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Abouna Bishoy Kamel

Early Years

He was born Sami Kamel on 6th December 1931 in Damanhour (middle of Western delta - located 80-km southeast of Alexandria & 160-km northwest of Cairo). Sami was raised as a devout Copt. He assisted in the sanctuary as a child and learnt to read Coptic, the liturgical language of his people. In his Christian life Sami looked for good examples in the Church. A great influence on him was a man called Yussef Habib. Sami Kamel recognised virtue in the life of Yussef Habib and took him as a model of Christian living.

During his time as an undergraduate Sami took responsibility as a teacher with the Sunday School movement in the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Moharram Bey in Alexandria. When he was a student, Sami used to go to church regularly but when the service had ended he would always quickly run away. A devout Copt called Dr. Raheb Abdel Nour noticed how Sami always ran off and so one day he stood at the door and stopped him. Dr. Abdel Nour explained that they needed help in the church, especially from young educated Copts. Sami agreed to help Raheb and they became friends.

Although he was now a graduate-teacher, Sami Kamel continued to be a determined student. Within two years of his graduation he was the recipient of two diplomas in Psychology and Education at ordinary and higher levels, coming top of the class on both occasions. In 1956 he graduated from the Alexandrian Theological College with first class honours and was elected Secretary General in the Association of Servants of the Church. After part-time studies in the Faculty of Humanities at his university he successfully completed a degree in Philosophy.

In 1957, Sami was appointed an associate professor in the Higher Institute of Education at Alexandria University, under the direction of the Ministry of Education. He continued to teach and labour in the Church, being now established as a man of considerable intellectual gifts with a character of acknowledged charm and humility. For Sami all scholarship was related to the quest for and knowledge of God, so that even the simple tasks of study had larger meaning. His unusual range of academic interests and his genuine erudition in all these fields were always harnessed to the service of the Church. As a theologian he faithfully tried to recall the Copts to essential aspects of their Orthodox patristic heritage.

Priesthood and Obedience

On the afternoon of Wednesday 18 November 1959 Sami Kamel took the young people in his Sunday School class to meet the new Coptic Patriarch. His Holiness Pope Kyrillos the Sixth had been consecrated only months before, on 10 May 1959, as the 116th successor to St. Mark the Evangelist. Just before the arrival of Sami Kamel’s youth group, the patriarch was involved in a discussion with Fr. Mina Iskander about the proposed Mar Girgis Church in Sporting. His Holiness the patriarch said that they could not begin to build a church in Sporting until they had ordained a priest for it. When the Sunday School class entered the room Fr. Iskander pointed at Sami and in apparent spontaneity exclaimed, “Here is the man who can be the spiritual father to the people in Sporting!” After a brief exchange between Sami Kamel and Pope Kyrillos the Sixth, His Holiness the patriarch marked a cross on the young teacher’s head and said, “God has given us the sign that you are to be a priest. I shall ordain you next Sunday”. Sami explained that he was not married, but the Pope replied that if God had inspired him to make his decision then God would also inspire Sami to find a bride.

Sami went to see his spiritual mentor, Yussef Habib, and told him that he was going away to pray at the Monastery of St. Samuel at al-Qalamun. So, he left on Thursday 19 November returning to Alexandria on Monday 23. He went immediately to Yussef Habib who asked him if he was satisfied. Sami said that he did not have a clear word from the Lord. “In that case you must obey the Pope”, Yussef said. Sami spoke very calmly and asked how he could find a bride. Yussef told him, “I do think that there is one sister who will do for you”. Yussef Habib knew that two of Sami’s closest friends in the Sunday School movement were George and Fayez Bassili. Angel Bassili, their sister, was active in the church. Following his conversation with Yussef Habib, the young ordinand went straight to the Bassili home and asked for Angel’s hand in marriage. The Wedding Service took place on Tuesday 24 November 1959. Sami Kamel was ordained as Abouna Bishoi Kamel on Wednesday 2 December 1959.

