When I was a small child in the early 1970s, my parents used to hang photographs of the Coptic Patriarch Kyrillos VI in our Brooklyn apartment. The photographs would invariably show the Patriarch staring into the camera with the most intense eyes -- and how those eyes frightened me! Now I look at his photographs (one hangs on my icon corner) and see only intensity. Deep, spiritual and noble intensity.
Coptic Egyptians used to say of Pope Kyrillos and his accession to the papal throne that “a monk had become the patriarch and the patriarch had become a monk.” That is pretty much a summation of what is offered in A Silent Patriarch, a recent release by SVS Press. Author Daniel Fanous offers an incredibly detailed and rigorously researched biography of this onetime desert hermit who became patriarch of the largest Christian church in the Middle East.
We see Kyrillos from his earliest years in Alexandria amongst his big bustling family to his first years as a monastic then to his time as a desert hermit, then urban parish priest and finally as patriarch. But this is not only the life story of one man, but indeed of modern Egypt – from the 1920s when the country sought to shake off the chains of colonial British rule to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and to the consequential 1967 war with Israel.
Allow me to say it again for emphasis: an incredible amount of research went into this account of Kyrillos’ life with 7-10 page bibliographies closing each chapter. It is all here for anyone wanting a detailed telling of his life. For example, Fanous offers an almost moment by moment account of Kyrillos’ final days with his family before he leaves for the monastery. At the monastery, more detail, how Kyrillos keeps to himself, finds incredible consolation in the long church services, and considers himself the least of men – even calling himself “less than a donkey” in a correspondence to a friend.
Not long after, he becomes a priest and, incredibly, delivers a 1-hour long homily before an impressed Patriarch Youannis who soon sends for him with the intention of making him a bishop. Kyrillos decides to make a run for it, eventually becoming a desert hermit and then, later, an urban parish priest. Soon his healings – for he was a proven wonder-worker – prophecies, visions and unusual divine happenings bring him a following of thousands of Copts from Cairo. Years later, that following helps to make him one of three candidates for Patriarch.
What the author does so effectively throughout is show how the life of monasticism, and especially his time as a hermit, anchors Kyrillos as patriarch. Indeed, Fanous shows how he draws on those years of solitude and devotion when he is at the center of raging storms regarding the role of the Coptic Church in Egypt.This is an indispensable work for truly comprehending the role of the modern Coptic Church as well as the life of a hierarch who was canonized a saint in 2013.