A Silent Patriarch: Kyrillos VI, Life and Legacy
Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 2019
The latest volume in SVS Press’ Coptic Studies Series examines the life and legacy of Pope Kyrillos VI. The book is divided into two parts: the first looks at Kyrillos’ life up to his patriarchal ordination, and the second examines his tenure as patriarch. Throughout, history and biography are interwoven, and aligns the Patriarch’s life with current events as they played out.
The author of the book, the Reverend Father Daniel Fanous, is the current Dean of St. Cyril’s Coptic Orthodox Seminary in Sydney, Australia, where he is also a Lecturer of Theology and Biblical Studies. The book is based on his doctoral dissertation which he completed at the University of Newcastle, Australia. In it we see, for the first time, manuscripts and telegrams that had not been published or brought to the public. Many of these telegrams and messages were hidden at the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Upper Egypt, or they were provided to Fanous through Pope Kyrillos’ living family members.
This is the first scholarly biography of Pope Kyrillos to be published. Previous scholars have published minor works (John Watson, Patriarch and Solitary; Nelly Van Doorn-Harder, Kyrillos Sixth: Planner, Patriarch, and Saint), but these pale in comparison to this current edition. I would recommend reading this book to obtain a clearer picture of the man who, for the most part, is only known for his miraculous acts.
Here I aim to analyze how Fanous addresses history, conflict, and personal issues that arose for the Patriarch.
Fanous offers a historically rigorous account of the events of Pope Kyrillos’ life, as well as correcting previous scholarly commentary on the episodes surrounding his tumultuous patriarchate. One such example is the story of Pope Kyrillos and Father Abdel Messih the Ethiopian (El-Habashy). Western scholars such as Edward Wakin and Otto Meinardus have stated that both El-Habashy and Pope Kyrillos influenced each other, but as Fanous points out, this is a misrepresentation: Kyrillos and Habashy never connected while they were monastics. Fanous provides a corrective to those Western scholars who assume that El-Habashy influenced Kyrillos at the time even though, based on the chronology of events, El-Habashy arrived at the Baramous monastery after Pope Kyrillos had left in 1936.
When examining church history concerning Kyrillos, Fanous is at pains to unpack the importance of certain events as they took place. His shortest chapter in the book, chapter 6, looks at the events surrounding Pope Yusab and his right-hand man Melek, who were both practically removed from all Coptic memory and history due to the controversy surrounding them.
I commend Fanous for his telling of the story. However, a few interesting points stand out in this retelling. In 1953, we have a letter from Kyrillos that he wrote to Pope Yusab which begins with: “To the holy and honored Anba Yusab, Metropolitan of the Chair of Girga, and not the patriarch of St. Mark’s throne, God keep your life….”
Undoubtedly, this was a powerful letter (see p. 207 for the full letter), which causes Fanous to question its legitimacy due to his inability to find any references in the primary sources. In his footnotes, despite not wanting to believe the veracity of the letter, Fanous admits to its authenticity. Many have tried to distance this letter from Kyrillos; however, we know that he was a strong-willed man, and this letter speaks to his personality. The letter, as Fanous states, was written because Kyrillos was influenced by his students (Pope Shenouda, Father Matthew the Poor, and Bishop Samuel) to speak out against the atrocities that were taking place with Yusab and Melek.
When describing this part of the history, Fanous attempts to distance Yusab from Melek. Many have tried to place blame on Melek for the simony that took place during this time. Some—including Fanous—go as far as to say that Pope Yusab was under the influence of Melek. This historical revisionism tries to portray Yusab in an innocent light, ultimately to reaffirm the idea that clergy—“men who serve God”—are held in higher esteem and are not capable of such corruption. This is seen in Fanous’ conclusion to the chapter:
To what degree Yusab was complicit or manipulated remains unknown…. Yusab’s reluctance to part with such an individual at first, and later his pleas for Melek’s return at the cost of all else, suggests a deeply misguided and deluded dependence at best. (p. 210)
Unfortunately, this negates Yusab’s autonomy and says that he had no part in the simony and other events that took place during his papacy. The details of the sequence of events, and who was involved to what degree, might be lost, but history knows that Yusab was aware and complicit in the events that took place around him. Revising history in this manner means that, though clergy remain human, they are not capable of committing such horrible acts.
