Shenouda was a graduate of Cairo University and the Coptic Orthodox Seminary. Then-Pope Cyril VI summoned him to become the Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Theological University, whereupon he assumed the name Shenouda. On November 14, 1971, he was chosen as the 117th Coptic Pope.
To western Christians, the term “pope” almost exclusively brings to mind the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who is seated in Rome. But the early Christian Church had “patriarchates” not only in Rome, but in Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople (where the current Eastern Orthodox Patriarch is seated) and Alexandria. Much of the North African Church was divided from the Western Church over theological issues following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD; Alexandria remained the ‘seat’ of leadership to the Africans, who have generally become known as “Copts” (from the word "Egypt"). Their leader, Pope Shenouda, has been instrumental in attempting to restore relations between the African Church and their Asian and European brethren; many modern scholars believe that the 1600-year-old division between the churches is based more on linguistic misunderstandings than actual theological differences.
During his papacy, Pope Shenouda III appointed the first-ever Bishops to preside over North American dioceses, as well as the first Coptic Bishops in Australia, France, England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and established the first Coptic Churches in South America. He is known for his commitment to Christian unity and has, since the 1970s, advocated inter-denominational Christian dialogue.
In 1973, Pope Shenouda III became the first Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria to meet with the Pope of Rome in over 1500 years. In this visit, they signed a common declaration on the issues that had divided the churches, and agreed to further discussions on Christian unity. In an address he gave during the International Week of Prayer in 1974, he declared,
"The whole Christian world is anxious to see the church unite. Christian people, being fed up with divisions, are pushing their church leaders to do something about church unity and I am sure that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us.”
In 2000, He was awarded the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence by UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, and in 2007 received an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Lawrence in Michigan for his efforts in spreading the values of peace, human love and tolerance in the world. The University declared that Pope Shenouda was a "man of peace who works in his utmost efforts to maintain more understanding between the Middle Eastern people, regardless their religions or nationalities,” and "shows us the way of reconciliation in that region which is torn apart by wars".
At the current time, Egyptian Christians and Muslims share a sense of uncertainty over the future of Egypt, and Pope Shenouda’s death increases the weight of that uncertainty.