Abouna Bishoi Kamel returned from his retreat to Alexandria and became the first parish priest of the Church of St. George, Sporting. His ministry in Mar Girgis was a sacrifice for him and Angel but one which they particularly understood and gladly embraced. St. George’s, Sporting became, in a relatively short period, one of the best known parishes in Egypt with a liturgical life, social services policy, evangelistic outreach and teaching programme that has been held up as an example not only to the Egyptian church but throughout the region.

Tireless Worker

The use of the Coptic language in the church was important for Abouna Bishoi and is a major issue for the Copts today. Although Abouna Bishoi was happy to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in Arabic, for a congregation essentially dependent upon that language, he preferred to use Coptic. He was a tireless teacher of the Coptic language and loved to pray first in that language.

During the period of his ministry at Sporting, Abouna Bishoi Kamel was directly responsible for the construction a number of daughter churches in suburban Alexandria including those at Cleopatrales-Bains, Labban, Sidi Bishr, Hadara, Ibrahimiya and Mostafa. He instituted a nursery school at Sporting on 11 September 1972. A parish nursery was not just a novel idea in the early 70s – it was really very exceptional - but was soon adopted by churches in Alexandria and then throughout Egypt.

Pope Kyrillos sent Abouna Bishoi to the United States of America in 1969, where he celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Los Angeles for the first time on 9 November 1969. It was the feast day of St. Mark, the first Coptic patriarch of Alexandria. Abouna Bishoi was conscious of the historical significance of this event. During his ministry in the USA, he made pastoral visits to the Egyptian Christian Diaspora in San Francisco, California: Denver, Colorado: Houston, Texas: Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington State. Later, he visited Jersey City on 15 May 1974, where he bought a church for the local Copts. He was required to represent the Egyptian church abroad, and to work with the Copts of the Diaspora in America, Austria, England and France.

Abouna Bishoi was always a pastor. He approached ecumenism, social services, his clerical colleagues, his spiritual children and all the laity as the precious objects of God’s love and consequently as the cause for his deepest pastoral concerns. He wished to view the ministry from the perspective of eternity, through the eyes of the Scriptures, with the daily assistance of the Eucharist and with a consciousness of the constant presence of the Church Triumphant. He certainly enjoyed considerable management skills. He was not a passive person but he certainly believed that inspiration was more significant than organisation.

A Pure Heart

During a period of duty in the USA he found a church for sale. The Copts had no church in Los Angeles at that time. The down payment for the church, about 25% of the total purchasing price, was approximately $25,000. The elders of the congregation opposed the idea and feared falling into debt. Abouna Bishoi said, “We have two weeks to get the money. If anyone finds a better offer let me have it. I will have the down payment in my pocket”. The only ‘pocket’ he had was his faith, for he owned nothing. Within the allotted period, the priest collected the money, mostly with the help of younger members of the Coptic community in Los Angeles. He placed the cheques and money in his wallet and went to bank it. When he arrived at the cashier’s desk he found that he had lost his wallet. Evening came and all hope was lost. Abouna Bishoi could not ask for a penny from anyone. He felt that he had failed. In the middle of the night, while the priest and his friends prayed in anguish, a man came asking for Abouna Bishoi Kamel. When they met, the stranger asked if the priest had lost his wallet. Abouna Bishoi spelt out what had happened and the man explained that he was a taxi driver who had carried the priest in his cab. The wallet with all the money was returned. Then Tasouni Angel, the wife of Bishoi, spoke in Arabic, thinking that the taxi driver would not understand her, “Ask him if he would like to have a reward”. The man replied in Arabic, explaining that he was a Muslim: No. He wanted no reward but he would like to make a contribution to the building of the church. Abouna Bishoi’s comment was that God had taught him a lesson: “God is the One who takes care of church finances”.