However, the move to rewrite history in this version can soften the blow from the corrupt history and opens it up to many audiences, including the Coptic community, who will be able to read the history and life of Pope Kyrillos without feeling defensive. The book attempts to speak to many different audiences, one of which is the Coptic community. I would recommend the book to all Copts to learn about the early life of Pope Kyrillos, much of which is unknown to Copts. His later life, when he became patriarch, and his association with miracle-working, is what Copts know well and pass on to their children.
However, using the primary text, especially the telegram between Kyrillos and his brother Hanna, Fanous is able to capture and retell the story of a man who struggled in his early years to discern between woking in the world and becoming a monk. Ultimately, he chose monasticism, a time that proved difficult for him, as many in the monastic world stood as barriers to his ways of prayer and living a monastic life.
When it comes to Pope Kyrillos’ personal life, much is unknown and clouded around heavy hagiographical accounts. After his death in 1971, his story became synonymous with miracles so much so that many older Coptic believers (born between 1950 and 1975) will associate Pope Kyrillos with stories of miracles and not much else. If Copts had it their way, Pope Kyrillos’ picture would be the definition of “miracle” in an Oxford dictionary. His impact rippled through an entire generation of Copts after his death. Many young men between the ages of 20 to 35, today, are named Mina/Mena because of the relationship Kyrillos had with St. Mena. Parents of children born between 1980 and 1995 named their sons Mena or Kyrillos because of the impact his life had on the wider Coptic community.
However, much of the hagiographical accounts are brought into the limelight in the second part of Fanous’ book. One instance of this is his presentation of Kyrillos as a ubermensch rather than a human being, insofar as to say that any potential human acts he had were dismissed as “hearsay.”
One such example is in an encounter he has with a priest by the name of Samuel Tawadros from the monastery of el-Syrian (the Monastery of the Syrians). Samuel wrote part of the Arabic history of the Patriarchs of Alexandria. Kyrillos, in 1960, issued a decree commanding all monks to return to their monasteries. Samuel was serving in a city parish and was shocked that the decree applied to city monks serving in parishes. He asked the Patriarch to make an exception, to which Kyrillos declined. Samuel would see him seven days later praying Vespers and Kyrillos rebuked him, commanding his immediate return to the monastery. Supposedly, they reconciled a few months later.
However, in 1977, when writing his account in the book of Patriarchs, Samuel speaks about the Patriarch and how he sometimes “failed to distinguish between those who honored him and those who deceived him” (p. 240). Fanous claims that Samuel’s account is “shaded by personal experience” (pg. 241); nonetheless, the events remain true. It appears that Fanous attempts to distance the Patriarch from any wrongdoing, but is definitive in his retelling of miraculous, hagiographical events despite the lack of primary sources (pg.131). There is a notable effort to depict Kyrillos as nearly perfect, which, as we see, he was far from. It was his ability to be human, make mistakes, and ask and give forgiveness that made him popular. To be a saint is to be aware of your past as a sinner and to know every sinner has a future.
When expounding on the history of the church and church conflict, Fanous struggles between being an academic and a priest. We see some of this in the chapter on Yusab, as mentioned previously. The hesitancy to blame Yusab for simony was evident in the chapter.
However, when retelling the accounts of Shenouda and Gregorious, we see greater hesitancy in telling the struggles they faced and the deeper battles that ensued. From the history of Shenouda, Samuel, Gregorious, and Matthew the Poor, we know the conflicts began in the early years under the leadership of Kyrillos. Without unpacking much of this deep history, I will mention one incident to which Fanous alludes in his book.
