The Coptic Church
By Rev. J. Murtagh, S.M.A.
Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, No. DD. 1044 (1964)
Ad Majorem Dei gloriam, [To the Greater Glory of God,]
Pro Corpore Ejus, [For His Body,]
Quod est Ecclesia [ Which is the Church]
Per Mariam, [Through Mary,]
Quae est Mater Ejus. [Who is His Mother.]
The Cover Picture (not reproduced) shows MONSIGNOR Scandar - Coptic
Catholic Bishop of Assiut - Upper Egypt
* * *
The Coptic Church
Before the Schism
The Christian origins of Egypt go back to Gospel times and are
contemporary with those of the Holy Land, that is, they start with the
Incarnation itself. When Herod sought the Divine Infant to destroy Him,
the Holy Family fled to Egypt for safety. In modern Egypt there are two
local traditions concerning this visit. Near Heliopolis, a large suburb
of Cairo, is the village of Matarieh. In a garden in this village is a
very ancient tree and Egyptians say that the Holy Family rested under
it while on the way from Palestine to the present Old Cairo, then known
The second tradition is associated with Babylon or Old Cairo for there
the Copts point out the actual house in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph
passed their sojourn in Egypt.
Though the Holy Family passed some time in Egypt, the Church was not
then founded, and it was not until some time after the dispersal of the
Apostles throughout the world that the Church in Alexandria was
established. [Egyptians were present on the day of Pentecost and at the
debates with St. Stephen.] When St. Peter changed his See from Antioch
to Rome in 44 A.D. he took with him St. Mark, the Evangelist. According
to an oral tradition, in 48 A.D. the Chief of the Apostles sent St.
Mark to Alexandria to convert its inhabitants and to found a bishopric
there. The Evangelist's efforts were successful and he laboured among
the Egyptians, Romans, Jews and others there until his martyrdom in the
year 68 A.D.
The fact that Alexandria received the founder of its Christianity
through St. Peter is of enormous importance in the history of the city,
for thereby St. Peter is considered the indirect founder. That the
Chief of the Apostles should have established the See of Alexandria,
even indirectly, was sufficient to place it among the greatest Churches
of the world, in fact, next to Rome itself in dignity. St. Peter had
relations with three great Churches, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and
so great was his dignity and so clear the perception of his Primacy
among the other Apostles and disciples that these three Churches were
ranked the three outstanding congregations in the Christian world until
the rise of Constantinople. In the early days, if a Christian Church
wished to insist upon its dignity, it pointed out that its founder was
an Apostle. Add to Alexandria's indirect Petrine establishment the fact
that it was the second largest city in the world after Rome and one
easily understands Egypt's pre-eminence in the Christian East.
For more than a century after the death of St. Mark, the history of the
Church in Alexandria is shrouded in the deepest obscurity, and almost
the only information historians have of this second of all Christian
Churches is a list of Bishops in chronological order. All this makes
uninteresting reading. However, when the light of history does make
that Church known it is an almost fully developed community that
appears. The Church of Christ has not conquered Her rivals, but She is
a strong community living side by side with Egyptian gods, Greek gods
and Judaism as modified by Philo. This manifestation took place about
the year 180 A.D.
The first thing to be noticed about the Christian community of the late
second century at Alexandria is that it possessed a Christian school
which soon became the intellectual centre of the Christian world. At
this time Rome and the West were intellectually inferior to the East.
>From this school of Alexandria arose Saints and scholars of the highest
spiritual and mental attainments whose outstanding characteristics were
their attachment to the true faith and their struggle for orthodoxy.
This does not mean that the Alexandrian Fathers did not err. When they
did, they were either unaware of error or showed submissiveness when
That Alexandria was a centre where attachment to the Catholic Faith was
strong is seen in the fight for Orthodoxy of the teachers and Bishops
of the See of St. Mark throughout three centuries.
Died 215 A.D., AND ORIGEN, Died 254. A.D.
Two of the early Heads of the Alexandrian School - Clement, and the
greatest early Christian thinker, Origen, - were accused of heresy.
While it is true that the works of both contain errors, it is also true
that neither could abide heresy or heretics, that both opposed
unceasingly the heresy of Gnosticism, and that later outstanding
Alexandrian scholars considered Clement and Origen as their masters.
The scope of a pamphlet is insufficient to vindicate either of them.
ATHANASIUS, THE GREAT, Died 373.
Another of the great Christian stalwarts of all time is an Alexandrian
scholar and bishop of that city, St. Athanasius who spent the greater
part of the fourth century and of his life in defending the Catholic
doctrine of the Blessed Trinity against the Arians who wished to
disfigure our teaching by asserting that the Son of God was a created
>From some time before the Council of Nice (or Nicea) in 325 A.D. till
his death in 373 A.D., the life of St. Athanasius of Alexandria was one
of struggle in the interest of the orthodox faith.
