And today the Coptic Church commemorates the departure of the 45th successor to St. Mark, Pope St. Mikhail I (also known as St. Khail). Many reasons to celebrate the memory of this man. I particularly enjoy the fact that they recorded the binding and enforcing of the monk to become the Pope of Alexandria, as being a Pope at this turbulent time was actually quite an unneeded and frightening vocation for anyone to be in. That fear would be actualized, as he would later be considered a confessor, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Ummayid Muslims of the time, and many Copts were giving up the faith that they may enjoy rights under the Islamic rule. It wasn't until the OO King of Nubia at the time came to save the day for the Church and force the Islamic government to back off for some time.
The Synexarium is quite interesting, as it claims historically that in a OO/EO debate, he won over the EO Pope Cosmas of Alexandria to his side. The story may be disputed but it's worth quoting the Synexarium for this:
On this day of the year 483 A.M. (March 12th, 767 A.D.) the holy father Anba Khail (Mikhail), the forty six Pope of the See Of St. Mark, departed. This father was a monk in the monastery of St. Macarius and he was knowledgeable and ascetic. When Pope Theodorus the forty fifth Patriarch, his predecessor, departed the bishops of Lower Egypt (Delta) and the priests of Alexandria gathered in the church of Anba Shenouda in Cairo.
A Dispute arose among them about who was fit, and finally they called Anba Mousa, Bishop of Ouseem, and Anba Petros, Bishop of Mariout. When they arrived, Anba Mousa found the priests of Alexandria obstinate, he rebuked them for that, and dismissed them that night so their minds and souls might calm down. When they met the next day he mentioned to them the name of the priest Khail the monk in the monastery of St. Macarius. They unanimously agreed to his choice and obtained a decree from the Governor of Egypt to the elders of the wilderness of Sheahat (Wadi El-Natroun) to bring him from the monastery. On their way, when they arrived to Geza they found father Khail coming along with some elders to fulfill a certain task connected with the monastery. They seized him, bound him, and took him to Alexandria where they ordained him Patriarch on the 17th day of Tute, year 460 A.M. (September 14th., year 743 A.D.).
It Happened that there was a drought in the city of Alexandria for two years, and on that day the rain fell heavily for three days and the people of Alexandria considered that a good omen.
During the reign of Marawan the last of the Khalifas of the Umayyad rule and during the governorship of Hefs Ebn El-Walid and during the days of this father many great tribulations fell upon the believers.
A large number of the believers fled from Egypt and the number of those who denied Christ was twenty-four thousand, and because of that the Patriarch was in great sorrow until God perished those were responsible for that. This father endured many difficulties from Abdel Malek Ebn-Marawan the new governor. He imprisoned, beaten, chained, and tortured him with many other ways of painful tortures, then he released him. The Patriarch went to Upper Egypt to collect alms and when he came back, the Governor took the money from him and threw him back in prison.
When Keriakos king of Nuba knew that, he was extremely enraged, he prepared one hundred thousand soldiers and marched down to Egypt. Going threw Upper Egypt he slew all the Muslims that he met, until he reached El Fostat (Cairo), he camped around the city threatening to destroy it. When Abdel Malek the Governor saw the army surrounding the city and that all this had taken place for the sake of the Patriarch, he became terrified, so he released him from prison with great honor. The Governor entreated the Patriarch to mediate peace between him and the king of Nuba. The Patriarch agreed to his request, so he went with some of the clergy to meet the king and asked him to accept the peace from abdel Malek which the king accepted and returned back.
Abdel Malek respected the Christians and lifted up all his retribution. When the father the Patriarch prayed for the sake of the Governor's daughter, who was possessed with an unclean spirit, and with his prayers the unclean spirit left her, the Governor increased his respect for the Christians.
This father debated with Cosmas the Melchite Patriarch concerning the Hypostatic Union. Pope Khail wrote him a letter, signed it along with his bishops, which said in it: "It is not right to say that in Christ two distinct Natures or two distinct Persons after the Hypostatic Union." Cosmas was convinced with that and asked to become a bishop under the authority of Anba Khail. When Anba Khail completed his strife, he departed to the Lord whom he loved after he had spent on the Chair of St. Mark twenty-three and half years.
May his prayers be with us and Glory be to God forever. Amen.
St. Khail was also known for the famous "canon of Khail" concerning the choice of the episcopate/patiarchate, and opposed even the sister Syriac Church at the time for the choice of a diocesan bishop to become the patriarch of Antioch. HG Bishop Serapion recounts the story here:
I. Pope Mikhail (Khail) I, the 46th Patriarch (744-767)
This saint survived a difficult era of persecution in the history of the Church, which saw the end of the Ummayad and the beginning of the Abbasid dynasties. He suffered tremendous persecutions from ruthless governors and was thrown in jail several times. Nonetheless, he stood firm and courageous in defending the Orthodox faith and shepherding his people with dedication, purity, and righteousness. We may read the whole history of this saint in Volume II of Iris Habib El Masry’s The Story of the Copts. Before the end of that era, a crucially important incident occurred that immortalized the name of Pope Mikhail I in the history of the Church with fame and glory.
