Missionary Reports Positive Stories of Holy See Engagement in Middle East

An interview with Msgr. Gabriel Quicke, author of ‘A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East’

Book cover of Msgr. Gabriel Quicke's ‘A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East’
Book cover of Msgr. Gabriel Quicke's ‘A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East’ (photo: Courtesy photo / Msgr. Gabriel Quicke)

The Holy See plays close attention to the Middle East. As disappointing as the trajectory in Turkey has been, Egypt is now considered a Christian-friendly republic — amazing considering in two short years (2011-2013) it went from a decades-long pro-Western autocratic regime, through a chaotic “Arab spring” that yielded the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, then a coup d’etat that delivered President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the first president to attend a Coptic Christmas liturgy.  

The largest Christian population in the Arab world is in Egypt, with some 10-million members of the Coptic Church and about 200,000 Catholics in a country of more than 103 million. Sisi legalized 1,432 churches built without permits and approved new churches in 37 cities.

Egypt’s parliament approved allocation of 25% of its seats for women in the 568 members of parliament; many are Coptic. In recent nationwide elections, the Coptic Church expects to gain parliamentary seats, possibly even a few Orthodox priests. The last session included 39 Coptic parliamentarians up from one or two in 2011. It’s evidence that Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria is a political force, as well as a spiritual one and that President al-Sisi has honored his promise to provide better protection and more participation for Christians. 

This relationship is not unrelated to Pope Francis’ work with the Tawadros II (the two leaders met in 2013 and 2017), as well as the Egyptian Muslim leader, Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar 

A new book, A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East (Gompel & Svacina, 2020) offers insight into Tawadros, the Coptic Church in Egypt and the many other Christian communities of the Middle East, Orthodox and Catholic. 

The author, Msgr. Gabriel Quicke, is president of Holy Spirit College, founded in 1442, and Leo XIII Seminary, both in Leuven, Belgium. He serves on the theology faculty of the Catholic University of Leuven. From 2009-2018, Msgr. Quicke worked in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity specializing in dialogue with Oriental Orthodox Churches, which like the Coptic Church are not in communion with Rome. He helped implement one of Pope Francis’ priorities: Strengthening relations with other Christians, especially those who share the “ecumenism of blood” — martyrdom. 

Msgr. Quicke, 59, got to know the Eastern Christian faith traditions as a missionary in Lebanon where he was chaplain at St. Joseph University in Beirut, assistant at a Palestinian refugee camp, and teacher at a Melkite Catholic seminary. Ordained in Bruges, Belgium in 1987, he is also the author of Come Love With Me: Augustine as Spiritual Guide (Paulist Press, 2015),

Register senior international correspondent Victor Gaetan interviewed Quicke by phone about his most recent book and its roots in his work for the Holy See.


Msgr. Quicke, I hope you and your students are well and healthy! How have you spent the unexpected COVID-19 quarantine?

All of my classes are online, so the work of learning goes on. … I’m also deepening my study of Arabic and Syriac.


In addition to your knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Flemish, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English?

And a little Irish! I like to study languages. Not just grammar and vocabulary, but the feel of a language, the atmospheric dimension, the sense of another mentality and spirituality.


I gained many insights from your new book — A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East. It’s a marvelous guide to Christianity in the Middle East, both Catholic faith traditions such as the Maronite and Chaldean Churches, as well as the Oriental Orthodox Churches such as the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Church, all with dioceses across the region, in fact, across the world. 

What I enjoyed, especially, is how you successfully blend past and present, history and contemporary life, putting much of the account in the context of Francis’ papacy. What inspired you to write it?

More people should be aware of the marvelous spirituality at work in the Middle East and its living faith. Of course, each Church has a unique story but there are shared themes. In the Oriental Orthodox tradition, for example the importance of the Holy Spirit and the role of monasticism is distinctive.


I understand from your book that Pope Francis and Coptic Pope Tawadros, who was elected in 2012, have a close bond. Tell me about that.

What a wonderful memory I have of their first meeting! Just a few weeks after Pope Francis was elected, we were informed about the plans of Pope Tawadros to meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Joint Declaration of Pope Paul VI and Shenouda III on May 10, 1973. This date became the day of friendship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. 

I was in a small delegation that met Pope Tawadros at the airport with the Vatican cars to bring him to Domus Sanctae Marthae where he would stay during his visit. The house where Francis lives is well protected. Normally, two Swiss guards are outside and two gendarmes stand just inside the entrance. But as we approached the building that day, I could see no Swiss guards, only the Pope in white. It was the Successor of Peter waiting for the successor of Mark, his brother, let’s say. Francis is very strong in his attentions and symbolic gestures. 

And whenever the Coptic pope refers to his visit to Rome, he always mentioned that welcome. 

Another unforgettable moment during that visit came when the Pope used the expression “ecumenism of blood” in their meeting. He repeated it twice and was looking into the face of Pope Tawadros as the Coptic bishop of Italy read a translation in Arabic, again twice, “maskuniya bidam.” It was a moment of meditation duringthe speech — this I will never forget. The two popes promised to pray for each other every evening. 

They met again in 2017 when Pope Francis went to Egypt. It was a historic encounter and as a result of their deep bond of fraternity and friendship they signed a declaration agreeing that it was not necessary to “rebaptise” a person who decides to join the other Church — a practice that began in 1999 in the context of mixed marriages, as I explain in the book. 


Didn’t you go to Egypt yourself, just before the Pope’s trip? 

Yes, Cardinal [Kurt] Koch and I were sent with condolences after the bombing of two Coptic churches [on Palm Sunday, April 7, 2017, where 45 people were killed and 146 injured]. Pope Tawadros was presiding at one of the liturgies in Alexandria. Pope Francis arrived a few weeks later. 


