It was a historic meeting on March 11, when two popes sat side by side in the Vatican.
Pope Francis of the See of St. Peter addressed Coptic-Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of the See of St. Mark and his delegation, who are in Rome to celebrate 50 years of Coptic and Catholic relationships.
It is the tenth anniversary of their first meeting in 2013.
The Patriarch of the See of St. Mark spent three days in Rome to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Joint Christological Declaration, a milestone in relations between the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Pope Francis noted that the purpose for the commemoration is “giving thanks and begging”. He highlighted that the meeting of their predecessors Paul VI and Shenouda III, which took place in Rome from 9 to 13 May 1973, “marked a historic milestone in relations between the See of St Peter and the See of St Mark”.
A Bit of History
That was the first meeting between a Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church and a Bishop of Rome, siad Pope Francis. He also said that “it marked the end of a theological dispute dating back to the Council of Chalcedon, thanks to the signing on 10 May 1973 of a memorable joint Christological declaration, which later served as an inspiration for similar agreements with other Eastern Orthodox Churches.”
That meeting led to the creation of the International Joint Commission between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church. In 1979 both adopted the pioneering Principles to guide the search for unity between the two Churches.
The 1979 Principles, agreed by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Shenouda III, stated that “the unity we envision does not mean the absorption of one by the other or the domination of one over the other. It is at the service of each one to help him or her better live out the specific gifts he or she has received from the Spirit of God.”
In his speech, Pope Francis noted that “in the ecumenical journey, it is important to always look ahead”. He advised that we always ask ourselves “how far do we still have to go?”
However, he continued, it is also necessary to always remember, especially in times of discouragment, “to rejoice in the path already travelled and to draw on the fervour of the pioneers who have gone before us.”
Pope Francis then went on to highlight how the meeting of their predecessors “has never ceased to bear fruit in the journey of our Churches towards full communion”, adding that “it is also in memory of that meeting in 1973 that Your Holiness met me here for the first time on 10 May 2013, a few months after your enthronement and a few weeks after the beginning of my pontificate. On that occasion, you proposed to celebrate every 10 May the ‘Day of Friendship between Copts and Catholics’, which has been celebrated regularly by our Churches ever since.”
In fact, the Pope continued, in this journey of friendship “we are also accompanied by the martyrs, who testify that ‘no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.”
21 Coptic martyrs slain by ISIS are now recognized by the Roman Catholic Church
He concluded by expressing his gratitude for the precious gift of a relic of the Coptic martyrs killed in Libya on 15 February 2015, for which he said he “has no words”. Pope Francis also noted that these martyrs of the Coptic-Orthodox Church would also be added to the Roman martyrology.
“May the prayers of the Coptic martyrs,” the Pope concluded, “united with those of the Theotokos, continue to make our Churches grow in friendship, until the blessed day when we will be able to celebrate together at the same altar and commune with the same Body and Blood of the Saviour”
Pope Francis said 21 Coptic Orthodox martyrs would be inserted into the Roman Martyrology “as a sign of the spiritual communion that unites our two Churches.”
The 21 Coptic Christians—of whom 20 were Egyptian and 1 hailed from Ghana—were beheaded in Libya in 2015 by militants of the so-called Islamic State. A video published by the terrorist organization showed the men praying as they died.
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates their feast day on 15 February, the date they were martyred.
During their audience, Pope Tawadros gave Pope Francis a reliquary of the Coptic martyrs, for which Pope Francis expressed his heartfelt gratitude.
“These martyrs were baptized not only with water and the Spirit, but also in blood, in a blood that is the seed of unity for all followers of Christ,” said Pope Francis.
Later on Thursday, Pope Tawadros II held a press conference at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.
He told reporters that the martyrs’ bodies were exhumed in 2018 and brought to Egypt. The Coptic Church built a shrine in their honor in El-Aour, the hometown village of most of the men.
“We ask for their prayers often,” said Pope Tawadros, “and we believe they continue to offer us a great blessing.”
He urged Catholics to invoke their intercession as well.
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