Kyrillos, with the help of Bishop Gregorious as a layman, took to the idea of ordaining bishops without a city or diocese (the term used today is “General Bishop”). The first two bishops to be ordained for “Services” were Shenouda, for education, and Samuel, for ecumenical affairs. The resentment began between Shenouda and Gregorious when Shenouda, in 1962, was ordained for the service of education even though Gregorious was the dean of the seminary before being tonsured a monk.
Shenouda quickly wrote to him expressing his sadness about the ordination, even going as far as to say that he was not aware of the ordination. However, the rift began and would continue on for many years to come when Kyrillos decided to ordain Gregorious a bishop for the Institute of Higher Education. This caused a backlash through telegrams between Shenouda and Gregorious, suggesting that there cannot be two bishops for the same diocese (even though, in theory, there was no diocese). The troubles between the two would continue as Shenouda did not attend the ordination of Bishop Gregorious.
This spilled into Shenouda’s patratichate as he cut communication with Gregorious after Shenouda’s house arrest in 1981. Fanous says the following:
Whenever this episode has been reported in the past—albeit very rarely—it is invariably narrated negatively. The actual letters and correspondence show otherwise. Again, we must carefully note that it was the principle that was of utmost concern. (p. 327)
While the principle of the canon was of utmost importance, it is the cause of the breakup of a friendship, which resulted in a great rift in the church that spilled into Shenouda’s patriarchate. Whether jealousy or other feelings set in, it was a known fact that Shenouda distanced himself from Gregorious beginning with Gregorious’ ordination as bishop for higher education, for which Shenouda was ordained. We must ask ourselves if the ordination of two individuals to what was essentially the same role was an administrative error on the part of Kyrillos. Fanous fails to address this matter, and it is a question that is certainly worth exploring, especially due to the ramifications that later ensued into Shenouda’s papacy.
The last point to examine is a part about which, unfortunately, I must speak more bluntly. Fanous’ silencing of Dr. George Habib Bebawi is an utmost disgrace to scholarship and academic integrity. Dr. Bebawi, who is controversially excommunicated, was one of a handful of Coptic scholars who obtained his PhD in the 1960s with the blessing of Pope Kyrillos. He went on to teach at the Coptic seminary and then, at the University of St. John’s College at Nottingham for 15 years (1985-2000), and finally served as director of the Christian Orthodox Studies Institute at Cambridge University (2000-2004), as well as writing three books on Kyrillos in Arabic. Fanous does not quote, mention, footnote, or have any reference in the index to Dr. Bebawi’s scholarship, or reference his writings on Pope Kyrillos (even though Fanous mentioned that he had consulted all primary and secondary text in Arabic written about Pope Kyrillos in the preface and concluding remarks). Whether this was a slip of the mind or a purposeful negation by Fanous because Dr. Bebawi is portrayed in a negative light, especially by Kyrillos’ successor, Pope Shenouda, it is a mistake that requires critical examination. One can theorize and expand on this by stating that, if one is excommunicated from the church, then they have no authority or say on any matter in the church. But it shows a deeper rooted problem in Fanous’ approach not to have consulted Dr. Bebawi’s scholarship—a problem where academic integrity and genuine research are compromised and critical examination of the subject matter is incomplete.
Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about Pope Kyrillos VI. The early part of his life is clouded around much mystery and hagiography. However, Fanous does an excellent job unpacking the Pope’s story from the primary resources that were available to him. His thesis focusing around Kyrillos’ kenotic ecclesiology points to a man who was firm and strong, but at the same time, was compassionate and a visionary. He became patriarch during the darkest time in the last 150 year history of the Coptic Church, and he was able to do more for the Church than anyone could have imagined. As the promotion on the SVS website states, Kyrillos inherited a bleeding church, one confronted by political Islamism, an indifferent Muslim president, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. One thing is certain about Kyrillos: silence was virtue, mockery was accepted, criticism was normative, and yet, he led a nearly impossible spiritual revolution.
