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Orthodox Copts Will Celebrate Mass in Pope’s Cathedral: Vatican Explains Why

On May 14, Orthodox Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II will celebrate Mass in Saint John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome. The event has been confirmed by Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, official of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano on April 22. 

The announcement was perceived by some with a certain perplexity, after the same Cathedral was used by Anglicans. The event of the Anglican “Mass” was followed by a specific press release adducing errors of communication. The situation with the Orthodox Copts is different from that of the Anglicans and this can be explained. 

Tawadros II will be in Rome from May 9-14, 2023. There are three reasons that motivate this visit of the Orthodox Coptic Patriarch. Father Destivelle explained them thus: “We are celebrating three  events: the first is the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between a Bishop of Rome and an Orthodox Coptic Patriarch. It regards the meeting in Rome on May 10, 1973, between Patriarch — who also has the title of Pope — Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI, who signed a very famous Christological Agreement, which served as a model for similar agreements with other Eastern Orthodox Churches, recognizing the first three Ecumenical Councils. Then we are also celebrating the 10th anniversary  of Tawadros’ first visit in 2013, a few months after Francis’ election and that of Tawadros; and we are also celebrating the end of 1500 years of Christological controversies around the Council of Chalcedon.”

In this whole context, there will be a number of activities during the days of the visit of the principal leader of the Christian community in Egypt to Rome. They are referred to thus by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity: “Patriarch Tawadros’ stay in Rome will begin with a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Peter, and the  following day, May 10, he will attend the General Audience in Saint Peter’s Square. Hence, it will be a way of making known better the Day of Coptic-Catholic Friendship, which falls on May 10. The next day, May 11, there will be a private audience with the Holy Father, which will also include a moment of prayer in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.”

Confirmed on the agenda also is the Mass in the Pope’s Cathedral: “On May 14, the Patriarch will celebrate with his faithful — there are some one hundred thousand in Italy — in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. In this case, of course, the use of the Bishop of Rome’s Cathedral has been granted, taking into account the historic character of the visit and the number of faithful, which no doubt will be several thousands. The Patriarch will not celebrate at the Pope’s altar. He will have his own altar where he will celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the Coptic Rite. It must be pointed out in this connection that the Ecumenical Directorate affirms in point 137 that “if the priests, ministers or communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the necessary liturgical objects  to celebrate worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop can allow them to use a Catholic church or building and give them as well the necessary objects for their worship.” This is also explained in point 33 of the Ecumenical Vademecum. Moreover, the Orthodox Coptic Church is an Apostolic Church whose Sacraments are recognized by the Catholic Church and with which it shares the same concept of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. Given the special character of the visit, this authorization intended to be as well a fraternal gesture addressed to the Coptic Church.”

This answer explains the difference between what happened with the Anglicans and the treatment given to the Orthodox Copts: in the case of the Anglicans, the Catholic Church does not recognize its “sacraments” and does not have the same concept about the Eucharist and the priesthood. Or, in the words of a Liturgy Professor of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum: “Although he is not in communion with Rome, there is no doubt that the Patriarch is really a Bishop and the celebration of a Coptic Rite will be a valid celebration.” In the case of the Anglicans, it was not a validly ordained  minister or a Mass. The Catholic Church does consider the Patriarch a Bishop and Successor of the Apostles, whereas this is not the case with the Anglican “episcopate.” 

Finally, speaking of the path of unity between both Churches — the Catholic and the Orthodox Coptic –, the official of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity recalled that “Unity is a journey, as Pope Francis often reiterates, and this visit will surely be a milestone in our journey towards unity. There have already been important steps in the past, as the sending of Observers to Vatican Council II by Patriarch Cyril, the return of Saint Mark’s relics in 1968, and the above mentioned visit in 1973, and the setting up of a Mixed Bilateral Commission between the  Coptic and Catholic Churches. Now theological relations are developed in the framework of a Mixed Commission between the Catholic Church  and all the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in which the Coptic Church has a special role because the Co-President has been a Coptic Bishop since the beginning.”