CYRIL, Died 444. A.D.
Again in the fifth century another heresy presented itself to the
Christian world and again heresy found itself opposed by an Alexandrian
bishop. This time the heresy was Nestorianism, and its opponent, St.
Cyril of Alexandria. At the Council of Ephesus, which condemned the
errors of Nestorius in 431
A.D., St. Cyril represented the Pope and presided, therefore, over the
assembly. Cyril had been chosen by the Pope on account of his
well-known zeal against Nestorianism which he had manifested by his
teaching and his writings.
However, with the death of St. Cyril in year 444 A.D. a new page and a
sad one opened in the history of Christian Egypt. Whereas Egypt had
been the centre of Orthodoxy, a few years after the death of St. Cyril
it cut itself off from the Universal Church, and has remained separated
ever since, if two short periods of reunion be overlooked.
It is catholic doctrine that in Jesus Christ the God-Man, there are two
natures, one divine, the other human. These two natures are each
complete; nothing is wanting to make each of them a true nature. The
divine nature in Christ is exactly the divine nature of the Father and
his human nature is made up of a perfect body with a perfect soul,
having all its faculties, intellectual memory, a perfect human
intellect, and a perfect human will. The Church teaches that these two
perfect and complete natures are united in the Person of the Son of
God. Thus it is a doctrine of two natures in one Person.
Nestorianism had been an attempt to spread a different doctrine.
According to the Nestorians the Catholic doctrine is correct to a
certain point. They will agree that in Christ there are two perfect and
complete natures, one human, the other divine. Yet they will disagree
as to the manner of the union of these two natures. Whereas we
claim it it is a personal or hypostatic union, that
it takes place in the person of the Son of God, Nestorians will say
that the union is only moral, that is, that the two natures are united
by love. Certain conclusions follow this claim of the Nestorians; that
in Christ there are two persons, human and divine, as well as two
natures, human and and divine, that Mary was not t the Mother of the
Divine Person, but of a human nature and a human person. Thus in the
ages when this heresy was fought the word 'Theotokos' (She who
bears God) was the password of orthodoxy. In those days of the fifth
century if one said that one believed in the Theotokos, one was
accepted into the orthodox camp of Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril
The heresy into which Egypt fell was a reaction against the error just
described. The new party maintained that the union of natures in Christ
was so close that the divine nature had absorbed the human nature. They
used the comparison of putting a drop of wine into a vessel of water.
As the wine is absorbed by the greater quantity of water so, they said,
the finite human nature of Christ was absorbed by His infinite divine
nature. That Christ is exclusively divine and has no human nature, and
that Mary is the Mother of God are inevitable conclusions from this
reasoning. With the first, that Christ is only divine and has no human
nature, Catholics disagree 'in toto' because it is at variance with the
Gospels where Christ is shown as being also human since he ate, drank,
slept, suffered and rejoiced and performed the actions proper to
humanity. As to the second, that Mary is the Mother of God, the
Catholic Church is of the same opinion, but she disagrees with the
reasoning on which the conclusion is based and with the implication
which such a conclusion entails. The oneness of nature in Christ is the
foundation of Mary's Divine Motherhood according to this opinion, and
it would follow from such reasoning that the Blessed Virgin gave birth
to the divine nature ; which is absurd. Because its adherents insisted
on the oneness of nature in Christ, this theory is called
Monophysitism. (Greek: Monos
- one, Fusis - nature).
The successor of St. Cyril in the See of Alexandria was a certain
Dioscorus, who was given over to the new heresy, (under the influence
of his theologian, Eutyches.) He had influence with
the East Roman Emperor of the time at Constantinople of whose Empire
Egypt formed a part.
Dioscorus prevailed upon this Emperor, Theodosius II, to call a Council
to be held at Ephesus in 449 A.D. at which by unscrupulous methods and
violence the Bishop of Alexandria succeeded in having Monophysitism
accepted as the true doctrine.
SYNOD OF EPHESUS, 449 A.D.
Among other irregularities, the three legates, sent by the Pope to
represent him and to preside at the Council were set aside and treated
as mere members of the Synod, having no right to assume leadership of
the Council; the Imperial army was used to force the bishops to sign
the decrees; the Patriarch of Constantinople subsequently died as a
result of the ill-treatment received at the hands of the soldiers and
Dioscorus himself. The papal legates, having escaped by flight, made
known to, the Pope the manner in which the Synod had been held. The
Robber Synod of Ephesus of 449 A.D. was thereupon condemned by Rome and
its acts and decisions declared invalid. Theodosius II, being a
partisan of Dioscorus, refused the Pope's demand for another Council to
rectify the errors of the "Brigandage d'Ephese" ("Robber-Council of
However this Emperor died in the following, year 450 A.D.