My maternal great-grandfather’s brother, Metropolitan Antonious, locum tenens after Kyrillos’ death, summarized the man’s life and legacy beautifully when he eulogized him at the funeral service saying:
It is extremely hard for us to stand and grieve him, but this is the will of God…. It is hard for us to see for the final time his pure body among us in this great cathedral that he built…the heart of Pope Kyrillos was open to all, his door was open to the poor before the rich, the young before the old…welcoming them, patiently and lovingly to them with a smile that never left his lips…a true man…and they are all too rare…. History will record his virtues that are seldom granted to others, especially his incredible humility that accompanied him as a solitary hermit…. He is immortal, he will not be forgotten. We shall not forget him; the nation will not forget him. He departed in the hope of the resurrection….
And Bishop Antonious directed words directly to the deceased Patriarch and said:
Sleep, my master, and rest, your deeds will follow you…. I, my master, if I speak, my tongue may betray me, my feelings regardless of what I say cannot convey nor embrace all that you are due, for you were a great saint in the depth of that word….
Bavly Kost is a Coptic Orthodox Christian who holds an MA in Theology from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, an MPS from Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto, and a BA (Hons) in History and Religious Studies and a BEd, both from York University in Toronto. He contributed an article in the second edition of The Orthodox Dilemma: Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Conciliar Unity (OCP Publications, 2017), has written for The Alexandria School Journal published by Agora University in Alexandria, Egypt, and authored a small book entitled 1st Corinthians for Teens (St. Shenouda Monastery Press, Sydney, 2015). He works as a spiritual care practitioner for the Scarborough Health Network in Toronto, Canada.
Note from Mr. Kost: I wanted to thank a few people who worked tirelessly and helped frame my thoughts and ideas for this review. Bishoy Khalil, Ramez Rizkalla, and Sathiya Siva worked diligently, reading, editing, and giving me advice on content and information. Your support and care will never go unnoticed. Thank you!
 Fanous distances the Pope from wrongdoing; however, in telling his first miracle he reports there are no primary resources to validate this account and it is a story told from popular tradition surrounding the Pope. Fanous attempts to build on the hagiographical account of Kyrillos by mentioning miracles that are not reported in the primary sources and distancing him from the wrongdoing that others reported about him.
 Shenouda was first ordained for education without qualification. Gregorious was then ordained for higher education. The difference would lie in the groups they served. However, as the telegram exchanges between them would demonstrate, they were ordained for the same service. It was only after quarreling over their proverbial territories that Kyrillos ultimately specified that Shenouda would oversee Sunday School, and Gregorious Higher Education.
 As far as Dr. Bebawi studying abroad, it was Pope Kyrillos who personally gave Gamal Abdel Nasser Dr. Bebawi’s papers so they could get approved. No one was allowed to travel at the time because of the war. That was how he got to travel to study in England.
 George Bebawi, Pope Kyrillos the Sixth: The Ecclesiastical Teacher: Volume 1. June 2013. (This book examines personal memoirs, instructions received from Pope Kyrillos in the context of spiritual guidance, and mystagogical teachings); George Bebawi, Pope Kyrillos the Sixth: The Ecclesiastical Teacher: Volume 2. March 2015. (This book examines the way of prayer according to the Psalis); George Bebawi, Pope Kyrillos the Sixth: The Ecclesiastical Teacher: Volume 3. Forthcoming. (This book examines the Mystgogical Teachings of Pope Kyrillos the Sixth, and a commentary on the Divine Liturgy); all the books can be found on Dr. George Bebawi’s personal website.
 See “With the Desert Fathers of Egypt: Coptic Christianity Today,” Road to Emmaus Vol. 10.3 (2009), 1-37, for more details about Dr. Bebawi’s life with Pope Kyrillos and the influence Kyrillos had on Bebawi’s upbringing.
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