Abouna always recognised individual talents and special needs in the congregation. One of the most successful developments at Sporting was the association founded to give support to children requiring individual attention. He was concerned for the number of broken families with nominal faith and for the fate of the increasing number of orphans in the parish. Because of his good standing in the district some landlords donated empty flats to the church, instructing Abouna Bishoi to use them as he saw fit. A number of service units for children were quickly established in the parish. Whenever he suggested a new project for the children, he would say, “They are the children of the King”.

Humility & Spirituality

Abouna Antonious Henein has his own pertinent recollections of his spiritual father. "I witnessed that he applied in his personal life what he was teaching others. This made his teachings much more effective on me. I was learning by watching him as well as by listening to him. He was a living example of a Christian. Once he said, “People don’t need to hear about Christ any more, they have heard enough. They rather need to see Christ in us”.

In every area of his life, Abouna Bishoi concentrated upon the spiritual dimension and merely nodded towards those material things that are necessary to survive. One example is both illustrative and eloquently instructive. Abouna normally slept on the ground. If a guest came to the flat then he would sleep on the bed to hide the fact that he slept on the floor. He could not boast of his humility and asceticism.

Abouna Bishoi Kamel was a man of prayer. He constantly affirmed that the main work of the priest is “to pray for his people and to offer the liturgical sacrifice for their sake”. He believed that “prayer is the servant’s power in every aspect of the service”, and that it is the priest’s responsibility to teach his people the life of prayer. “Failing to do so means teaching them nothing”. In one of his notes about the noontide prayer, the sixth hour of liturgical prayer, Abouna Bishoi Kamel writes:

“Thank God. Today, at noon, everybody prays at the same time. We hear the muezzin calling (Adhan) our brothers the Muslims to prayer at their mosques. That call to prayer (Salat al-Zuhr, when the sun passes the meridian) will be a testimony against us in the day of judgement if we have neglected the noontide prayer of the sixth hour”.

In September 1965 Bishoi had made his only pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem:

“I found the church empty, so I stayed for a long time. I prayed earnestly that I might overcome my failings and indifference, and my inability to crucify myself and die with Christ. Then I asked the One who had been buried here to remember his servants in Alexandria. I begged Christ’s pardon, who was crucified and scourged for me. I discovered a river flowing from the life of Jesus into my life”.

A man who eventually became a monk of the monastery of St. Antony the Great at the Red Sea was present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and watched while Abouna Bishoi venerated the holy icon. The eyewitness became conscious of light emanating from the priest’s body. For as long as Abouna Bishoi stood at the site of the Crucifixion light radiated from him.

Carrying the Cross

Discrimination against the Copts is a daily reality in Egyptian life. Like many priests, when seen in the streets in their

flowing black clerical robes, Abouna Bishoi was the object of spitting and buffeting. He would return home with the spit of Muslims dripping from his clothing. Tasouni Angel was often very annoyed. Abouna told her that the spit was “the treasure of Christ.” There was one young lad in the neighbourhood who would shout out anti-Christian abuse and regularly pelt the approaching priest with orange peel. One day Abouna heard that this boy had broken his leg in an accident. The Christian priest went out of his way to visit the Muslim family. The parents were deeply apologetic for the boy’s behaviour. They were overwhelmed by Abouna Bishoi’s kindness and by the gift of oranges for the sick child.

In 1976, Fr. Bishoi was diagnosed as having cancer in the spinal cord at the region of the second cervical vertebra. This tumor was pressing on the occipital nerve as it grew causing severe pain. He accepted the cancer in two ways, as agony and as joy. He believed that the gladness swallowed up the distress and he came to call cancer ‘the disease of the Kingdom of God’. Tassouni Angel Bassili remarks: "When he was very sick he could not stand or sit. I said that he ought to ask for good health. He said that he did not need to ask his Lord for anything. “I am in his hands. I am ready to receive whatever he gives me”."

Abouna taught that it is essential to envisage oneself and each Christian as a cross-bearer. Not only in the physical agony of cancer but also in the daily witness of the baptised, Abouna Bishoi thought of the individual believer’s identity with the sufferings of Christ: ”Our Lord declared: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me’. Therefore, Christians must be cross-bearers, but they must be joyous cross-bearers. The apparent weakness of cross-bearing and the foolishness of embracing this cruel instrument of torture is, as St. Paul says, ‘stronger than men’”.  Abouna Bishoi memorably expresses a Coptic ideal: “Powerlessness has its own speech. Weakness has its own triumph. The world cannot be served from a place of power, but it can be served from the cross. On the cross the world stabs its own heart, but the cross is a school and to run away from it is to run away from the future”. 

Love Overcomes All

Despite his consciousness of the cancer, the seriousness of the prognosis, and his experience of severe physical discomfort at the end of 1976, Abouna Bishoi carried on with all his pastoral duties until just after Christmas 7 Jan 1977. Through all this Abouna and Tasouni lived in a purity of faith which is a reproof and challenge to unbelief. It is a surprising truth that Abouna was able to conduct a pastoral ministry from his hospital bed. “For all who visited him, he seemed an angel from heaven.”

A biographical testimony by a Coptic Orthodox priest states:

“Although he spent his last two years fighting cancer, the smile never left his face. His house and his heart were always open to his congregation. Many admitted that they found comfort in their illness or trouble just by looking at their Abouna or hearing about his patience. When I heard these stories, I always remembered the words of St. Augustine, that a priest lying on his sick bed…may be more effective in his service than with all his preaching”.

Wednesday 21 March 1979 in the Coptic Orthodox Calendar was the feast day commemorating the second century manifestation of the virginity of Saint Demetrius the Vinedresser. It was also the day of Abouna Bishoi’s death. Nobody could have known that both of them – the patriarch and the priest - had agreed to live with their wives without a bodily marital relationship. This significant fact was only celebrated on the day when Abouna Bishoi died. On that day it was known for the first time that this was in fact how he too lived his life, following the example of Pope Demetrius. One of the priests at the Patriarchate in Alexandria said this. It was a reminder of one Coptic Orthodox tradition.

On the day of Abouna Bishoi Kamel's funeral, a duty police inspector looking at the substantial crowds said that he was expecting more than half a million people at the funeral: “I think that the Christians have not given Abouna Bishoi Kamel the honour due to him”. “I can tell you that if you had asked him to undo your shoe laces, he would not only have accepted but would have done it with gladness and cheerfulness. He gave himself to everyone. That is why I said that they did not give him the honour due to him”.

Abouna Bishoi lived a life of transparent beauty and it is possible to find Muslims praying at his tomb in Alexandria long after his death. He was known as one who loved Muslims and he received and responded to their daily appeals for his prayers. Abouna always respected the search of individual Muslims for the eternal reality. He looked on them with courtesy and was constantly aware of the divine likeness within them. 

He was a man of intellect who obeyed the instruction to keep the mind in the heart. He had a powerful awareness of the Church of God as a family of believers. He was deeply committed to a discernment of the place of Our Lady in the economy of salvation. For Abouna Bishoi the way to overcome, and to bear the cross, was by prayer and the breathing of the Holy Name, which is more powerful than evil and death.

 

References:

Fr Bishoy Kamel - The Servant of Children by Ehab S. Billatos (available in PDF)

The Transfigured Cross (A Study of Fr Bishoi Kamel) by John H Watson (available in PDF)

Bishoy Kamel – Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishoy_Kamel)

Church Sign


أعلّمك وأرشدك الطريق التي تسلكها. انصحك.عيني عليك
مز 32: 8


I will instruct you and teach you in the way
you should go; I will guide you with My eye.
Ps. 32: 8



يا إله الفضائل أملنا اليك وأرنا وجهك فنخلص!ـ
القديس أغسطينوس



“Turn us again, O Lord God of Hosts, cause
thy face to shine; and we shall be saved"
(St. Augustine)


Church Calendar

Copyright 2011 by Saint Mary & Anba Bishoy Coptic Orthodox Church