OF CHALCEDON, 451 A.D.
His successor, Marcian, of strong Catholic leanings, called a Council
at Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D. At this Council what had been done at
Ephesus was undone. The papal legates presided and the doctrine,
already explained, was declared to be the true teaching of the Church.
BREAK WITH THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH.
>From this date, 451 A.D. the Egyptians are considered to have separated
themselves from the Universal Church, for, instead of submitting to the
teaching of Chalcedon, they preferred to take a course of action which
led to the establishment of a national Church at loggerheads with both
Rome and Constantinople. Not all Christians in Egypt adhered to the new
national Church, for it must be remembered that in the cities of
Egypt and particularly in Alexandria there were large numbers of
Greeks, as the country was being administered by a Byzantine Emperor
and Alexandria was notably a Greek city both in foundation and culture.
After 451 A.D. Egypt split into two groups, based upon religion and
The Greeks stood out for the teachings of Chalcedon and as these were
favoured by the Emperor its adherents were branded with the name of
"the King's men." When translated into a semitic tongue, this phrase
becomes "Melkites" from the word "malik" meaning a king in most Semitic
On the other hand the native Egyptians were called by the Greeks
"aigyptoi" i.e. Egyptians. This later became corrupted into "gypti" and
finally in non-literary Arabic "ipti". This last is the word by which a
contemporary Egyptian Christian will refer to himself though, if he
wishes to be more classical, he will go back to "gypti". This is the
origin of the European word " Copt " to designate an Egyptian Christian.
If the study of the two terms by which the opposing parties designated
each other, leads to any conclusion, it is this, that the struggle for
religious independence in Egypt was
basically nationalistic. Egypt did not feel itself strong
enough, nor had it the inclination, to overthrow Byzantine
overlordship, and in the past found little difficulty in accepting
foreign political domination, provided that sufficient liberty and
economic security were assured. While not aspiring to political
independence, the national soul expressed itself in the acquisition of
religious autonomy. Monophysitism was used as a support for nationalism
and an excuse for separation.
The validity of this explanation of the break of Coptic Egypt with the
Universal Church is supported by the opinions of modern writers who
hold that the Monophysite statement of its position can be reconciled
with the teaching of Chalcedon. Certainly, today Monophysitism means
nothing to the Copts, most of whom seem never to have heard of it, and
their chief reason for remaining apart from the Universal Church is
entirely different from that on which the original break was based.
Today the main reason for staying separated is the claim of the Pope
that he has a Primacy, not simply of honour but also of jurisdiction
over all baptized Christians.
For the next few years Egypt was quiet outwardly. However, the death of
the pro-Chalcedon Emperor Marcian in 457 A.D. was the signal for a
rising of the Copts in the city of Alexandria itself under the
leadership of a priest called Timothy the Cat. During the years between
Chalcedon and Marcian's death Timothy the Cat had been the soul of the
Copt resistance to the decrees of the Council and his methods of
stealth in organizing resistance and assuring for himself the
leadership of the future independent Egyptian Church earned for him the
epithet " The Cat ".
The rising took place on Good Friday 457 A.D. The Egyptian mob marched
through the streets of Alexandria, took the Cathedral by storm and
murdered the Patriarch Proterius during the celebration of the Holy
Week services. Proterius, of course, was a Catholic or Melkite as
Catholics of the Greek rite were known in Alexandria after Chalcedon.
At Chalcedon the Monophysite Patriarch, Dioscorus, who had been
responsible for the infamous Synod at Ephesus in 449 A.D. was deposed
from the Patriarchate and banished.
A.D. DEATH OF MARCIAN.
In 457 A.D. then, the schism was renewed with the murder of Proterius
and the accession of Timothy as Patriarch. The independent Coptic
Church lived side by side with the Melkite or Catholic Church of Greek
rite which also had its patriarchs. Thus as a result of the schism a
duplication of Patriarchs ensued.
After the separation
Thus was achieved the break of Egypt with the Universal Church. With
the break from the true Mystical Body of Christ came a withering of
life, natural and divine. St. Cyril, the Catholic, was the last of the
great learned Bishops and Saints of Alexandria. While it must be
admitted that political circumstances seriously contributed to the
intellectual and spiritual decadence of Christian Egypt, that strong
attraction to intellectual culture and high spiritual development which
all Catholic communities experience, even if they do not realize it, is
absent from many periods of the history of Egypt. As Fortescue said,
the trouble with all separated churches is one of arrested development.
They all advanced to a certain point and then, when the breach with
Rome came, they remained stationary. Union with Rome is obviously an
essential condition for Christian progress. St. Cyril, whose death
occurred seven years before Chalcedon is significant as being the
culmination of development in Christian Egypt.
