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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Amir’s Choice

Becoming part of Egypt’s next generation of priests

Amir Maher, 28, remembers when he first started to think seriously about entering religious life. It all started at a youth conference in Cairo in 2008, when the young man was still in college. Jesuit Father Henri Boulad was giving a talk.

“I don’t remember the topic,” Mr. Maher says today, “but I remember clearly my feeling at that moment: I felt that I wanted to be like this man.” Is it possible, he wondered, that he was called to be a priest?

He tried to put such thoughts out of his mind. He returned from the conference to Al Wasta, his town in Assiut, thinking that it was just a passing whim.

He now realizes, however, that it was something more.

“What happened that day was like a seed thrown into the earth, which then disappeared,” he says. “I went on in my life and forgot about it. But after a while the seed started to grow and the call became clearer.”

He adds: “I was trying to reject the idea, saying that it was just an outburst of youth. I was telling myself, ‘When I get a job and have money I will forget it.’ “

But he did not; the seed had taken root.

“What attracted me to Father Boulad was the lifestyle he had chosen,” he says. “He left everything and chose this way.”

Still, Mr. Maher continued on his course. He graduated from Assiut University in 2011 with a degree in engineering. He went on to serve a year of military service, and then traveled to the United Arab Emirates to work as an electrical engineer for a street lighting company.

His job seemed to be a good opportunity for a young graduate, but it brought him no happiness.

“I felt that something was missing,” Mr. Maher says now. “I felt this was not the fulfilling life I had wanted for myself.” He found himself remembering that talk by Father Boulad. “I was not able to focus on my work, because the idea was overwhelming me. I told myself: I will pray and ask for guidance from God. If this is the way God chose for me, I will leave everything; if not, I will stop thinking about it.”

For Mr. Maher, the church had always been the axis of his life — a welcoming place where he went as a young boy to spend his time, to play with friends or just pray. The idea of spending his life serving God did not seem far-fetched.

Finally, after months of prayer, he decided to attend a discernment retreat at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Patriarchal Seminary in Cairo.

There, everything clicked into place.

“During the retreat, I felt very satisfied,” he says. “God was clear with me.” He left the retreat knowing exactly what he needed to do: He would apply to the seminary and begin studies to become a priest.

Founded in 1953, St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary is located in Maadi, a quiet neighborhood in noisy Cairo. The large building sits in the middle of 10 acres. It is a place of peace, with gardens outside for relaxation and spacious rooms inside for study and prayer.

There are currently 28 seminarians studying here as part of an eight-year program that includes a wide range of subjects — including Arabic, English, Greek, history, Islam, music, philosophy, psychology and theology.

The day starts early. The men wake up at 6. After morning meditation and liturgy, they have breakfast at 8:30 and then start their classes at 9. At 1:30, the school day ends and they break for lunch.

The rest of the afternoon is free. Some of the seminarians play sports or read; others catch up on their studies. On some days, they go out for dinner or a movie.

Today, Mr. Maher socializes with his colleagues in the second floor living room. Here, the seminarians spend some of their free time together — watching television, playing chess or just chatting over a cup of tea.

In the midst of this, the Rev. Bishoy Rasmy, the rector of the seminary, enters the room and hands every student an envelope containing their end-of-year evaluation and some pocket money.

“There are three aspects of life here,” Father Rasmy explains, sitting down, “the spiritual, the academic and the communal.”

Choosing the right men for that life is a complex process. In every eparchy of the Coptic Catholic Church, Father Rasmy says, there is a vocation director whose job is to discover and guide those who want to be priests. If a young man is considering the priesthood, he meets with the vocation director, who helps him discern if he has a calling. He meets with him regularly for at least a year and then, if the young man seems serious about the vocation, he takes the next step, which includes obtaining the approval of the bishop as part of the application process.

The applicants then come to the seminary for a weeklong retreat in January. At the end, they take a battery of psychological, spiritual and medical tests.

After that, a board decides who should be admitted. The seminary sends out letters, inviting those who were accepted to attend another retreat in May.

“In the first retreat, we choose,” Father Rasmy says. “In the second one, they are the ones who decide to continue or to withdraw. Some discover they do not fit into this kind of life.”

Such a life can be difficult and demanding.

