It has never crossed my thoughts that one day I would be honored be one of the voters in the Papal Election. However, in fact, I pleaded with God not to make me drink of this cup for two reasons: first, my hope is not to fall into confusion by favoring one nominee over another, and the second reason is to avoid falling – like others – into the trap of objecting against any of the nominees, as required by the bylaws of the elections.
With regard to the second reason, I do not ever think that the spirit of “objections” is in accordance with my nature. During the long years in my ministry in the Church, I have never viewed any of the Church fathers in a negative manner. I see in them the greatness of the Holy Spirit working in them, to the glory of God’s name, despite any of their human weaknesses. I see in them the finest of magnificence, in the righteousness of Christ. They are our fathers and instructors who preach to us the word of God (Hebrews 7:13).
But what can we say about many of the objections that we are hearing on certain nominees? What will be the outcome of this controversy? How can we depart from the trap of the objections on the papal nominees?
I have already published – by the grace of God – two articles on the election of His Holiness the new Pope, before the names of the candidates were announced. The first article is titled: “The New Pope and the Contemporary challenges” and the second is: “The Nomination to the Papacy”. In them, I think I have explained what we hope His Holiness the New Pope to be, the method of his election, and how to object on any of the nominees, if needed and in the right manner. I do not wish to repeat what has already been published in this article.
I would like to mention here that our vision for the glorious work of the Spirit of God in the Church Fathers, and their splendor in the righteousness of Christ, does not mean in any way to deny or ignore their human weaknesses. The Orthodox Church does not even believe in the infallibility of the Pope. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are reservations, questions, and objections about the nominees with regards to how they deal with people (especially youths), the clergy, their relationship with other denominations, their attitudes toward the government and Muslim brothers, their behavior in financial matters, the extent of their participation in the Church activities at large over the past years, their commitment to the Orthodox way of education and worship, their motives to accept of Papacy’s nomination, etc.
I am not in the position to prove, deny, or defend any weaknesses in any of these areas; this is not the right place to do so. However, you should be assured that God is the Supreme Judge with His searching eyes. He knows how serious any of these weaknesses will be for the future of the Church and its peace. He also knows the validity and seriousness of such matters for the salvation of the nominee and his eternal life. As King David has told us, “The Lord is in His holy temple, The Lord’s throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men” (Psalms 11:4).
We must also trust that each of the “Papal Nominees” can faithfully judge himself and his motives. This is certain because all the nominees are honored fathers who know the commandments the Lord and His teachings. As the scriptures said, “no man knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man which is in him” (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Having said all of this, I still think there is a serious need to avoid potential weaknesses appropriately, in wisdom, so as not to be the position of testing the Lord (Deuteronomy 16:6, Luke 12:4). These weaknesses – if any – may cause a great deal of trouble in the Church, or may be a stumbling block in the life of the nominee, the people of the Church, or others. But it is also essential that this should be done in a spiritual manner, and without adversely impacting the peace of Church or the dignity of any of venerable nominees.
Unfortunately during recent days, much of what is happening in this matter is beyond the measures of decent spiritual and ecclesiastical conduct. Some are declaring their objections publicly on the internet and in the press, out of zeal, as they say. The words of St. Paul the Apostle might be applicable in regards to this: “they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10: 2). The “lack of knowledge,” in this regard, is overlooking the proper spiritual and ecclesiastical conduct.
I would hope that the writings of the opponents would be strictly confidential between them and the honored “Papal Nominees”, rather than for public dissemination. The Lord Jesus taught us to sort things out with the brothers in a confidential manner (Matthew 6:15), and if we must conduct ourselves this way with the brothers, how much should we be doing with the venerable fathers? I also hope that – if necessary after that – such objections would be discussed in a confidential manner with H.E. Metropolitan Anba Pakhomious, the Locum Tenens of the Pope, or with the venerable fathers and the distinguished members of the Nominations Committee.
Currently, I do not think these objections are proceeding in accordance with Christ’s Spirit. Have we forgotten that every one of the Church’s Fathers should be honored as men of God and rulers of His people? Is it not written in the scriptures: “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Acts 23:5) and “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17)? But what is happening now is worse than what is forbidden in the Book of Leviticus (18: 7), and matters have come to be “stumbling block” for many (Matthew 7:18, Luke 1:17, Romans 17:16).
One of those with an objection has named himself explicitly but shares it improperly, while others in this controversy have hidden under false names. Each of them claims to be “speaking truth.” In all the history of the Bible, and the lives of the saints and martyrs, we have not heard of a spokesman of truth who speaks without proper conduct or who is afraid to declare his name. Thus, with the loss of this spiritual and ecclesiastical conduct, such opponents lacked also the “Spirit of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), and the courage of John the Baptist (Mark 18: 6).
Handling these issues in such a manner is not according to the mind of Christ. Neither is issuing threats of releasing (alleged) files that may condemn a nominee, or threatening separation from the Church. It is well known that threats – whatever the theme – are not of the mind of Christ, who when He suffered, “He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). The releasing of files – if any – is immoral and contrary to the spirit of the love of Christ (1 Peter 4: 8). The call of autocephaly and the separation from the Church is incompatible with the faith in one Church, and the desire of Christ’s heart to be one (John 11:17, 21).
My heart goes out to the Church in Egypt in these circumstances. With the external troubles, in light of the deteriorating conditions in the country, pains come from inside the Church as well, represented by the controversy surrounding the Papal Election. Fears and troubles have come from the outside and inside; there’s no comfort (2 Cor. 7: 5).
My heart also goes out to the Nominations Committee. I thank God that I am not in such a challenging position. I do not know how they will be able to reduce the number of nominees to seven at the most, but I know they will do so according to regulation, no matter what is the price or the outcome. The fear is that the price of such a division will be the splitting of the Church or the Holy Synod, if things continue in the same path. I pray things will never go that way. Moreover, I do not hope for the new Pope or any of the nominees to be disgraced during the process of the election. The question that arises now is: What is the means to get out of controversy, in peace, without stumbling?
In the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, we find the perfect example. He, who is the Son of God, put himself in the place of the foreigner – with His free choice – so He would not be a cause of stumbling to those who demanded Him and Peter to pay the temple tax (Matthew 17: 24-27). Moreover, it is He “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
I do not think that escaping this controversy is in the hands of the Nominations Committee alone; nor is it in the hands of the opponents, whether they are right or wrong. It is primarily in the hands of the Papal Nominees. They are the ones who are considered “the pillars of the Church”, together with venerable fathers in the Holy Synod, and the Nominations Committee (Galatians 9:2). They are “the strong” of whom “bearing the weakness of the weak people” is demanded (Romans 15: 1). Thus they taught us, and thus we believe in them.
I am confident that the Spirit of Christ dwells with the Papal Nominees and that they follow Christ’s example. I believe they share my concerns of the seriousness of this situation. Perhaps many of them will decline to accept their nomination, by their own free choice and in a timely manner, doing so for the peace of the Church and its unity, and to avoid being a stumbling block for many. In the interim, there is no doubt that each one of them will continue to be the first in the heart of the Lord and the Church, by putting himself to be the “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:34). This is what we wish for to break the deadlock and to conclude this matter in peace.
Finally, let it be the will of God. We pray to God for the peace and edification to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of God.
Fr. Abraam Sleman – Jersey City, New Jersey