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Church of Alexandria, The

Early Christian center in Egypt

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Alexandria, the CHURCH OF. The Church of Alexandria, founded according to the constant tradition of both East and West by St. Mark the Evangelist, was the center from which Christianity spread throughout all Egypt, the nucleus of the powerful Patriarchate of Alexandria. Within its jurisdiction, during its most flourishing period, were included about 108 bishops; its territory embraced the six provinces of Upper Libya, Lower Libya (or Pentapohs), the Thebaid, Egypt, Arcadia (or Heptapolis), and Augustamnica. In the beginning the successor of St. Mark was the only metropolitan, and he governed ecclesiastically the entire territory. As the Christians multiplied, and other metropolitan sees were created, he became known as the archmetropolitan. The title of patriarch did not come into use until the fifth century. [For the controversy concerning the manner of electing the earliest successors of St. Mark see that article and BISHOP (cf. Cabrol, Dict. d’archeol. chret., I, 1204-1210).]

Up to the time of the second ecumenical council (381) the Patriarch of Alexandria ranked next to the Bishop of Rome. By the third canon of this council, afterwards confirmed by the twenty-eighth canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Patriarch of Constantinople, supported by imperial authority and by a variety of concurring advantages, was given the right of precedency over the Patriarch of Alexandria. But neither Rome nor Alexandria recognized the claim until many years later. During the first two centuries of our era, though Egypt enjoyed unusual quiet, little is known of the ecclesiastical history of its chief see, beyond a barren list of the names of its patriarchs, handed down to us chiefly through the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius. They were, in order: Anianus (d. 84); Abilius; Cerdon, one of the presbyters whom St. Mark ordained; Primus, also called Ephraim, advanced from the grade of layman; Justus (d. 130); Eumenes; Mark II; Celadion; Agrippinus; Julian (d. 189). With the successors of Julian we have something more than a mere list of names. Demetrius governed the Church of Alexandria for forty-two years, and it was he who deposed and excommunicated Origen, notwithstanding his great work as a catechist. Heraclas (d. 247) exercised his power as archmetropolitan by deposing Ammonius, Bishop of Thmuis, and installing a successor (Photius, P.G., CIV, 1229).

Maximus and Theonas (282-300) were followed by Peter, the first occupant of the See of St. Mark to die a martyr (311 or 312). Then came Achillas, who ordained Arius through ignorance of the man’s real character; otherwise St. Athanasius certainly would not have given that bishop the praise he does. On the death of Achillas, Alexander, who proved himself a zealous defender of the orthodox faith in the contest against Arius, was elected bishop by unanimous consent of clergy and people, and in spite of the interested opposition of Arius. Alexander, accompanied by his deacon Athanasius, took part in the Council of Nicaea (325), but died soon after (328). The Meletian faction took advantage of his death, and of the absence of Athanasius from the city, to intrude a creature of their own into the vacant see, one Theonas. He survived but three months, when Athanasius, having returned, was chosen to succeed Alexander.

Of the ante-Nicene bishops who ruled this church, Dionysius and Alexander were the most illustrious, as also were St. Athanasius and St. Cyril among those who subsequently filled the see. Athanasius, supported by Rome, where he sought protection and help, the unconquered champion of the true Faith against Arius, died in 373, a glorious confessor of the Faith, after an episcopate of forty-three years. The interval between the death of Athanasius and the accession of St. Cyril (412) was filled by Peter II, a zealous bishop, who was obliged to seek refuge in Rome from the persecuting Arians (d. 381); Timothy I (381-385) who was present at the second ecumenical council, and was honored with the contempt of the imperial court, because he vigorously opposed, and refused to acknowledge, the decree which gave the Patriarchate of Constantinople rank over that of Alexandria; Theophilus (38.5-412), the immediate predecessor of Cyril. Under St. Cyril (412-444) whose noble defense of the Divinity of Christ has rendered his memory precious in the Church, the Patriarchate of Alexandria reached its most flourishing epoch. Over 100 bishops, among them ten metropolitans, acknowledged his authority; he tells us himself that the city was renowned for the number of its churches, monasteries, priests, and religious (P.G., LXX, 972). At this time, too, the patriarch possessed considerable civil power, and may be said to have reached the zenith of his reputation. The decline of his office dates from the middle of the fifth century. Under Dioscurus (444-451), the unworthy successor of St. Cyril, the Church of Alexandria became embroiled in the Monophysite heresy. Dioscurus was deposed, and later banished. The election of Proterius as Catholic patriarch was followed by an open schism. Proterius was murdered in 457, and Timothy Aelurus, a Monophysite, was intruded into the see. The schism thus begun by Dioscurus and Timothy gave rise to two factions, the orthodox, or Catholic, party, which maintained the faith of the two natures in Christ, as prescribed by the Council of Chalcedon (451), and the Monophysites, who followed the heresy of Dioscurus. The former came to be known as Melchites or Royalists, i.e., adherents or favorites of the emperor, and the latter as Jacobites. The possession of the See of Alexandria alternated between these parties for a time; eventually each communion maintained a distinct and independent succession. Thus the Church of Alexandria became the scene of serious disturbances, which finally brought about its ruin.

