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His Holiness Pope Kyrillos VI: The Man Who Cast Out Demons

“Let us purify our mind, for I believe that when the mind is completely pure and is in its natural state, it gains penetrating insight, and it sees more clearly and further than the demons, since the Lord reveals things to it.”[1] Such was the teaching of Abba Antony, for whom sainthood was nothing more than the natural state of humanity — that is, the state intended for it by its Creator. Indeed, the Lord directs the multitudes, without qualification, that they “be perfect as [their] heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and Saint Paul unmistakably declares that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). The calling to sainthood is therefore offered to all by God, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), if only they wholeheartedly desire God, freely accept the cost of discipleship, empty themselves in total submission to the word of God, accept to take up their cross, and follow Him by living the ecclesial life by His grace and the guidance of the Spirit. It was this calling that His Holiness Pope Kyrillos VI accepted, and God, by that acceptance, saved both him and the Church he was ultimately called to shepherd.

Much has been said in recent years of His Holiness, whether in scholarship or among the believers in meetings, sermons, and various other media. In approaching a man of such stature, it is easy to lose oneself in considering his virtues, or his miracles, or his personal story and circumstances, and to think, because of his distinct piety, that he was an entirely different sort of person whose virtuosity cannot be attained and whose saintliness cannot be replicated. In accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures described above, however, it would not be prudent to approach this truly unique man with such reverent otherization. Rather, it is both edifying and necessary to approach him with a clear recognition that his marked greatness was not because of eloquent homilies, or prolific writing, or charismatic leadership, or even his many miraculous activities, but because of the stillness and simplicity of a prayerful life borne out of his sincere love for God and his deep conviction that the Christian life, and by extension the administration and leadership of the Church, must be ordered according to the teaching of Christ and cannot be guided by, modeled after, or in any way resemble the world.

Pope Kyrillos inherited the papacy of a Church in need of reform — a Church suffering from a loss of vision and purpose directly attributable to an increasing worldliness by her members at all levels. Several churches resembled family businesses and social clubs rather than churches, liturgical prayers were often neglected in the parishes, and many members of the clergy abandoned their primary vocations of prayer, fasting, theological education, and spiritual fatherhood, enjoying the status and place of princes among their people by virtue of their ecclesial rank and managing, rather than shepherding, the flock of Christ. The liturgical services, and thereby prayer and worship, were therefore often disregarded, carried out in haste, and used for material gain, and, when observed, were commonly practiced without the requisite care, spirit, or love, relegated to the wayside as a result of the foreign operating philosophies that had insidiously overtaken many of the churches.

It was in this milieu that Pope Kyrillos became patriarch and endeavored by God’s grace to reorient the Church to her proper mission. This he accomplished in reverent meekness accompanied by prayer, fasting, and a Christian life properly lived. It was not by signs and wonders that he exorcised the demons of worldliness and misguidance that warred against the believers in his time, but by faithfully abiding by the word of God despite those who vigorously opposed it as contrary to their philosophies and frameworks of thought. In the face of staunch opposition by those who, having succumbed to worldly wisdom, thought that qualification in and fitness for the service of the Church arises from conventional appearances, advanced degrees, and practices conforming to public expectation and approval, this great shepherd held fast to the teaching of his Master, faithfully upending all such notions by his markedly distinct manner of life.

The Church in this state required emergent rehabilitative measures — not radical reformist policies akin to those effectuated in political, social, and cultural contexts, but the reimplementation of spiritual measures proper to the Christian life which had unfortunately deteriorated, particularly amongst members of the clergy and lay leaders in the churches, amidst the turmoil of that time. It was precisely such measures that Pope Kyrillos embodied, beginning with his childhood and continuing throughout his life and eventual papacy, thereby reinvigorating in the Church the spirit of prayer and sound ecclesial life and administration that had become scarce in the years prior to his patriarchate.

Beginning at a young age, His Holiness was accustomed to prayer and the life with God, having been raised, in his own words, “in the fear of God”[2] by pious parents who faithfully observed the life of the Church in all of its fullness. As but one illustrative example of this characteristic disposition, as a young boy between five and eight years of age, His Holiness, then Azer Youssef Atta, attended the festival of Saint Mina the Wonderworker in the town of Ibyar, Egypt, where, while multitudes were gathered outside the church enjoying theater, food and drink, live music, and other activities, he was not found except inside the church, participating in the liturgical prayers that took place throughout the week.[3]

Later, as a young man still living in the world, he would attend the morning prayers at the local church daily on his way to work,[4] and afterwards, upon joining the Baramous Monastery, he continued to attend the daily prayers and praises with his brother monks as a matter of course. Thereafter, upon relocating to the solitude and simplicity of a cave, then to his beloved windmill, where he resided for a few years as a hermit, and finally to the Monastery of Saint Mina in Old Cairo, which he established and where he lived for the twelve years immediately preceding his election to the papacy in 1959, he continued to pray fervently on a daily basis, chanting the evening, midnight, and morning praises, offering the evening and morning incense, and celebrating the Eucharistic service, recognizing by his manner of life this fundamental truth: that the Church’s life is in her liturgical worship, and it was this, with God’s help, that would render him soundly Christian and which would ultimately restore to the Church the glory intended for her by Christ.

Even after his election as patriarch, His Holiness did not assume the grandeur and pomp that might be expected of that position, but instead maintained his humble demeanor, simplicity of speech, and common attire, continuing to abide by the life of prayer and asceticism he had practiced since his youth and thereby fulfilling in every respect the teaching of Christ:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-29).

It was this distinct and profoundly courageous manner of life — a life unlike that of the world or of those in the Church who had been compromised by the world — that led the Church to the spiritual revival she experienced during his papacy.

The blueprint for a living and active Church is not in an abundance of meetings and sermons, or in a diversity of social or cultural activities, or in any other measure separate and apart from the altar and the word of God. Indeed, the altar, along with the Scriptures, was found at the center of His Holiness’ life. In the words of Fr. Daniel Fanous, prayer was for His Holiness “both the beginning and the end of the spiritual life, its nourishment and its treasure, the means and the goal, the ‘support,’ ‘core,’ and ‘giver’ of virtues.”[5] In this way, in all circumstances, acting with and through prayer, and permitting God to work in him through his intimate relationship with the altar and his intimacy with His word, he submitted all challenges, questions, and issues to God in prayer, with the prayers and intercessions of those among the saints with whom he had a special relationship — namely the Virgin Mary, Saint Mina the Wonderworker, Saint Mark the Evangelist, and Abba Isaac the Syrian.

As it was with His Holiness, the altar — denoting both the physical church altar and, in a spiritual sense, rightly offered prayer, worship, and praise — must enjoy the primary place in the life of the properly ordered community of believers, never subordinated to any other activity or goal and never compromised to accommodate any agenda, schedule, or plan. The life of the Church, like that of every believer, must in all instances be oriented towards and lived through the liturgical experience, since it is through prayer, along with all Christian practices complementary to it, that the believer comes to know, love, and abide with God. It was this fundamental truth that Pope Kyrillos recognized and had the courage to implement both throughout his life and, by extension, in the Church he was chosen to lead, accepting the consequences of this decision out of his deep love for and fidelity to Christ and His teaching.

In teaching His disciples, the Lord taught that demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.[6] As a faithful disciple to Christ, Pope Kyrillos took up these necessary weapons to overcome the demons, and by his fasting and prayer, with complete selflessness, sincere humility, and godly wisdom, submitting himself to the wisdom of God and rejecting any semblance of worldly wisdom, he was able, by the support and guidance of God, to exorcise from the Church not only those evil spirits that tormented certain of the believers, but also, and more importantly, the demons of worldliness, corruption, ignorance, prayerlessness, lukewarmness, and a myriad of other vices that had taken root among the flock.

May the prayers of His Holiness Pope Kyrillos VI continue to aid the Church he faithfully served and guarded as she continues to struggle against sin, worldliness, and the onslaughts of the devil, and grant us by his example the courage and faithfulness to accept the cost of discipleship, discern and submit to the teaching of the Lord and the guidance of the Spirit, take up the weapons of fasting and prayer, and live the Christian life with love and sincere conviction regardless of the consequences, for the sake of Christ, to whom, with His good Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory and honor both now and forever. Amen.

[1] Abba Antony the Great, as recorded in Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness 179 (Philocalia vol. I, 194)

[2] See Daniel Fanous, A Silent Patriarch: Kyrillos VI: Life and Legacy, 21

[3] Id. at 28

[4] Id. at 39

[5] Id. at 134

[6] See Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29


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