Forming Leaders: Preparing to Serve in Egypt

During this Holy Week, let us turn our attention to St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in Cairo, Egypt. Below is an excerpt of a story from ONE magazine that gives us an idea of how Coptic Catholic priests are formed and educated in modern Egypt.

Chants, in Coptic and Arabic, resound in the chapel of St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary in the outskirts of Cairo. It is the last Friday of Lent, and the seminarians are gathered for prayer with their spiritual leader, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria. The harmonious melody demonstrates how well the seminarians have been taught the intricacies of the ancient liturgical chants of the Copts.

Afterward, the seminarians grab their suitcases in their rooms. They are heading back home to serve in their local parishes during Holy Week, spending the holiest time of the year with their families. The liturgy also marks the end of classes. The seminarians will return to St. Leo’s after Easter break to take their final exams; the academic year will conclude at the end of May. …

Each seminarian has his own story to tell about his call to the seminary. The decision was not easy for some, while it was a foregone conclusion for others.

Seminarians are carefully selected, explains the rector. After a young man expresses his interest in the priesthood, he first contacts the director of vocations in his eparchy, who follows up with him for at least one year. After the local bishop approves of the candidate, he is invited to attend two weeklong retreats. The first is for the seminary to assess the sincerity of the call and the extent of the applicant’s qualifications to become a priest. …

The decision for Remoon Atef, 26, to enter seminary was not difficult. He was born into a Catholic family from Al Qusiya, a city about 220 miles south of Cairo, with many vocations to the priesthood. He was raised in the church, serving as a cantor and an altar server and participating in the church’s activities.

“I had an inner voice that with time began to grow, and I wanted to serve more,” he says. “Several priests came from my parish. I would see them first as seminarians and then as priests, and I had a great and sincere love for the idea.”

Remoon says he already identifies with Jesus the Good Shepherd — the identity the seminary is working to instill in all seminarians — but he believes there is still much he must learn.

“I’m not in a rush,” he adds. “I benefit from everything presented to me within the seminary.

“The path I am trying to walk is how to be a priest according to the example of Jesus, how to present Jesus to people. My first and last goal is how people see Christ in me,” says Remoon, who is studying for the Eparchy of Assiut. …

While Catholic Copts are few, their activities — including schools, health care and social service programs for the most vulnerable — have a disproportionate impact on the common good of all Egyptians.

Father Fahmy, the vice dean of the seminary, says the Catholic community in Egypt is distinguished by the many services it provides to the local community and seminary formation is geared to this service.

Seminarians learn the principles of Catholic social teaching, listen to the experiences of priests and lay people working on the ground, and spend summers and weekends serving in local churches.

“The Catholic Church in Egypt provides its social services to everyone, whether Christian or Muslim, which is reflected in all aspects of formation,” he says. “Whether within the seminary by teaching the pastoral theology course, which educates the seminarians about the principles of the Catholic Church in serving the local community, or through pastoral experiences, by participating in those services.”

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