During the first papal visit to Egypt in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed a gathering of Christians and Muslims. “We do not know each other sufficiently,” he said, “let us therefore find ways to meet.” Egyptians have, unfortunately, had to wait for almost two decades to meet the Successor of Peter again. On April 28 Pope Francis will touch down in Cairo for one of the most significant trips of his pontificate.
Papal visits are usually prepared months (if not years) in advance. This one is different: the trip was announced on Saturday, just weeks before it will take place. Why has the Vatican scrambled to arrange the journey? To answer that we need to consider who issued the invitation: the Coptic Catholic bishops, the Coptic Orthodox pope, the grand imam of al-Azhar and the Egyptian president.
The Coptic Catholic Church is a tiny entity, numbering just 175,000 members in a country of 82 million. Nevertheless, it enjoys a certain prestige because of its connection with the papacy. A successful papal visit will enhance its reputation as a mediator between Egypt’s factions.
Pope Tawadros II is the leader of Egypt’s 10 to 14 million Coptic Orthodox Christians (no one knows the true figure: it is deemed too politically sensitive). A former manager of a pharmaceutical factory, he was elected in 2012 when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a glass bowl containing the names of two other candidates. He is highly regarded by Pope Francis, who described him as “a mystic” after seeing him remove his shoes before entering a chapel to pray. Tawadros hopes that Francis will bring comfort and international attention to his persecuted flock, which traces its origins back to St Mark the Evangelist.
Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, is regarded (not entirely accurately) as the spiritual leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims. In 2011, he suspended dialogue with the Holy See after Benedict XVI asked, quite reasonably, if Egypt was doing enough to protect Christians. But al-Tayeb is not, in fact, a hardliner. The Sorbonne-educated thinker believes in “moderation and dialogue among civilisations”, opposes the niqab (face veil) and rejects ISIS as “false Islam”. After unfreezing relations, he visited Pope Francis last year. The papal visit will underline his position as one of the globe’s foremost Muslim authorities and Al-Azhar’s claim to represent an older, more authentic version of Islam.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014 with the implicit support of al-Tayeb and Tawadros II. Nicknamed the Quiet General owing to his disciplined, taciturn nature, el-Sisi has strongly promoted religious pluralism. In 2015, the former army chief became the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas liturgy. He hopes that the papal visit will strengthen interfaith relations and isolate extremists.
Clearly, then, Pope Francis’s hosts have very high expectations for his two-day trip. Copts are the largest Christian minority in the Arabic-speaking world. Egypt is therefore a test case: if Christians and Muslims cannot coexist there, can they coexist anywhere? This is an urgent question, and that is why Francis is seizing the first opportunity he can to head to Cairo.
The climax of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, intersperses scenes of a baptism, at which Michael Corleone stands as godfather to his nephew, with violent scenes of the same Michael’s henchmen settling scores with his enemies. Gunfire, blood and murder are contrasted with sonorous Latin, and with the godfather’s renunciation of sin and the Devil, following the pre-Vatican II Rite of Baptism.
The role of godparent is an important one, as all Catholics who have been fortunate enough to have good godparents must know. A godparent is supposed to be a fine and upstanding example of the Catholic faith. Thus last year, when Giuseppe Riina, of the notorious Sicilian crime family, was allowed to be godfather to his nephew, it was rightly considered a scandal. In response to such abuses Archbishop Michele Pennisi of Monreale has decreed that Mafiosi cannot be godparents.
While it is unlikely that a member of a crime syndicate will ever try to fulfil such a role in this country, the archbishop’s decree is important. It aims to protect the integrity of the sacrament, and reminds us that the baptised child is meant to be brought up as a Catholic, and that the parents and godparents, in presenting the child for baptism, are undertaking to live Catholic lives themselves. The actual words of the Rite of Baptism are mocked if the parents and godparents are lapsed Catholics who never go to church, or who live in a way that is at odds with Church teaching.
Statistics show that most parents who present their children for baptism are, in fact, lapsed Catholics. Baptismal preparation tries to reignite their faith, though its success rate is patchy. Pastors will rarely refuse baptism, but they must at least have grounds to hope that the child has a chance of growing up Catholic, and that the parents and godparents have some sincere desire to follow Church teaching and practice, if not now, then at some future date. But for far too many couples, baptism has degenerated into a social ritual. This is a trend that urgently needs to be reversed.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund