It is hard to imagine the Catholic Church as we know it without the contributions of the See of Alexandria. This great Apostolic See was founded by the evangelist St. Mark; the list of Fathers of the Church who came from the school of Alexandria is too long to cover here but includes such great names as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Athanasius, and St. Cyril of Alexandria. The doctrines concerning the Trinity and the Person of Christ as we now have them came largely from the work of the school of Alexandria and as such this ancient See has had more influence on the development of dogma in the Catholic Church save any but the Apostolic See of Rome.
Alexandria was already a great city at the turn of the age when the Incarnation occurred. The city was founded in Egypt just west of the Nile Delta three hundred years earlier by Alexander the Great as he stormed out on his road of conquest and was capital of the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt that succeeded him for the next three centuries until Octavian defeated Cleopatra who had made common cause with his rival Marc Antony at Actium in 31 B.C. and absorbed Alexandria and the Nile Valley into the Roman Empire thus completing the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean. Alexandria then became the second city of the empire and the greatest city of the East. Prior to this period the Ptolemies had sought to collect all of the literature, scientific, and philosophical knowledge from around the known world and store it in the Library of Alexandria which transformed the city into the intellectual powerhouse of the Mediterranean world by the time of the Roman conquest.
The Church came early to Alexandria. There were Jews from Egypt visiting Jerusalem who were converted by St. Peter’s sermon preached from on Pentecost (Acts 2: 16), but we do not have a specific date beyond that for the establishment of the church of Alexandria. Tradition tells us that St. Mark the evangelist and companion of Saints Peter and Paul was its founder but this would have been a few decades after Pentecost. The church of Alexandria and its catechetical school developed fast however due to the city’s reputation in the Empire with those who were following intellectual pursuits. By the middle part second century already many of the leading thinkers and theologians of the Church came from Alexandria.
Origen at the beginning of the third century began seriously to tackle the question of the Trinity and, although he seems to have fallen into error at the end of his life, his work and in particular his exegesis of Sacred Scripture had an impact on the Church which continues to this day. The Trinity was to remain a fixation of the city and its school after the Edict of Milan and during all of the Christological disputes of the subsequent centuries. The Arian heresy was born in Alexandria with the preaching of Arius but its intellectual foundation stemmed from Antioch. During the subsequent centuries of dispute and discord Alexandria produced many great defenders of the Divinity of Christ and of the Trinity; first among them St. Athanasius.
The dispute over the nature of Christ was to be the death knell of the unity of the Alexandrian church. Following the declarations of the hypostatic union of the Divine and human natures of Christ by the Council of Chalcedon a large segment of the church of Alexandria split off, wrongly seeing this declaration as too much of a threat to the fundamental Divinity of Christ, and formed what was to become the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. These theological and Christological disputes thus began to merge with imperial political disputes and the influence of the Alexandrian church rapidly diminished. The city and its church was largely cut off from Rome and Constantinople after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the middle seventh century. The city of Alexandria rapidly diminished in importance with the cutting off of trans Mediterranean trade by the Islamic conquests and the center of gravity of Egyptian life moved south to Cairo.
The Catholic Church was then largely removed from Egyptian life but the Coptic church has endured, and Christians continued to form a majority of the Egyptian population well into the Middle Ages before falling prey to the Islamization policies of Egypt’s Mameluke rulers following the Mongol invasions of the Middle East during 13th century. Coptic Christians today form about 10% of the Egyptian population but have been placed in an extremely precarious position by the ongoing upheaval in that country during this decade. The current Patriarch of Alexandria, the Coptic ‘pope’, is Theodoros (Tawadros) II in his office since November 18, 2012. On April 28, 2017 Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II signed a declaration in Cairo affirming a common Baptism between the Coptic Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church.
Pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, for its liberty and its salvation, for the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Muslim peoples.