OCCUPATION OF EGYPT (617-627)
The two centuries which followed Chalcedon were not important except in
so far as they prepared the way for the Persian occupation of Egypt, to
be followed closely by the invasion of the Arabs. There were two
centuries of strife, religious strife, which brought about national
weakness. Before Chalcedon the country was divided from the point of
view of racial feeling, but the Greeks and Egyptians could have united
in the face of an invader. The religious idea of one or two natures
having been thrown into the conflict, the two racial parties were
irrevocably opposed. At the end of these two centuries the struggle
took the form of a determined persecution of Copts at the hands of the
Greeks. The occasion was the attempt to spread a new heresy, a
compromise between Catholic teaching and Monophysitism.
No one realized more clearly than the Eastern Roman Emperor, Heraclius,
the weakness resulting to the Empire from the spread of the teachings
of Nestorius and Eutyches in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He knew that
unity among the different peoples of his great Empire could be obtained
only by agreement in faith. This Heraclius determined to achieve, but
unfortunately went about it in the wrong manner. The occasion for this
attempt at religious union was the presence of the external danger of
the pagan Persian army in the early part of the seventh century. The
Patriarch of Constantinople presented the Emperor with a new heresy,
thinking that all parties would accept this compromise, and that
religious unity would ensue. Severus, the Patriarch, advised the
Emperor to proclaim that in Christ there was only one will and that all
discussion of a twofold operation should be set aside.
While retaining one person and two
natures, Severus did not retain the doctrine of two wills and thus laid
himself open to the charge of being illogical since a complete nature
includes a will. However, the upshot was that no one was prepared to
accept the compromise. The Copts pointed to the admission of only one
will and said that Chalcedon had yielded to them and not they to
This proposal of Monothelitism, (Monos
- one, Thelos - will), as the
new doctrine was called, was brought to the Egyptians by the arrival of
a new Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, specially chosen for his
willingness to co-operate with the Emperor in his plan for unification
through compromise. Cyrus was the new Patriarch's name. Cyrus arrived
in Egypt in the year 631 A.D. about four years after the withdrawal
from that country of the Persians, who had seized it from the Emperor
When Cyrus, who combined in his own person the twofold power of
Patriarch and civil governor, found that the Copts were not prepared to
compromise he resolved to resort to force and introduced a period of
violent open persecution which lasted till the conquest of Alexandria
by the Moslem Arabs in 641 A.D.
Heraclius had hoped that the plan he had imposed would succeed in
presenting a united front to all invaders. In reality it had the
directly opposite result in alienating the sympathies of the Egyptians.
A.D. FALL OF ALEXANDRIA.
The fall of Alexandria to the followers of the Prophet Mohammed opened
a new era for Christian Egypt. The effects of the conquest of 641 A.D.
are still obvious to the most uninquisitive. The country is still
Moslem in religion, culture and government.
With the advent of Islam, a new religion was thrown into the already
disturbed religious condition of Egypt. Whereas there were two warring
Christian communities with a rather strong Jewish body, now the new
religion of the recent conquerors of the country was added. This did
not lead to the immediate suppression of the three other Communities,
as the Moslems professed a doctrine of religious toleration. This
doctrine was applied though with great imperfection at times. Yet such
liberty of cult was allowed as to preserve the Christian Churches in
AFTER 641 A.D.
Now one of the results of the Arabs investiture of Alexandria was the
withdrawal of the Imperial armies and the majority of the non-Egyptian
civilians resident in Alexandria and other Egyptian towns. The Melkite
Church, was therefore, severely weakened. After 641 A.D. the Melkite
Patriarch felt so insecure that he withdrew to Constantinople and for
centuries the Melkite Patriarchate of Alexandria was governed from that
COPTS AFTER 641 A.D.
The Copts had to live side by side with the conquerors; after an
initial period in which they were favoured more or less, they had to
fight for their faith against terrific difficulties, and it is not
surprising that, faced with periodic outbursts of anti-Christian
violence, with a special poll tax as a penalty for his Christianity,
large numbers of native Christians felt that life was intolerable and
threw up the struggle by the acceptance of the religion of the
conqueror. Large numbers of Copts apostatized from time to time. In
fact, most of them did so for the present Christian minority is many
times smaller than the Moslem Egyptian majority.
A.D. MELKITES SEPARATE FROM ROME.
