Today (April 25th) is the feast of St. Mark, disciple of St. Peter and author of the Gospel which bears his name. Tradition states that his Gospel – the shortest of the four – was based on the preaching of St. Peter. Although the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have many similarities, the reader can also discern important differences among them. One story in particular stands out in Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus is arrested, Mark adds this seemingly random detail:
And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked (Mark 14:51-52).
Why did Mark include this story? Most believe it was because he was the naked boy. Perhaps, in humility, he included the story to remind himself of his human weakness.
Like most of the first Christians, what happened to Mark after Pentecost is shrouded in mystery. We know a few details from the Scriptures. He worked with Paul and Barnabas early in their ministry (Acts 12:25), but unfortunately, something occurred to make Paul lost trust in Mark as a companion. It was serious enough that it led to a split between the apostles Paul and Barnabas:
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)
Fortunately, Paul’s opinion of Mark must have improved over the years, for later he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me” (2 Timothy 4:11).
Only a few details about Mark from his later years have passed on to us. According to tradition, he became the first bishop of the Egyptian city of Alexandria, an important city in the Roman Empire, whose influence would continue to grow. Eventually, Alexandria became the most influential city in the Empire, second only to Rome. As such, the bishop of the city – honored with the title “Patriarch” – was the second ranking bishop of the Church. The most famous Patriarch of Alexandria other than Mark was St. Athanasius, who in the 4th century single-handedly defended the Church from the scourge of Arianism.
What isn’t as well-known in the West is that the common title given to the Patriarch of Alexandria is “pope.” As early as the 3rd century, the head of the Alexandrian church was called pope, which means “father.” Initially the honorific was given to many clerics, but eventually, only the bishops of Rome and Alexandria were known by this title.
Sadly, due to schisms over the centuries, there are now bishops of four different churches whose bishops lay claim to being successors of St. Mark as Patriarch of Alexandria: the Coptic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Coptic Church, and the Melkite Catholic Church (actually, this bishop is the Patriarch of Antioch, and titular head of the Alexandria church). Each of these four churches have a rich history, and each considers their Patriarch a legitimate successor of St. Mark.
Just as St. Peter wasn’t known as “pope” in his lifetime, so too St. Mark didn’t personally answer to that title. But just as St. Peter is considered the first Pope of Rome, so too St. Mark is the first Pope of Alexandria.
St. Mark, Pope of Alexandria, pray for us!