We touch but briefly on the more important events that followed. The Catholic Patriarch, John Talaia, elected in 482, was banished by the Emperor Zeno, through the intrigues of his Jacobite rival, Peter Mongus. In his exile he sought refuge with Pope Simplicius (468-483), who exerted himself seriously for the reestablishment of John, but to no purpose. The latter never returned to his see. With his banishment the Catholic succession of Alexandrian bishops was interrupted for sixty years, and the local Church fell into the utmost confusion. The Emperor Justinian, anxious to end this state of affairs, restored the Catholic succession (538-539) in the person of the Abbot Paul. Unfortunately, the new patriarch gave some grievous offense to the Emperor, whereupon he was deposed, and Zoilus succeeded him in 541. Among the successors of the latter patriarch, Eulogius, Theodore Scribo, and St. John the Almoner (d. 620) especially distinguished themselves, and restored to the Alexandrian Church something of its former reputation. In the meantime, through mutual factions, the influence of the Jacobites had gradually waned until the election of the Patriarch Benjamin (620). On the other hand, during the contest between the Jacobites and Melchites (Catholics), so completely had the spirit of sectarianism extinguished the feeling of nationality that at the time of the Saracen invasion the Jacobites did not hesitate, in their animosity towards the Melchites, the imperial or Byzantine party, to give up (638) their cities and places of strength to the invaders (see Mohammed and Mohammedanism). The favor which they thus secured with the conquerors enabled them to assume a predominant position [Dub. Rev., XXIV (1848), 439]. Hitherto the Melchites, though far less numerous than the Jacobites, had held the civil power, owing to the aid of the Emperor and his officials. By the treason of the Jacobites they lost not only this power, but with it many of their churches and monasteries. After the death of the Patriarch Peter (654) the Melchite succession was broken for nearly 80 years, a fact that contributed much to the complete Jacobite control of the patriarchate. During this interval the Metropolitan of Tyre consecrated the Catholic bishops, whose number rapidly decreased.

The Saracen domination, so gladly welcomed by the Jacobites, proved to them more of a curse than a blessing. They suffered many bitter persecutions under successive Moslem rulers. Many among the clergy and laity apostatized. Nor did the Melchites escape. Indeed they were worse off, ground as they were between the upper and nether millstones, the Jacobites and the Saracens. When their patriarchate was restored (727), under Cosmas, in the caliphate of Nischam, their situation was deplorable. Through the exertions of this patriarch they got back many of their churches. Ignorance and indolence, however, had spread among the Melchites. In the services of the Church the Greek language was soon wholly replaced by the Arabic, and when, in the beginning of the ninth century, the Venetians carried away to their own city the body of St. Mark, the ruinous patriarchate was hardly more than a name.

With the Jacobites matters were not much better. There was a succession of undistinguished patriarchs, except at intervals, when the see was vacant because of internal disputes. Persecution was frequent, and renegades were numerous. By the eleventh century Alexandria had ceased to be the sole place where the patriarch was consecrated. From this date Cairo claimed that honor alternately with Alexandria, though the enthronement took place in the latter city. A little later, during the patriarchate of Christodulus (Abd-el-Messiah), Cairo became the fixed and official residence of the Jacobite patriarch. In the beginning of the reign of Saladin (1169) a serious controversy arose between the Jacobite Patriarchs of Antioch and those of Alexandria, concerning the use of auricular confession. The Jacobite parties of the two patriarchates had for many years kept in close touch with one another. More than once their relations were strained, as happened particularly in the time of John X (Barsusan) of Antioch, and Christodulus (Abd-el-Messiah) of Alexandria. They fell out over the proper preparation of the Eucharistic oblations, in which the Syrian Jacobites were in the habit of mingling a little oil and salt. (Neale, Patriarchate of Alex., II, 214). Christodulus insultingly rejected the practice. John of Antioch wrote in its defense. The new controversy about the use of auricular confession severed the once friendly relations of the two communions. Mark, son of Kunbar, and his successor, Cyril of Alexandria, were for abolishing the practice altogether while Michael of Antioch as vigorously insisted upon its continuance (Renaudot, Liturg. Orient., II, 50, 448; Historia Patr. Jacobit. Alex., 550; Neale, op. cit., II, 261).

