Pope Matthews the Poor
1378 - 1409 A.D.
An Italian Monk, Peter the Hermit succeeded in persuading the kings of Europe to prepare an army bearing the banner of the cross with the purpose of freing the Holy Land from the Muslims. About half a million horsemen were sent to conquer these lands. However , they lacked leadership, diplomacy and knowledge of the environment.
The age of the Crusaders which started in 1096 signaled the beginning of the Mamluk's era, which was considered the worst age the Copts had lived through. As the Muslims saw the invaders carrying crosses, they thought that the Copts will side with them. On the other hand, the Catholic Crusaders viewed the Copts -who believed in the One nature of Christ (mia-physites)- as outcast schism, and worse than heretics.
Jerusalem's Latin Ring Amalrich invaded Egypt through Bilbeis and killed all its natives indiscriminately. When Shawer the Egyptian ruler sensed the danger approaching, he poured 20000 barrels of tar on the capital city of Fustat, and had his men ignited it with 10000 torches. The inferno lasted for 54 days.
During this era Many Coptic personalities appeared like shining stars in the darkest straits of all times. One of these great personalities was Abba Matthews I.
As a young boy, Matthews worked in tending the sheep of his father. He used to give his food to the shepherds, and spend the whole day in fasting. When he was fourteen he was admitted to the monastery to practice asceticism and worship. He was ordained a priest at the age of eighteen. Then he left to St. Antony's monastery to escape vainglory. He did not tell any of the monks about his priesthood, but rather used to serve mass as a deacon. Once, while he was reading the Gospel a heavenly hand appeared and offered him incense three times. Seeing that, the elders of the monastery said that he should be elected a patriarch.
For the second time he escaped to the Holy Land in Palestine, and worked in construction. But when he heard that the Copts were persecuted because of the Crusaders' actions, he returned to St. Antony's Monastery. That time, he was appointed abbot of the monastery.
Shortly after hin ordination, Prince Yalpogha led the monks and their abbot in humility through the streets of Cairo to avenge the Crusaders. For the Crusaders had raided Alexandria, killing many, and kidnapping others before they fled; and since they bore the sign of the cross on their breasts, this roused the ruling prince and his men against the Copts.
Once again, Matthews left to Al-Muharraq monastery to work in the kitchen, and serve the elders. He lived a life of self-denial, and did not allow himself to have more than one garment. It was said that he was a friend of the wild beasts, who used to keep him company outside the monastery.
In the year 1378, after Abba Gabriel IV, the 86th Pope departed to heaven, the Coptic bishops and people, with one accord, chose Abba Matthews to be the next patriarch. On hearing the news, Matthews escaped and hid in the bottom of a ship, but a little child exposed his hiding place. Finally, he solicited the council of the elders of st. Antony's monastery, and accepted their decision. Escorted to Alexandria, he was consecrated the eighty-seventh Pope, and gave himself the title "El Meskin" which means "The Poor".
The fact that Abba Matthews became the 87th Pope of the See of St. Mark did not change him a bit. He cared for the poor, loved to give alms, and was always humble. Through the heavenly wisdom given to him, it happened that he was inspired to buy lots of wheat before a famine. And when the famine struck he distributed the grains to anyone who asked for it, without any discrimination between Muslims, Jews, or Christians. He gave generously, and God blessed his crop, so it did not diminish.
Matthews was always venerated by God and also by men. When he stood before the Altar, his face often radiated with divine light and his eyes glittered, as he looked to our Savior Jesus Christ who often appeared to him. Also, because of his heavenly wisdom, people used to ask his advise in their private matters. The ruler Barquq asked the Pope's advise before accepting "Sultanism".
One day, Sultan Barquq asked Pope Matthews to write to the king of Ethiopia whose name was Wedom Asghar. But Matthews wrote to his brother Dawoud instead. When the messengers arrived in Ethiopia, they found out that Wedom Asghar had died, and that Dawoud had become the new king. Dawoud received the papal letter, and asked them about the two presents sent to him by the Pope (which were a cross and a handkerchief.) The messengers were astonished that he knew about these presents, but he told them that the Pope appeared to him in a dream, and told him about what was going to happen.
Through his cordial relation with Sultan Barquq, he was able to stop the mop from burning Al-Muallaqa church and the Shahran monastery, because the Muslims were claiming that new constructions were taking place in those two locations. The Sultan appointed four Judges of Islam who declared the falsehood of such claims.
Then the situation worsened when two MamluR princes, exiled Sultan Barquq, and took his place. Mentach and Yalpogha inflicted severe sufferings upon the Copts and their Pope. Finally, Yalpogha arrested Pope Matthews and imprisoned him. When he tried to kill him by the sword, the Pope stretched his neck to him. The prince was deeply troubled, and he ordered Abba Matthews to be released. Later, Yalpogha himself was imprisoned and died in his chains in Alexandria.
Pope Matthews was a good shepherd to his people, particularly the poor and the sick. God granted him the gift of performing miracles. During the renovation of St. Mary's church, a large stone fell on one of the workers and killed him instantly. The Pope prayed over the body, and the Lord raised him.
During the reLgn of Sultan Al-Nasser Farag, a violent prince called Sodon plundered the palace of Al-Nasser. He plotted with some of his followers to massacre the Copts. Pope Matthews devoted seven days to fasting and praying in St. Marcorius' church. At the end of that period the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and comforted him. Matthews came out of the church with his face shining like that of an angel. Shortly after that, Sodon summoned the Pope to the palace, and confessed to him the plot he intended against the Copts.
Yet the tribulations inflicted upon the Copts by Sodon and his supporters became very severe. As a result, the Pope retreated in Archangel Michael's church dedicating his time to prayer and fasting. Then news came from the palace that Sodon was stabbed by a horseman six days ago; the exact time when the Pope started his retreat.
One of the Mamluks called Gamal-El-Din, also caused troubles to the Pope, and started persecuting the Christians. He imposed on the Pope a tributing of five hundred thousand dinars, which the Copts had to raise among themselves. Gamal-El-Din continued his persecution, and ordered the Pope to appear before him in the palace. But the Pope asked the messengers to wait until the next day. That night, God rested the soul of Pope Matthews El Meskin, after serving his flock for thirty years and 5 months. Abba MatthewE foretold the name of his successor Pope Gabriel V. Also, the miracles that were performed through his prayers continued after his death, and until this day.
May the prayers and supplications of this great Saint Pope Matthews I (El Meskin) be with us. Amen.