brought you there?
I was born in Egypt. We migrated as a family to Australia when I was five. When I was a young man, I felt a strong calling to return to Egypt and join a monastery. I left Australia in 1990, when I was twenty-two, and, taking my lifetime vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, joined the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, in the Valley of Scetis – Wadi El-Natrun in Arabic, which is halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, on the desert highway. This monastery was established in the fourth century, and some of the buildings actually date back to then. It is now home to about two hundred and fifty monks.
The decision to take lifelong vows to a religious community strikes many people today as a radical step. What led you to become a monk?
God speaks to us in the way he chooses. As you and I consider our callings, we can remember how it seemed at the time, and then we can perhaps see more, in hindsight. At the time, I felt moved to leave the world and go to the monastery. I had been very involved in my
community in Australia – I served in the church, I had studied political science and philosophy, and then gone on to postgraduate study in law; I was working. But I left all that behind because I wanted to be in the wilderness to pray.
While the vast majority of monks remain in their monasteries for life, sometimes we are sent elsewhere. As I said, our parish priests are usually ordained as married men, but there are exceptions – as in my case. After a time in the monastery, I was sent to England to serve as a monk-priest in a very small parish. Then, I was consecrated as bishop, and now appointed archbishop.
How do you account for the vibrancy of the Coptic monasteries?
We fast, we pray. Those ascetic practices that came out of the fourth century continue to be a crucial part of who we are. The monasteries are also a haven where, even in the midst of the strongest pressure to abandon the faith, men and women can go and find the living Church, relying on God.
Despite the misunderstanding of some non-Orthodox historians, the early monks and nuns did not flee to the desert to avoid martyrdom, because the monasteries themselves were targets, subjected to attacks by the Berbers around them, who killed many of the monks and nuns for their Christian faith; but the monasteries remain standing, and have outlived that persecution.
The monasteries are not just for the Christians, not just for the Copts, and they never were. My monastery has a trap door at the very top of the arch that overlooks the main entrance to the monastery from a safe height. The monks had it built in so that they could lower food, water, and medication to the attacking marauders. This is the ideal of Christian stewardship and of Christian hospitality. We must look after our communities, but also we must look after the world, even those who consider themselves our enemies.
Asceticism plays a role in the life of the laity as well. You fast for about two-thirds of the year and have daily prayers. Do you think there’s a link between that rhythm of life and the willingness of so many in your church to suffer for their faith, and especially to accept the particular calling of martyrdom?
The fasts and the liturgies become an intrinsic part of how one lives one’s life. There is a connection between one’s own personal life of prayer, and the very public witness of martyrdom, as when the twenty-one martyrs were killed in 2015 by ISIS. It is there that we see the beauty of the Church.
Some may consider Coptic Orthodoxy to be antiquated or irrelevant, but when we see those martyrs, who very naturally witnessed to their faith, even paying the ultimate price, we realize that the Coptic Church is alive, and that it nurtures its children in a particular way. Fidelity becomes a totally inseparable part of who they are, and God gives us the grace to overcome this pain, to resist the pressure to abandon faith.
Can you describe what’s been going on in Egypt over the last few years?
Well . . . this is not a matter of the last few years. Saint Mark preached Christ in Egypt in the middle of the first century. The Church has been there ever since, and we have suffered one form of persecution or another since then, and this continues in our contemporary history, particularly since the 2011 uprising against then-President Mubarak – the so-called “Arab Spring” – where there was a temporary breakdown of law and order.
Since that time, we have seen pockets of violent Islamism that have targeted Christians. Just in the past two years, we have lost about one hundred and fifty children, women, and men to acts of terrorism in the form of church bombings, shootings, and the targeting of Christian families and individuals, which has been ongoing in some regions. There were bombings of churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, in the midst of celebrations; the shootings of the faithful leaving churches; and the shooting of pilgrims on a bus going on a pilgrimage to a monastery at least twice – one of these targeted a whole extended family returning from a baptism at a monastery.
The witness of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is that they continue to live their lives, even when they know that they are targets. I have known families that pray together before going to church, because they know that they may not all be coming back.
Pope Francis has used the phrase “the ecumenism of blood.” How has the persecution of the Coptic Church in the last years opened new doors to Christian unity?
I first heard that expression from Pope Francis in Rome in 2013 at the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Christological Agreement between our two Churches, settling the theological issue that had divided us in the fifth century.
We must remember that one of the twenty-one Libya martyrs of 2015 was not a Copt – he was Ghanaian. But persecution has a strange way of uniting us. When the persecutors come, they do not ask what denomination you are, they just kill you because you are a Christian. We share that designation by our persecutors, so surely, as the body of Christ, we should recognize that commonality.
Persecution does not affect Copts alone. Recently we have seen churches bombed in Sri Lanka and in Iraq; Christians have also been killed in Syria and in Nigeria. We must all take this personally; we must learn to pray for one another, to advocate for one another, and to share in each other’s pain and joy. I cannot sit back and be comfortable with the fact that another human has been persecuted, and that is even more applicable when the other is a member, with me, of the body of Christ.