In these days when we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we get to know Sherin Helmy better. She is an Egyptian focolarina of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “In the east we saw his star appear, and we came here to honor him” (Matthew 2:2), says the verse that Christians from many parts of the world are living and meditating on during this special week. What star brought Sherin to Loppiano?
From her looks, you might think of her coming originally from South America. Instead, as you chat with her, you discover that Sherin was born in Cairo, Egypt. “I arrived in Loppiano last October,” she recounts.
She lived for 17 years in the focolare of the city of Sohag, in the center of the country, on the western bank of the Nile; then, for another 5 years, in her native city. In Loppiano, she tells us, she lives in the focolare called Casa Galilea. She is waiting for a visa to reach her new destination: the United States. “It’s always this going where Jesus wants. To be precise, I’m going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” She pronounces the places with an enviable accent.
In Egypt, she worked for Caritas. “Caritas Egypt started in 1967,” she explains. “It started with aid projects in case of humanitarian emergencies and then, in order to help the development of the country, it continued its activity, taking care of street children, people with disabilities, including mental disabilities. And then, literacy projects, health care, start-up to work projects for women.”
Sherin is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is one of the ancient Eastern Churches, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, in the city of Alexandria.
Relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church
Until 1973, it was thought that their Christology was not in conformity with that which came out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. But in 1973, a joint statement between Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, attested that we have “one faith in one Triune God” and the “divinity of the One Incarnate Son of God… perfect God with regard to His Divinity and perfect man with regard to His humanity.” They also recognized that divine life is given to us and is nourished by the seven sacraments, and the shared veneration for the Mother of God. With the current head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, relations continue, and together with Pope Francis, in 2013, they established the Coptic Catholic Friendship Day, which is celebrated every May 10.
Sherin, who lived for several years with two Brazilians and an Argentinean, all Catholics, does not see diversity as an obstacle to unity. She recounts: “The encounter with the spirituality of unity of the Focolare Movement has helped me to deepen my own Church and to know the other Churches better. It is a grace to be able to exchange differences as riches, as gifts, for example, in the life of the focolare. It is an enrichment to discover the saints, the liturgical rites of the other Churches, an occasion to get to know each other and to grow even more in unity.”
Coming here to Loppiano, Sherin found other believers from her Church. “There is a young woman attending Gen School and two studying at Sophia,” she explained. A small community, in short, in the midst of a Catholic majority, but one that is embedded in the larger reality of the Florentine Coptic Orthodox Church. “In the province of Florence there is a community of about 250 people. I attend the Church of St. Mina and St. Cyril in Scandicci that was donated to us by Catholics, not far from the Mariapolis Center,” Sherin said. In recent days, the Coptic Epiphany was celebrated, in which she too participated: “Epiphany for us is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. It is the manifestation of the Triune God, where we see the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So it’s really a very big and very beautiful celebration, like Christmas.”
And we ask her: How can Loppiano improve in living for Christian unity? “I think it would be good to take advantage of the people who come here with different ways of living as Christians, to have moments of prayer and exchange, of getting to know one another. This helps us to live ‘the dialogue of life.’ As our Pope Tawadros says: ‘Study, get to know the other Church, because by knowing it, you love it more, you get to know how to love it more!’”