And yet, we come across people whose existence leaves an indelible mark and whose lives shine with the light of wisdom, love, guidance and benevolence. The late Pope Shenouda ranks highly among the latter.
His presence was a source of light, his ideas a path, and his voice had genuine warmth. The musician Hany Shenouda once said: "The words of Pope Shenouda delight the ears whether he was speaking about religion or worldly matters. His words tend to touch people's hearts as if they were playing a symphony that resembles the singing of a choir of nightingales."
Pope Shenouda lived to be 89, and throughout his life, he experienced glory and pain. Though oppressed and treated unjustly, he never relented or showed weakness, remaining steadfast and loyal to his principles.
He could also love and forgive those who hated or betrayed him, treating everyone with love. For years, his teachings guided us, and as soon as we established a close and personal connection with him, he became a source of inspiration who taught us, through his life, valuable lessons of great depth and profundity.
Pope Shenouda was born to a wealthy family in the village of Salam in Assiut Governorate in 1923. His mother passed away after birth, and his older brother Raphael looked after him. They moved between cities due to his brother's work in the Ministry of Finance.
In 1938, he moved to Cairo, where his older brother became the head of a department in the Ministry of Finance. They resided in Hassan Basha Helmi Street in Shubra, where he joined the Iman Secondary School.
Pope Shenouda used to observe from his window a poorly dressed young man searching for food in the garbage. This sight filled him with great pain, so he noted when the young man usually arrived and started putting a bag of food and fruits for him before his arrival.
He instructed us to put bags of tightly sealed food in the garbage so that poor people passing by may find them and eat.
He joined the Faculty of Arts (Fouad I University), majoring in archaeology. In his third year, he also joined the Clerical College while completing his studies, graduating from the Faculty of Arts with honours. Pope Shenouda then joined the Reserve Officers' College and graduated as an infantry officer in 1948.
Pope Shenouda joined the Wafd Party and won the admiration of its leader, Makram Obeid. He also recited poetry at conferences held by Wafd, which awarded him the title "the Wafdian poet."
He later worked as a teacher and then resigned to teach at the Clerical College.
On July 18, 1954, he resigned from the college, entering the Syrian Monastery to become a monk and was given the name Antonios the Syrian. In 1959, he decided to live in a cave in the mountains in solitude and prayer. He continued to do so until Pope Cyril VI appointed him as his secretary and later, in 1962, as bishop for preaching and religious institutes. From that point onwards, he became known as Anba Shenouda and started delivering sermons that thousands attended.
After the passing of Pope Cyril, he was chosen Pope in 1971. Despite his dedication to the church, Pope Shenouda always cared deeply for Egypt. He used to say, echoing Makram Obeid, that "Egypt is not just a country we live in, but it's a country that lives within us."
He was also concerned about global issues and the injustice faced by the Palestinians. Just a month after his enthronement, in December 1971, he delivered a lecture at the Journalists Syndicate on Christianity and Israel, in which he repudiated the myth that the Israelis were God's chosen people.
When he visited the United States and met with President Jimmy Carter, he was asked about his view on the claim that Israel is God's chosen people. He replied, "If they are, then who are we?".
The Pope continued to advocate for the Palestinian cause and even refused to enter Jerusalem without "our Muslim brothers". His stance on this issue drove a wedge between him and President Sadat. Nevertheless, he remained a true patriot whose teachings inspired us to love Egypt unconditionally.
In 1972, the Pope went to the frontlines to support the army before the war. During the war, he visited hospitals, provided aid and medicine, and declared that "the Second Army, led by Ahmed Badawi, and the Third Army, led by Fouad Aziz Ghali, fought for Egypt without discriminating between Muslim and Christian."
His disagreement with Sadat never altered his stance on national issues. In 1989, he refused to establish a Christian party, saying, "For the sake of our nation and its unity, I reject the establishment of any Christian party."
The Pope also said, "We are Egyptians, a part of Egypt's people, and we do not like to consider ourselves a minority. To preserve national unity, we should not say 'Christian' or 'Muslim,' but rather, 'Egyptian'."
He also rejected any foreign intervention in the affairs of Copts.
Pope Shenouda was a prolific writer who had 91 books to his name. Universities worldwide honoured him, granting him seven honorary doctorates from American and European universities. He also received the UNESCO Prize for Religious Tolerance in 2000.
The great writer Ibrahim El-Wardani praised him, saying, "The epic of Pope Shenouda, how magnificent and creative it is! In it, we discover an Egyptian leader who embodies Egyptian history, wiping the national forehead with the leaves of oud, flowers, fragrance, love, and tolerance."
Pope Shenouda departed from our world in March 2012, but his voice, spirit, and life remain an eternal beacon.