Thus two dwindling Christian Communities continued a difficult
existence until a new event modified the situation some-what. It has
been shown that of the two communities one was Monophysite the other
Catholic. It is clear that the Melkites, had looked more towards
Constantinople than Rome for guidance since they were Byzantine in
rite. (I hesitate to use the word " Greek " with reference to
Constantinople since the proper word to designate its inhabitants and
the subjects of the Empire at this period is, strangely enough,
"Romans." They were Romans because they came under the East Roman
Empire, whose seat was Constantinople or Byzantium. In Arabic, today
Greeks are referred to as "Rumi" i.e. "Romans." "Rumi" is a word with a
long history.) Then again the Melkite Patriarch was in residence at
Constantinople and certainly underwent the anti-Roman influence of that
Thus when Constantinople fell into schism under Cerualarius in 1054, it
is not surprising that the weaker Melkites took the lead of the
stronger religious centre and followed her into schism. Thus from 1054
and for some time, there were no Catholics in Egypt. (except captured
slaves, pilgrims, and traders.)
Links with Rome
The history of the Copts hereafter is simple enough. The visits of the
Franciscans from Palestine during the Crusades and the establishment of
Franciscan houses in Alexandria and Old Cairo in the thirteenth century
were new occasions of contact with the Catholic Church. The visit of
St. Francis, the arrival of the Crusaders at Damietta and Mansoura,
where St. Louis King of France was taken prisoner and later ransomed,
were all reminders to the Copts of the existence of the See of Peter,
with which they had so little contact in those days of difficult
travel. Whatever the reason, the Copts followed the other Eastern
Churches in uniting again with and acknowledging the primacy of Rome at
the Council of Florence, later changed to Ferrara during the years
AT FLORENCE- FERRARA, 1438-1445.
The union, however, was ephemeral and cannot have lasted more than a
few years as happened in the case of most of the Churches signing the
decree of union at Florence- Ferrara. The Copts never got to understand
the meaning of union and were soon again estranged from Rome.
AT ROME, 1597.
The Copts cannot have felt quite at ease in their estrangement from
Rome, for again, we find them drawing closer to Christendom by a new
Act of Union signed in Rome in 1597. The conditions of 1597 resemble
the circumstances of 1439-45, and on the death of the pro-Union
Patriarch, a few years after the union had been sighed, the separatist
opposition party saw to it that the breach was renewed. The whole
affair left so little impression on the Coptic Church that certain
writers have presumed to deny that the union took place.
Copts in Modern Times
As elsewhere already mentioned, there is now in existence a Coptic
Uniate or Catholic Church, united with Rome in faith and acknowledging
the Primacy and Infallibility of the Pope, but following the customs
and ritual of the Coptic Monophysite Church. The origin of this
Catholic body is obscure. It seems certain that after the Council of
Chalcedon in 451 no Egyptians remained Catholics while following the
Coptic liturgy. Those who remained Catholics had to turn Melkite and
the number who did so must have been infinitesimal. Yet in the
nineteenth century, we find a small but organized body looking to Rome
for guidance in faith.
OF COPT UNIATE CHURCH.
When did it begin? Most probably not during the Crusades when the
Franciscans established themselves in Egypt in a small way. Nor are the
Copt Catholics the descendants of those who remained faithful after the
schism was renewed subsequent to the Reunions of 1438-45 and 1597. The
beginnings seem to go back no further than the seventeenth century and
are the results of the efforts of the Franciscans and the Jesuits who
had arrived to help in the christianisation of the country.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the first important Copt
Catholic appeared. His name was George Ghali. Under Mohammad Ali, the
Great, the founder of the Egyptian dynasty which ruled until Nasser's
time, he became the head of the Coptic book-keepers in the employment
of the State. His position would correspond roughly with the present
office of Under-Secretary to the Minister of Finance. In 1816 he
followed this up with an attempt to effect a reunion between the
Monophysite Copts and Rome. Ghali had the support of Mohammad Ali in
his scheme for reunion for the latter, though unlettered, had liberal
ideas and realized that to progress the Copts would have to get the
impulse from Europe and Rome. He desired reunion for cultural reasons
AT REUNION, 1816.
The scheme made headway and the Monophysite Bishops assembled to sign
the prepared Act of Reunion. At last a fanatical Bishop asked to be
shown the Act for perusal and when he had it in his hands he tore it to
shreds. This ended the attempt.
It is difficult to state with accuracy the exact number of Copt
Monophysites. Regular censuses are taken by the Egyptian Government and
in these the people are asked to state their religion. However, the
proportion of Copts in the nation is not made public and this has
encouraged them to give their exaggerated estimates of their numbers.
The total population of Egypt in 1962 amounted to 28 millions. The
traditional proportion of Copts to Moslems is one in twelve and on this
basis there should be about two and a half million Copts. Estimates by
Copts themselves seldom fall lower than four millions and even reach
the impossible figure of six millions.
At the end of the 19th century the statistics of the Copt Catholics
were given as being 12,000. The present  numbers are about
100,000. These figures show progress and are in some measure due to the
efforts of the Jesuits who have under their care more than 110 village
schools for the education of Copts. Recently the Copt Catholic
Hierarchy was reorganized by Pius XII. There is now a Patriarchal
diocese at Alexandria, of which the occupant is normally resident in
Cairo, with episcopal sees at Minia, Tahta and Assiut.