“Life today now has many challenges, beside the prevalence of agnosticism and atheism. If the clergyman is not prepared, he will not succeed in his mission,” says the former rector of the seminary, the Rev. Shenouda Shafik, the priest now heads the Institute of Religious Sciences in Cairo.

“This is why they have to study for eight years. The educational system in Egypt depends on memorizing. It takes us time to help the students, to form them, to help them meet all the challenges.”

When Mr. Maher returned to his job in the United Arab Emirates, he informed his supervisors that he was planning to leave his job to become a Catholic priest. One of his bosses, a Sunni Muslim, tried to convince him to stay; another one, a Shiite Muslim, encouraged him to go. A third man, a Buddhist from India, asked him to pray for him.

His job was not the only important part of his life he had to leave behind; at the time he decided to join the seminary, he was engaged. Breaking up with his fiancée, he says, was the most difficult thing he had to do.

“It was hard,” he explains, “because I was choosing between two loves.”

But he says she made it easier for him — she not only accepted his choice, but she even encouraged and supported him.

His family, however, was another matter. Back home, Mr. Maher’s mother and father tried repeatedly to convince him he was making a mistake. They wanted their son to marry and have children.

After months of disagreement, they came to realize the young man had already made up his mind; he would not budge. Finally, they gave him their blessing.

“Now, I feel that my family is happy that I made this choice,” he says. “They are proud they can give one of the family to the consecrated life.”

Mr. Maher believes the time he spent in the secular world before he entered the seminary was useful. “These experiences helped me,” he explains. “Now, I do not say ‘If only I had worked or had money or had a romantic relationship, I would have been happier.’ I have already experienced that. And I’m happier now.”

Al Wasta is located about six miles from the city of Assiut, some 230 miles south of Cairo. It is an island in the Nile. The town has some 40,000 people, about 7,000 of whom are Christian. The village has only one church: Virgin Mary Coptic Catholic Church.

Al Wasta is a place Mr. Maher knows well. It is the village he calls home.

One day, he meets us at the Assiut Railway Station and drives us to his home. At the entrance of the village, a friend of his, Deacon Boutros Yousef Yacoub, 31, is waiting for us. On our way to the seminarian’s home we collect another friend, Gergis Attia, 29, a secondary-school English teacher.

We pass through a gate into a compound of several older houses; all belong to the extended family of the Rev. Stephanos Gergis, who is pastor of the parish, which his family had built. The pastor has known the aspiring priest for most of his life.

“Since his childhood, Amir regularly attended and served in the church,” Father Gergis says. “Amir told me, ‘I will not serve the world. I want to serve only God.’ He left everything and has started to do that.”

Mr. Maher’s friends thought it would be difficult for him to leave his job and return to Egypt to become a priest.

“Amir’s decision to join the seminary was unexpected,” Mr. Attia says. “But Amir has clear and organized thinking. When he has a goal, he follows every step to reach it. He does not like to show off. He puts God in his life strongly, which is why I think he will be a good shepherd.”

The seminarian has two older married brothers; one of them now lives in Canada. His father is a retired civil servant and his mother is a retired teacher. They live in a newly built house. The family also owns some land and houses that belong to his uncles.

But none of that seems to interest the young man; when he visits the village on vacations, his parents say, he spends most of the time in the church.

“He does not do anything but church,” says Maher Gad Al Rab Zakhary, his father. “When he comes to visit, he does not have time for us to enjoy sitting with him. All his time and thinking is at the church. I tried to dissuade him for three months but this way has been in his mind since an early age.”

His son, he says, has always had a generous heart.

“In school,” he adds, “he always shared his meals with his friends.”

His mother, Nagat Ghatas, points to her son with pride. She sees in him not only a young man of faith, but also a figure of hope — one who might lead others on a better path.

“We are glad that he chose to be close to God,” she says. “Because he takes us closer to God.”

To meet Amir Maher is to meet the future of Christian Egypt — a young person who is embarking on a path he hopes will help carry the faith to others during a challenging moment in his country’s history. He knows his journey is just beginning. But he believes in his heart he is ready — and he is certain the choice he has made is part of God’s will for his life.

“I feel that God was preparing me a long time ago for this,” he says simply.

Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is a Middle East correspondent for the The Telegraph. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy and a number of other journals.

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