The See of Antioch stayed vacant for a while because of the political incidents that accompanied the end of the Umayyad and the beginning of the Abbasid dynasties. It happened that Bishop Isaac of Harran desired to become the Patriarch of Antioch. Since he had an intimate relationship with Caliph Abdullah Abu Gaafar of Harran, Bishop Isaac sought his assistance to help him achieve his goal. However, two Antiochian bishops opposed Bishop Isaac’s wish while reminding him of the Church canons which forbid a diocesan bishop to move to the See of the Patriarch or to seek the assistance of the authorities to acquire a priestly rank. Caliph Abdullah was incensed at the two bishops and murdered them while helping Bishop Isaac sit on the See of Antioch. Wanting to confirm his situation, Bishop Isaac sent a delegation of bishops carrying a Letter of Communion along with both gifts and threats to Pope Mikhail I of Alexandria, who refused to accept Bishop Isaac as the Patriarch of Antioch. Pope Mikhail was summoned by Abdullah in light of the close political relationship between Egypt and Syria at the time. When Bishop Isaac’s messengers reached al-Fistat, they met with the governor of Egypt and informed him about their mission. The governor begged Pope Mikhail to accept the delegation and the Letter of Communion out of fear that Abdullah would harm him. Pope Mikhail asked the governor to give him three days to convene a synod of bishops to discuss the matter and the governor agreed. The synod gathered for an entire month without any interruption from the governor; he did not even remind Pope Mikhail that they had initially agreed on three days only.
After that month passed, the bishops held a meeting at the Church of St. Mary known as El Mu’allaqah (the “Hanging Church”) where Pope Mikhail issued the following decision of the Holy Synod concerning Bishop Isaac’s request:
No sword, fire, throwing to the lions or banishment, or all of those things together can scare me. And I will not accept an illegal act. I will not put myself under my anathema which I wrote with my own hand writing and in which I declared that it is not permissible for a bishop to be a patriarch. Our honored fathers considered those who receive the priesthood from authorities are anathema. For the bishops had written to me from Antioch during the days of Yohanna the Patriarch that all the bishops who after him to sit on the throne of the Patriarchate to be anathema. So how am I supposed to accept what I had refused before? And our honored fathers themselves had declared that all who conduct that behavior to be anathema.
Pope Mikhail handed this decision to the bishops sent by Bishop Isaac.
The delegation returned to the governor of Egypt and requested that he command Pope Mikhail to accompany them to Harran. The governor, who cared for Pope Mikhail, again begged him to yield to Caliph Abdullah and Bishop Isaac, but Pope Mikhail thanked him and refused to change his declaration. He told the governor that he was ready to go to Harran. Two other Alexandrian bishops, Abba Moses and Abba Theodosius, both declared that they were ready to accompany Pope Mikhail in his journey to Harran. After the honorable Pope made preparations for his journey, a messenger arrived in al-Fistat declaring the death of Bishop Isaac. When the delegation of bishops heard this, they returned to their country immediately in silence. As for Pope Mikhail and the bishops of Egypt, they thanked God for His support.
We learn from this story the following points:
1. Pope Mikhail I lived a holy life full of courage in front of unjust rulers, like Abdullah, and possessed amazing endurance that helped him preserve the Canons of the Church despite being jailed several times.
2. The declaration issued by Pope Mikhail was not his own personal opinion only, but rather, the result of a Holy Synod of bishops who gathered for a whole month to research the Canons of the Holy Church. In addition, two of these bishops were ready to die with Pope Mikhail in Harran for the sake of defending the Canons.
3. The Canons of the Holy Church forbid a bishop to move from one diocese to another, or to receive the priesthood from the hands of worldly authorities. These Canons are not local canons belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church only, but rather, are universal Canons belonging to the whole Church. As the declaration of the Holy Synod mentioned, the bishops of Antioch wrote to Pope Mikhail during the days of Patriarch Yohanna and said, “Those who may follow him (Patriarch Yohanna) from the metropolitans as Patriarch will be anathema.” Pope Mikhail agreed and signed this declaration with the bishops of Antioch. This is why Pope Mikhail asked, “How can I justify today what I banned yesterday?”
Thus, the anathemas of Pope Mikhail I were not personal ones, but rather, were issued from the Synods of the Church of Antioch and the Church of Alexandria. Two Antiochian bishops were martyred by Caliph Abdullah when they refused to agree to the transfer of Bishop Isaac to the See of Antiochian. In addition, the Pope of Alexandria and two of his bishops were also prepared to become martyrs for the same reason. The declaration of Pope Mikhail became an important historical document in the history of the Church; so much so that it is called the Canon of Pope Mikhail. Our glorious Church applied that Canon until the nineteenth century when the idea of moving a metropolitan or diocesan bishop manifested itself again.
An interesting life of endurance, strength, and courage, even when considering some of these issues as controversial today. In the context of its time, it was a testimony to his fidelity to the Church's customs and traditions even in the face of persecution. May his prayers be with us all. Amen!