The Copt Catholic Community is on the whole exceedingly poor. The
standard of livelihood of a priest who would carry out his ministry in
an Egyptian village, is so low that only one reared there will subject
himself to it. Most of their churches are exceedingly primitive. Yet it
is through Copt Catholics that the return of the Copt Monophysites to
the Catholic Church will take place.
Copt Catholics are therefore to be encouraged in their work since they
are the point of contact with the mass of Egyptian Christians.
The Coptic Language
The Coptic Language is as dead as Latin and is used only for liturgical
purposes. It is the direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian language
known under its written form as hieroglyphics. This original script
underwent a twofold change before transforming itself into Coptic.
First it became hieratic in script, which means that a form of writing
peculiar to the Egyptian pagan priesthood developed out of
hieroglyphics. Hieratic is from Hiereus, the Greek for priest. This
form of writing went through a further stage called the demotic script.
Demotic was so called because it was the manner employed by the people,
or 'Demos' in Greek. The last stage was Coptic.
Coptic is the Egyptian language, written in Greek characters. There are
seven sounds in Egyptian which could not be represented by the Greek
letters, so the deficiency of this adapted alphabet was supplied by
seven characters taken from the demotic script.
There are many Greek words in Coptic. This is easily understood when
one learns that the Mass and liturgical services in Egypt were
originally, as in Rome for the first two centuries, in the Greek
language. When the services were rendered into Coptic several Greek
expressions were retained unchanged. This also happened in the West in
the retention of the "Kyrie Eleison." Then when Egyptians wished to
express something connected with Christian worship which had no
counterpart in pagan Egyptian service, they had recourse to the Greek -
which they knew - for the word. Thus the word in Coptic for bishop,
confession, devil, apostle, disciple, soul, excommunicate, saviour, and
many other words are borrowings from Greek.
The Coptic Language has a threefold use. It has liturgical and biblical
utility, for much Coptic literature is religious. It is useful and even
necessary for students of hieroglyphics who wish to arrive at the
pronunciation of old Egyptian. It is a help in the study of magic, for
many ancient Coptic documents treat of magic.
Recently two problems have arisen within the Coptic Monophysite Church.
The first is entirely connected with the Egyptian part of the
Patriarchate, an internal squabble. A recent Patriarch, dissatisfied
with the customs by which the economic side of the monasteries is
conducted, was anxious for financial reform. It seems that bishops and
abbots are accustomed to consider funds accumulated during their period
of headship as their personal property and in fact do bequeath large
sums to their relatives at death. The Patriarch would like to take the
control of finance out of the hands of bishops and abbots and place it
under the control of a lay council. Naturally there has been a split,
the Patriarch and laity being opposed by bishops and heads of
monasteries. Incidentally, we should not imagine that Coptic
monasteries are the eastern counterparts of efficient, clean, well-run
western monasteries, though they ought to be respected as being the
undoubted source, whence Europe drew her inspiration. Italian, French
and Celtic monasticism are clearly the development of Egyptian
monasticism of the fourth and fifth centuries, adapted to the peoples
of the western world. Yet at present and for centuries past, Copt
monasteries are and have been in a bad way. Learning and the desire
thereof are in abeyance. Even manual work is not practised assiduously
though there is fidelity to the recitation of the divine office.
The second problem is the desire of the Abyssinians (or Ethiopians, as
they are now known) to establish an independent Church. This desire has
grown through the efforts of Mussolini to establish an autonomous
Abyssinian Church independent of Egypt after the Italian occupation of
1935. In the spring of 1944 a Coptic delegation of a bishop and laymen
went to Addis Ababa concerning the matter. One result has been
concessions on the part of the Copt Monophysite Patriarch to the
Abyssinians of greater power in the nomination of bishops.
A sharp distinction must be made between Copt Catholic priests and Copt
Monophysite priests. As priests in Egypt must for the most part work in
surroundings of direst poverty and distress it is inevitable that most
Egyptian priests are drawn from the lowest classes of Society. This is
unfortunate for the Church, since, as a consequence, the priesthood has
little influence socially. The situation is tragic among Monophysite
Copts, where, added to their lowliness of birth, the clerics as a body
are almost without education. In most cases they are unlettered laymen
raised to the dignity of the priesthood at the call of a Bishop.
The position among the Catholic Copts is better. While often of lowly
birth the Copt Catholic priest had received in the past an excellent
secondary education imparted by the Jesuits who were appointed by Pope
Leo XIII especially for this task. This was followed by a course of
Philosophy and Theology at the Seminary in Tahta, a Catholic town in
Upper Egypt. When His Holiness Pius XII reorganized the Copt Catholic
Hierarchy in 1947, he also transferred both departments of education to
Tanta, a large town in the Nile Delta. More recently a new Seminary was
built at Maadi near Cairo.
