Forming Leaders: Accompanying Believers

Below is an excerpt from the Reverend Mario Abu Daher of the Patriarchal Seminary of St. Ann in Lebanon, in which he reflects on the challenges facing those training to be priests. His “Letter From Seminary” was first published in the September 2021 edition of ONE magazine.

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In the foothills of Mount Lebanon, the Patriarchal Seminary of St. Ann forms priests and leaders for ministry and service in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church throughout the Middle East and, in some cases, beyond.

Founded in Jerusalem in 1882, it was moved north of Beirut, to Rabieh, in 1972. The seminary forms the backbone of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church’s vital mission in this land. It has instilled the truths of the faith, as well as culture, knowledge, spirituality and interpersonal skills, for those men who have answered the call of service to the Lord as shepherds, ministering in Melkite parishes in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine.

The vocation for all priests — regardless of church or location — is to convey the message and mission of the Gospel to individuals, families and their communities. This solemn work requires the seminary community to build up the Kingdom of God in the hearts of priest candidates.

Sufficient preparation and formation are necessary for priests to carry out their religious, pastoral, cultural and humanitarian mission in a society plagued by challenges. Some of these, including war and conflict, economic collapse, political instability, poverty, destitution, unemployment, and the emigration of young people, threaten the stability and very existence of these societies.

The leaders of the church are fully aware of the mission and the great challenges that mission faces, devoting a great deal of attention and resources to priestly formation.

Thus, those entrusted with formation work to develop among the seminarians a spiritual depth — as well as cultural competence — an awareness of the problems facing Christian communities and the tools to engage in the necessary pastoral and humanitarian work, which are expressions of Catholic social teaching. …

We encourage seminarians to develop their talents and abilities. We also point out areas for personal development. This accompaniment aims to create a mentoring relationship between the seminarians and the clergy on the seminary’s formation team. We have found that mentoring encourages seminarians in their growth in their vocation and in dealing with the increasing trials facing the church in the Middle East. …

COVID-19 is among the greatest ordeals facing the world today, spreading fear, threatening lives and undermining governments. Mandatory lockdowns have emptied churches of believers, particularly on the holy days and for those milestones in people’s lives, including funerals. The pandemic has also been a major challenge to seminaries around the world, as traditionally priestly formation happens in a community of seminarians and formators gathered in one place. To continue seminary formation in person and to adhere to the protocols necessary to stop the spread of the virus have required great personal awareness and responsibility.

However, the pandemic also has led to an important reflection on seminary training. Seminary staff has become increasingly aware that the priest is not only a man who performs liturgical rites and rituals, or who exercises management and leadership skills in a community; rather, his role, above all, is to enhance the faith in believers and to accompany them with the spirit of hope. Through this awareness of the role of the priest in society, the seminarian will be prepared to be present and to serve where the needs are.

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