Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Practical and Mystical: Patriarch Kyrillos VI (1959-1971)

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Practical and Mystical: Patriarch Kyrillos VI (1959-1971)

Article excerpt

When fifty years from now the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church is revisited, the figure of Patriarch Kyrillos VI, who reigned as Patriarch of the Coptic Church from 1959 to 1971, will stand out as one of its most influential reformers. Copts call him the "last of the traditional patriarchs"; he seldom left his cave, monk's cell, or papal residence and devoted all of his time to praise and prayer. Today the memory of Kyrillos has become somewhat overshadowed by the steady news of miraculous interventions attributed to Kyrillos's intercession after his passing away. In death his influence stretches far beyond Egypt. For example, one of the latest miracles that happened during the fall of 2005 unfolded in Iraq where his miraculous intervention rescued the American husband of a Coptic woman deployed there from certain death.

In this essay I discuss some of the bases for Kyrillos's vision for the Coptic Church that led to the revival movement that continues to this day. By fostering a focus on the life of the Spirit, he rose above the many disputes and distractions around him. In a potentially lethal political climate he stayed aloof from politics. In a time when Muslim extremism affected the Coptic community negatively, Kyrillos reached out to Muslims, fostering strong relationships with the Muslim community and thus modeling a form of interreligious dialogue built on the fruits of the Spirit. During his time the door of the papal residence was always open to all, and many of those frequenting his residence were Muslims. Even today Muslims continue to visit his grave asking for intercession.

Holiness and action

The memories of Kyrillos VI are kept alive by Abuna Rafa'il of the Monastery of St. Menas, who served as his personal deacon. Every year a booklet appears detailing the miracles that occurred through the intercession of the late patriarch. There are now over one hundred volumes in various languages, and the number is growing. Short biographies of Anba Kyrillos have been translated into English and other languages for the second generation of Coptic immigrants. To date we have two works, by Mark Gruber and Brigitte Voile, with chapters that provide a more critical analysis. (1)

This man was a towering personality, not only in charisma but, judging by the size of his house shoes--now on display opposite his grave in the Monastery of St. Menas--in physical size as well. He turned the course of the Coptic Church into a story of development and growth when it could just as well have become an inward-looking, dogmatic institution with dwindling membership. Not only did he reform the church, he also initiated a true nahda--a revival or renaissance--that today can be witnessed in the church's clerical hierarchy, religious and social life, and cultural expressions.

His accomplishments testify to the fact that Kyrillos was not just a holy man; he was also brilliant in reading the signs and needs of his time. His creativity lay in the fact that he created new spaces for Copts in which they could unfold their identity and practice their faith. His greatness lay in his deep psychological insights and understanding of what constitutes the Coptic identity and how the traditional and ancient Christian faith could translate into renewed forms applicable to the twentieth century. These innate traits, however, might have remained inactive without Kyrillos's charisma that was augmented by his strong life of prayer.

Kyrillos followed a style all his own that combined interest in the smallest detail with teaching in maxims following the great tradition of the desert fathers. For example, he gave advice about the design and length of the uniforms of the active sisters from the Convent of St. Mary in Beni Suef, reasoning that the dress should not touch the ground because that would make the sisters trip when climbing onto a bus. He even thought about the color: beige for novices, grey for sisters--not black, because that would scare children in the sisters' day-care centers. …

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