For twenty years (1215-35) the Jacobites were without a patriarch, because they could not agree among themselves. During this break in the Jacobite succession, Nicholas I, the Melchite patriarch, addressed an appeal to Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), imploring his good offices with the Templars and Hospitallers in favor of some Christian captives (Neale, op cit., II, 279). A few years later (1221), when Damietta had fallen into the hands of the Saracens, Nicholas wrote again to the Pope, Honorius III (1216-27), for assistance in the struggles that were fast overwhelming his Church. We may note here that the revolutions which subsequently befell the Greek Empire of Constantinople had little effect on the fortunes of the Church of Alexandria. The same may be said of the Crusades; though closely connected with local Alexandrian history, they do not seem to have had much influence upon its internal ecclesiastical affairs. There is little left to chronicle of the Jacobite and Melehite communions of the Church of Alexandria. Both suffered severely in the crushing persecution of the fourteenth century. The Jacobites, utterly demoralized, managed to continue the succession of their patriarchs, who, as we have seen, resided no longer in Alexandria, but in old Cairo. In its widest extension, the patriarchate included fifteen bishoprics, and laid claim to jurisdiction over all the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Abyssinia, Nubia, and Barbary, or the native tribes of northern Africa. During this dark period the Melchites fell more and more under the influence of the Byzantine patriarchs, and thus sank over deeper into the Greek schism. Their patriarch, a mere shadow of what he once was, resides at Stamboul, and glories in the title of “Patriarch of Alexandria and Ecumenical Judge”. It is an empty title, since he is supreme pastor over only five thousand souls, and where formerly more than one hundred bishops acknowledged the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Alexandria, only four now form the synod of the “Ecumenical Judge”. They are the Bishops of Ethiopia, Memphis, Damietta, and Rosetta.

It will not be out of place to treat briefly of the Latin patriarchate of the Church of Alexandria. Since the seventh century the patriarchate, as we have seen, was divided between the Jacobites and the Melchites, both of which bodies eventually became schismatical. Among the patriarchs a few had courted the friendship of Rome, but none seems to have entered into full communion with her. There were, however, some Christians, as there are today, who were in no sense schismatical, but remained in full communion with the Holy See. It was doubtless in their behalf that in the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216) a patriarch of the Latin rite was appointed for Alexandria. The time seemed favorable for such an appointment, because of the progress of the Crusades. The actual date is, however, uncertain. Sollerius (Acta SS., Jun. vii, 1887), and the “Lexicon Biblicum” of Simon, quoted by him, speak of a “S. Athanasius Claromontanus pro Latinis, A.D. 1219”. There is no further mention of this patriarch, nor is it certain that he was the first incumbent of the Latin patriarchate. We say it is not certain, because the date of appointment, or perhaps of the consecration, of Athanasius, as given by Sollerius, is 1219, whereas the establishment of the Latin patriarchate occurred in 1215. This is clear from the Twelfth General Council (Fourth Lateran), held in that year (Labbe, xi., 153). Neale (op. cit., II, 288) gives a list of the Latin patriarchs, and heads it with the name of Giles, a Dominican friar appointed in 1310 by Clement V. From this on he follows Sollerius (Acta SS., loc. cit.), who gives us the names of the Latin patriarchs from 1219 to 1547.

After the loss of the Holy Land and the overthrow of all Latin domination in the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Patriarchate of Alexandria ceased to exist except as a mere titular dignity (Wernz, Jus Decretalium, p. 837). In 1895, Pope Leo XIII established a patriarchate of the Coptic rite with two suffragan sees, Minieh and Luksor, for the Copts in communion with the Holy See (Monit. Eccles., part. 1, 224).


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