A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, March 19, 2012

How the Copts Will Choose their Next Pope

With the death of Pope Shenouda III this weekend (see my appreciation of Shenouda here), the Coptic Church of Egypt embarks on a process for choosing the next Pope, who will be the 118th successor of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Since Shenouda reigned for 40 years, it has been a long time since the process of succession has been implemented, so even Copts may need to familiarize themselves with the process.

It is a process likely to take several months at least. There are reports suggesting the Church may delay the election until after the election of an Egyptian President, no excessive delay may be required: the President should be chosen by July 1, while in 1971 the interval between the death of Pope Kyrillos VI and the election of Shenouda was eight months. (It can take even longer; in 1956-59 it took more than two years.) The basic rules currently in force were laid down by a Presidential decree of 1957 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, (link is in Arabic), prior to the election of Kyrillos VI.

Acting Pope Bp. Pachomius
The first step in the transition is the election of a locum tenens or Acting Pope who will preside over the Church during the transition. The holder of this post is considered ineligible to be elected Pope since he will have overseen the electoral process, though in the last century there were exceptions to this. The Acting Pope has already been named, Bishop Pachomius (Bakhomious), Metropolitan Archbishop of Buheira.

The Holy Synod — the body of Coptic bishops — is the Church's man ecclessiastical body; the Millet Council (Al-Maglis al-Milli) is the lay body of prominent Copts who have provided a voice for the laity since 1874. These two bodies play a key role in the creation of the electoral council to choose the Pope. Each nominates nine of its members, presided over by the Acting Pope to form a 19-member Council, which receives nominations. These are then voted on by the Holy Synod, the Millet Council, and a third body, created by the 1957 decree, which consists of prominent Copts from each diocese, former Ministers and MPs, and other notables. This body may be the way the state maintains some oversight in the selection process.  At the end of a vetting process, the Electoral Council announces the names of no fewer than five and no more than six or seven candidates. This process can easily occupy three months, so once again little delay is required to postpone the papal election past that of the President.

Under the Presidential decree, the only specified requirements are that the candidates be 40 years old, never married, and have spent at least 15 years as a monk. However, an ancient tradition of the church was to choose the Pope directly from a monastery, not from the bishops (though the bishops themselves are all drawn from the monks, in the Eastern tradition). This was relaxed in the 20th century and several Popes wee elected from the bishops. Shenouda himself was a general bishop (administering a Church-wide department, not an individual diocese). There are some who favor returning to a monks-only rule; others who accept election of a General Bishop but not a Diocesan Bishop, and others who believe precedent allows the election of Diocesan Bishops as well. At least one prominent figure, Bishop Bishoy, is both a General Bishop as Secretary of the Holy Synod and the Diocesan Metropolitan Bishop of Damietta. This eligibility issue is likely to be argued within the Church in the coming weeks and months.

In the Acts of the Apostles, when the eleven remaining Apostles sought to replace Judas Iscariot, they chose a new Apostle by lot. The final decision in the election of a Coptic Pope is still carried out, by ancient tradition, by what is known as the Altar Lot. The Coptic faithful, including their children, gather at the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Abbasiyya. A young boy is randomly chosen from the congregation, blindfolded, and draws a name from a box on the altar. The name drawn becomes the successor of Saint Mark.

Just as Italians love to speculate on the papabile or papal candidates when it is time to elect a Roman Catholic Pope, so Copts speculate about the candidates for their Papacy, and the question of whether Diocesan Bishops are eligible comes into play.  But that will be the subject of a separate post in the coming weeks.

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