Monophysite Coptic priests may marry but their Catholic counterparts
observe celibacy. However a Coptic bishop must be unmarried. He is
chosen from the monks and usually has been a superior in a monastery.
Coptic services are usually very lengthy affairs. Whereas in the Latin
rite we have several Masses on a Sunday or Holiday (Holy Day) of
Obligation, in the Monophysite Coptic rite there is only one which is
always sung and which lasts about three and a half hours. It is not
considered necessary for the faithful to remain for the whole Mass, but
while the more fervent and leisured classes do so, many are content
with assisting at a part of a Mass.
The language of the Mass and other liturgical services may be either
Arabic, which the people speak, or Coptic which is to Egyptians what
Latin is to European Catholics. However the words of Consecration must
always be pronounced in Coptic. A Latin Catholic who assists at a
Coptic Mass for the first time feels that he has not been to Mass, but
a little experience will enable him to find out that the ancient rite
of the Egyptians contains, as does the Latin rite, an Epistle, Gospel,
Offertory, Sanctus, Consecration, Pater Noster, and Communion. The
actions are somewhat different. The Host and Chalice are not elevated,
the words of Consecration are recited aloud and not said silently as in
the Latin Mass. No bell is rung. Catholic Copts have introduced
Benediction and other Latin ceremonies, such as the Way of the Cross.
This latinising impulse has come from the Copts themselves, and not
always from the European missionaries working in Egypt. It has led many
Monophysites to feel that union with Rome means loss or mutilation of
rite; and the Copt Monophysite loves his rite. The strains of Veni
Creator, Te Deum and Tantum Ergo set to Arabic words in a Coptic Church
do sound rather absurd.
DIFFERENCES OF TO-DAY
The Coptic Church is exceedingly conservative in teaching as in ritual.
While it can be said that the Egyptian Church of 1964 is almost
identical with that of 451 doctrinally, yet there has been a shifting
of emphasis on distinctive Coptic teaching. The question on which Egypt
broke with the Universal Church is no longer the burning issue it was,
though one frequently does hear the question of one or two natures
discussed by the educated laity, rarely by the clergy, for whom such
abstract subjects are too difficult. The obstacle to union with the
Universal Church is no longer Monophysitism, but the claim of Papal
The Coptic Church has a wholesome respect for the See of Rome provided
its occupant restricts his claims. The Patriarchs of the Great
Patriarchal Sees of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and
Jerusalem, say the Copts, are the rulers of the Church, but the
respective Patriarchs are independent in their own Patriarchates; the
Pope is master in the west and the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria is
independent ruler of the Egyptian Christians. The Pope may preside at
Church Councils but as 'Primus inter pares'. The Copts are willing to
unite with Rome but only on these conditions.
Obviously what the Copts are fighting for is not a doctrine, but
Another important matter on which difference exists between Latins and
Copts is the question of divorce, which the latter, in accordance with
the custom among separated Oriental Churches, admit for a grave reason.
It is commonly said that the Coptic Church does not admit the existence
of Purgatory. However, Mgr. Girard, a French Bishop who has spent more
than fifty years as a missionary In Egypt, and has written an excellent
work on the Eastern Churches, believes that the Copts do accept the
Latin teaching on this matter but that they have disfigured it with
fables taken, it would seem, from the religion of the ancient
Egyptians. One of these fables is that for forty days after death,
departed souls wander about before presenting themselves at the seat of
God for judgement, that during this time they undergo different sorts
of trials even at the hands of the devil. Some even go so far as to say
that full bliss for the saved will not begin until the lapse of one
year after death. However the Copts pray for the dead - inexplicable if
they do not believe in Purgatory.
Rise of Christian Monasticism
Debt to the Egyptians of the Church
Alexandria was undoubtedly the leader in theological and philosophical
matters in early Christian times. While this pre-eminence sheds glory
on Egypt, Egyptians had really little to do with it. This glory was a
borrowed glory. The rise of Alexandria to such an eminent position was
due to the transference to that city of the Schools of Athens when
decadence began to appear in Greece. The Greek philosophers became
Christian, making Alexandria what it was.
However, Egypt had another glory which was all her own and in which the
Greeks had little part. The monastic movement which was to influence
the Church in all lands and which had its rise in Egypt, was the work
of men who were Egyptian in birth and blood.
The great names in the foundation of the monastic life are those of St,
Anthony, St. Paul and St. Pachomius who all died about the year 350
A.D. The movement is generally supposed to have begun about the year
260 A.D. when thousands of fervent Christians fled from the Egyptian
cities to the desert under the persecution of Decius, the Roman
Emperor. Many found unexpected sweetness in solitude and remained
freely in the desert when the necessity had passed.
The earlier solitaries lived without a rule but soon the necessity for
discipline became apparent and a planner appeared in the person of St.
Pachomius who was the first to draw up a rule and establish monastic
life on the lines that we know to-day.
The spread and influence of Egyptian monasticism was phenomenal. Within
a couple of hundred years all Christendom had adopted the system. St.
Hilarion brought it to Syria and Palestine. St. Basil the Great was
responsible for its introduction into Pontus and Cappadocia, while
Cassian is acknowledged as the founder of monasticism in the west. It
was Cassian who founded the monastery of Lerins in 410 A.D. There St.
Patrick learned the system and brought it with him to Ireland.
All these offshoots bore clearly the marks of their origin. Like
Egyptian monasticism, the Palestinian, Syrian, Greek, Gallic and Celtic
forms were all more or less individualistic in character, fiercely
rigorous and making no concessions to climatic conditions. The result
was that in Europe, though not in Ireland, monastic life seemed
destined to decline, when a great figure appeared on the scene. This
was St. Benedict, whose task was to adapt the monastic ideal to the
European mind and climatic conditions. He toned down the primitive
Egyptian rigorism and removed its individualism, thus rendering
monasticism suitable for the Teutons who were then coming into the
Church. St. Benedict's foundation of Monte Cassino in 529 A.D.
(destroyed in 1943 but since restored) was of immense importance in the
history of Europe, for to the monasteries which sprang from it the
conversion of Europe is - under God - largely due. Celtic monasticism
also figured prominently in this conversion but the modified form
introduced by St. Benedict gradually superseded the unmitigated Irish
system. The work of both these currents is clearly seen in the second
conversion of England in the seventh century.
The Celtic influence came from the North, especially from the Holy
Isles of Iona and Lindisfarne, the most important homes in Britain of
Irish monasticism. The landing in England of St. Augustine in 596 with
36 monks marks the beginning of the Benedictine influence, which worked
from south to north, and the superseding of the Irish system by that of
Saint Benedict. The point is that all this fervent and civilizing
monastic life had its origin in Egypt while that country still formed
part of the Catholic Church.
Nubia is the district lying to the south of the southern border of
Egypt, the region south of Wadi Halfa and north of Khartoum. It is now
entirely Moslem in religion, though for centuries its inhabitants were
Christians. Very little was known about its history or the nature of
its Christian life until recently and what is coming to light today is
the result of on site archaeological investigations being carried on at
the present time. These diggings have been undertaken to discover the
Christian past of Nubia before part of it disappears for ever beneath
the waters of the proposed man-made lake which will result from the
building of the High Dam at Aswan, which is now being executed. 
The remains of sixty Christian Churches are now known and from these it
appears that the Church was introduced into this area some time between
the fourth and sixth centuries, and that the main influence was
Byzantine and not Coptic, as is revealed by the decoration of the
Churches. The Christian civilization of Nubia came to an end when it
was conquered by Moslems from the north under Saladin in the 12th
Christianity came to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in a different manner. [The
Ethiopian Baptized by St. Philip in the Book of Acts Chapter 8 may have
been from a district further North along the Nile, or he may not have
successfully established a viable long- lasting branch of the Church.]
While travelling in the East two young men, one of whom was called
Frumentius, arrived as prisoners in Ethiopia as a result of ill fortune
frequently suffered by voyagers in those days of the fourth century at
the hands of sea pirates. Frumentius and his companion later became men
of influence in the land and rose to the rank of governors. They were
Christians and preached the Christian faith while in Abyssinia. Later
Frumentius came to Alexandria where he found the great St. Athanasius
in the Patriarchal Chair of St. Mark. Having been raised to the dignity
and power of Bishop by St. Athanasius, Frumentius returned to Abyssinia
and converted its people to the Christian faith.
In the early Church, consecration by a bishop gave the bishop a
superiority of jurisdiction over the prelate consecrated by him. Thus
when new territory was acquired by the growing Church it was added to
the district of the Patriarch who had consecrated its bishop. Thus
Abyssinia naturally fell under the influence of the Patriarchate of
Alexandria and followed the great See in the lead it gave. The
secession of the Copts in 451 A.D. entailed that of the Abyssinians,
though this primitive people cannot be considered to be guilty of
serious fault on account of their inability to understand what the
schism was all about. The country had scarcely been converted when the
breach came. It can scarcely be said that the Abyssinians sinned
against the light.
Let us pray that the Good Shepherd will hear the intercessions of St
Mark and St Frumentius and all the Egyptian, Nubian and Ethiopian
Saints as we join them in praying for the swift re-union of these
ancient churches - the Coptic and the Ethiopian.
* * *