After getting word that His Holiness Pope Tawadros II will be visiting my parish here in the U.S.A. soon, I thought it appropriate to write this post to inform Copts and non-Copts alike about the eminence of the original papacy: the Coptic papacy.
It all begins with this: whenever anyone (not Coptic) says “The Pope,” who do they mean? The head of the Roman Catholic Church. As for myself, however, whenever I hear/see that title being used to exclusively refer to the Catholic Pontiff, a small part of me cringes in grief at the ignorance.
Because “The Pope,” for almost one millennium, used to exclusively be understood by all of Christendom (including Rome) to refer to one archbishop, and it wasn’t Rome’s; it was the Archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Church. This is not a matter of uninformed, personal bias just because I am Coptic; this is a historical, well-established fact.
My confusion over this came slowly over time as I would attend countless Coptic liturgies and services, and hear or read countless times the title of our Archbishop. We Copts call him “The Pope,” and among us when that title is spoken, we think of only one, and that is our Patriarch of Alexandria. This is deeply ingrained in the Coptic Church and its vernacular, and not just in conversations outside of Church services, but inside as well. We always see the Coptic Church in its liturgical texts and hymns referring to our Archbishop as “Papa Abba ______” or “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria.” But as I was growing up I kept hearing another receiving that acclaim and title exclusively for themselves, and I wondered why.
Here is the historical truth:
The word Pope is an ancient term originally pronounced papa, and like it sounds, it meant father. Sources often indicate this term originally actually derived from the term ab-aba (or ap-apa); that is, Father of Fathers.
See, initially, all bishops in the Church, most particularly in the Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic Churches, were bestowed the title Abba (also meaning Father). The Copts, though, eventually started to refer to the head of all their Abbas (the head of all their bishops) as the Papa. This is said to have begun at least as early as the 13th Pope of Alexandria (c. AD 231—Pope Heraclas [or Theoclas]). In fact, we attribute this date because his successor Pope Dionysius of Alexandria used this title about his predecessor when writing to a Roman priest named Philemon: “I received this rule and ordinance from our blessed Pope, Heraclas.” [τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον.] (Eusebius, History of the Church, 7.7.4)
This is a well-known fact. See what one historian says about the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and Pope Alexander of Alexandria:
He was the bishop, not indeed of the first, but of the most learned see of Christendom. He was known by a title which he alone officially bore in that assembly. He was “the Pope.” “The Pope of Rome” was a phrase which had not yet emerged in history. But “Pope of Alexandria” was a well-known dignity. Papa, that strange and universal mixture of familiar endearment and of reverential awe … was the special address which, long before the names of patriarch or of archbishop, was given to the head of the Alexandrian Church. (Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church, By Arthur Penrhyn Stanley).
Then, at some point around the 11th century (although some sources say the 7th), the head bishop of Rome appropriated the title for himself. It makes sense, as the primacy of Rome over all of Christianity was a consistent point that Rome tried to impress on all other jurisdictions, and which contributed to the Great Schism around this time.
The bishops themselves bestow the title Abba more eminently on the Patriarch of Alexandria, which occasioned the people to give him that of Baba or Papa, that is, Grandfather, the Father of the Fathers; a title which he bore before it was bestowed on the Bishops of Rome, for the name of Pope was not exclusively appropriated by them until the close of the eleventh century. It is now conjoined with supreme authority, the Pope being the head of the Roman Church; so much so, that the Catholic Religion is termed Popery, and has its adjective and adverb Popish and Popishly. A member of the [Catholic] Church is called a Papist. (An analytical dictionary of the English language, By David Booth)
Today, there are only two archbishops of the ancient Church that are titled pope: the archbishop of Alexandria, and that of Rome (although, the Greek Church, after the separation between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, placed an archbishop in Alexandria as well and appropriated for him the title of Pope as well, since it was the historical Alexandrian title). Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary gets this one mostly right:
Next time you hear someone refer to “the Pope,” know that there used to only be ONE, and now there are TWO.
If you are Coptic, be proud of the history of your Church.
(Note: In no way am I intending to disrespect the Catholic Church or its archbishop, but simply bringing attention to history. The relationship between the Coptic and Catholic Churches have been very cordial in recent times, and I pray they continue to progress in a positive direction.)
Pope Francis and the Coptic Archbishop, Pope Tawadros II pose during a private audience in the pontiff’s library at the Vatican, May 10, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS /ANDREAS SOLARO / POOL
- Elwell, Walter A. (2001). ”Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”
- Greer, Thomas H.; Gavin Lewis (2004). A Brief History of the Western World.
- Mazza, Enrico (2004). The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite.
- O’Malley, John W. (2009). A History of the Popes.
- Schatz, Klaus (1996). Papal Primacy.
- Fau, Edward. 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches