At the time of his death, Pope Shenouda III was viewed as one of the Great Patriarchs of the ancient Church of Alexandria, a well-known church father and teacher, a chief defender of the faith, and a noted Egyptian leader of the 20th and 21st centuries.
He was born Nazeer Gayed on August 3, 1923 in Assiut, Egypt. He was no stranger to hardship, as days after his birth his mother died due to complications related to delivery. He was raised by his father and his elder brothers and entered school excelling in his studies at all levels. In 1947, he graduated from Cairo University (then named King Fouad I University) with a bachelor’s degree in history.
While he taught English, history and social studies at The English Mission College in Cairo, he concurrently enrolled at the Coptic Theological Seminary. Upon graduation from Seminary, he was appointed professor of Biblical Studies. Other academic interests included archeology and ancient Egyptian history. In 1949, he became editor-in-chief of the Sunday School Magazine, and in 1952 he was elected to the Journalists Syndicate of Egypt.
Always knowing his calling to ministry, he entered the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, known as Deir El-Sourian, in the ancient western desert region of Wadi Natrun, in 1954 and was tonsured monk on July 18, 1954, named Fr. Antonios El-Souriany. He was ordained a priest-monk on August 31, 1958. From 1956-1962, he lived as a solitary hermit in a cave he carved about 7 miles from the monastery, dedicating himself to total prayer and contemplation.
He was consecrated Bishop Shenouda, Bishop of Christian Education and Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary on September 30, 1962. Under his patronage of the Seminary, women were invited to enroll as students. As a result of his reputation as a scholar and teacher, the number of students tripled. From 1962-2012, he was the founder and Editor-in-Chief of El Kiraza Magazine, the official journal of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Following the passing of Pope Cyril VI, who departed on March 9, 1971, the name of Bishop Shenouda was selected through the Altar Lot on October 31, 1971, following a multistep electoral process. His Holiness Pope Shenouda III was enthroned as 117th Pope of Alexandria on November 14, 1971.
Due to a rise in sectarian strife and discrimination, after which followed a string of attacks on churches in Egypt in the late 1970’s, His Holiness was courageous in defending the rights of his people. This and other circumstances led Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt at the time, to invalidly revoke government recognition of the Pope and he was exiled and placed under house arrest at the Monastery of St Bishoy from September 1981 until January 1985.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III is well known for his deep commitment to Christian Unity. As a result, H. H. paid many visits to various sister Orthodox churches and their patriarchs, such as those of Constantinople, Moscow, Romania, and Antioch. In 1973, H.H. was the first Coptic Orthodox pope to visit the Vatican in over 1500 years. In this visit, both H. H. Pope Shenouda III and H. H. Pope Paul VI signed a common declaration on the issue of Christology, agreeing to establish joint commissions for dialogue on unity. In 1974 he went on an Official and Pastoral trip to visit the Ethiopian Church during the reign of Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia. Decades later, in 2008, He paid a second pastoral visit to Ethiopia.
On March 17, 2012, after brave and patient endurance of medical complications that could never keep him away from his flock, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III departed in the Lord after 40 years, 4 months, and 4 days on the papal throne as the 117th Pope of Alexandria, the successor of St. Mark the Evangelist and Apostle. His funeral was attended by millions in Cairo and was the largest public funeral in the country since that of President Nasser in 1970.
Delegations of world governments and churches joined in the services, which were concluded by a military honor guard and transfer to his final resting place at the 4th century ancient Monastery of St. Bishoy. Today, hundreds of thousands visit his tomb for blessings and prayer.