You present a fascinating account of the revival of the monastic tradition in Egypt. What explains this revival? 

The monastic renewal emerged with the election of Kyrillos VI as Coptic pope in 1959. He had spent many years in various monasteries and remained a monk-like patriarch. Another leading figure was a man named Matta al-Meskin (1919-2006). After studying as a pharmacist, he became a monk and withdrew with followers to live as hermits. In 1969 he and his students were asked to take over the monastery of St. Macarius, which had fallen into ruins. Under his leadership the monastery was renovated, expanded and attracted numerous young monks.

These figures tell the story: In 1960, the Coptic Church had nine monasteries where 206 monks lived. In 1986, there were more than three times as many monks in 11 monasteries. Today, there are more than 30 monasteries in Egypt and the diaspora with a total of around 5,000 monks, as well as six monasteries where some 300 nuns live. The monasteries are not only centers of spirituality, they develop agricultural activities, produce crafts and icons — economic and cultural activities. 

Theologically, this renewal was the basis for the revival of the studies of the Fathers of the Church, as well as for a contemporary Coptic-Orthodox literature. The Coptic Church represents about 10% of Egypt’s population of 103 million. It’s a significant influence in the country. 


Another insightful story you recount in A Spiritual Discovery of Christians in the Middle East is what it meant for Pope Francis to publicly name the Armenian genocide and commemorate this historical tragedy. What was happening behind the scenes?

For me, the story starts before Pope Francis. I went to Armenia with Cardinal Koch in September 2012. We talked to Vatican diplomats who used the term “Le Grand Mal” [in French, the great sickness or evil] to describe the genocide and we were astonished. It did not seem very respectful to the Armenian faithful or the Armenian people. 

In 2015, when the Vatican was planning a commemorative liturgy [marking the centennial of the Armenian genocide] with both Orthodox catholicoi [patriarchs] and the Armenian Catholic patriarch in St Peter’s Basilica, they decided to celebrate a Latin liturgy with Armenian elements, such as choirs from each patriarchate. 

The Armenian Apostolic Church was hoping that the Holy Father would pronounce the word “genocide” and it was clear that the Holy Father would do it in a balanced way. And so, the Holy Father was very pastoral, very empathetic. He is especially concerned for the victims, to recognize them. 

At the celebration of the liturgy for the faithful of the Armenian rite on April 12, 2015 the entire Armenian family [including Armenia’s president] was present. Pope Francis referred to the Armenian genocide — the first time a pope publicly called the mass killings of Armenians a genocide. 

Francis quoted the 2001 joint declaration of Catholicos Karekin II and Pope John Paul II: “In the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the twentieth century’ struck your own Armenian people, the first Christian nation, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.” Still, Turkey reacted with anger and immediately recalled its Vatican’s ambassador to Ankara.

A few weeks later, I accompanied Cardinal Koch to Armenia for a memorial that Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended. At a dinner, I was sitting at a table with older people who told me stories about their grandparents and great grandparents who passed away in the genocide. They were weeping and crying that the Pope had pronounced the word. It was amazing. 


I enjoyed very much your discussion of the Syriac tradition in your book. I’ve resolved to read St. Ephrem on your recommendation! You conveyed the beauty of this fourth-century saint’s writing; I did not realize Pope Benedict XV named St. Ephrem a doctor of the Church in 1920. 

Yes, I discovered the treasure of the Syriac tradition while I was working at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Syriac theological tradition was much less influenced by Hellenism and is less logically discursive, but rather symbolic.

St. Ephrem composed hymns that are used today in the Syriac churches. His language is poetic. Poetry becomes a theological medium, which is a relief and refreshment for the modern reader.


Do you miss living in Rome? What places in Rome feel now like a dream — full of meaning, almost unreal?

Yes, of course I miss Rome. The network is universal and the experiences unforgettable, but I was needed back home and as a priest, I go where I am needed. 

Three places in Rome are particularly special to me. First, the Basilica San Clemente where you find the remains of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a martyr I write about in A Spiritual Discovery. On three levels, you find the history of the Church — from a first-century pagan house church to a fifth-century Christian church to a 12th-century mosaic masterpiece — it is a very symbolic basilica.

Then, Ostia Antica. Every year I went there for a spiritual walk to commemorate the presence of St. Augustine. He moved from North Africa to Rome to Milan where he listened to St. Ambrose and touched by his words, was baptized. On his way back to Africa, Augustine and his mother, Monica, stopped in Ostia Antica, then a port outside Rome. Monica died and was buried there.

Also the catacombs of [Pope] Calixtus. They are a place of bearing witness to the Risen Lord. Christians came together to express their faith. They were accused of not being loyal to the emperor because they were celebrating the Eucharist. For me, a visit to the catacombs is a form of catechesis.


I’ll be sure to visit Ostia Antica, just outside Rome, next time I’m there. I always learn from you, Msgr. Quicke! Please tell me, when did you realize you had a vocation to the priesthood?

When I was receiving confirmation, I was invited by the catechists to their home and, in a group of six or seven, I was very moved by that. Then, in a youth movement at a campfire on the last evening I had the feeling, “Do It,” which marked me. Also, something with my family that I maybe never told you: My parents passed away in an accident when I was a child, 5 years old. They were in a car that was taken by a train at the crossing. And we — my five brothers and one sister — were all taken into the house of my aunt, 55 years old and unmarried. It is difficult to say, “This is the reason,” but I give you some elements. 


I’m so sorry to learn about your parents!

Yes, it was a tragedy. I still feel the pain and the wound remains there. Yet over the years, I began to believe that our vulnerability and woundedness become a source of fertility and resurrection.