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.
Once they have completed formation, these men are ordained as celibate priests to serve one of the eight eparchies of the Coptic Catholic Church, a small community of fewer than 200,000 people who belong to a much larger Christian family in Egypt, or for religious life, such as the Franciscans. Some of these priests will eventually serve Coptic Catholic parishes abroad. Married men who seek ordination in the Coptic Catholic Church and other lay faithful study theology at another institution located in the Sakanini district of Cairo.
Ethnic Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, a term that derives from the Greek “Aigyptios,” meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They received the Gospel from St. Mark, who in the middle of the first century preached in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world. Today, Copts form the largest Christian community in the eastern Mediterranean, embracing more than 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 105 million. Catholic Copts share the ancient Alexandrian rite of the much larger Coptic Orthodox Church, even as they remain in full communion with the Church of Rome.
St. Leo Seminary follows the curriculum of the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, although it also teaches the Coptic language and liturgy particular to the patriarchal church.
“Every religious sect has an identity,” says Father Abram Maher Fahmy, head of the theology department and vice dean of the seminary. “The identity of the Coptic Catholic Church, which we develop in priestly formation, is the identity of Jesus the Good Shepherd.”
The process of preparing a seminarian for the priesthood is not limited to academics, he adds.
“When we talk about priestly formation, we are talking about formation in five dimensions: the human, the spiritual, the academic, the social and finally the pastoral dimension,” he explains. “My role as an instructor is to be a father, a brother and a friend to seminarians.”
Father Fahmy accompanies each seminarian in his formation, encouraging him to grow into the image of the priest “that the church expects of him,” he says.
Bishop Thomas Adly of the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Giza, Fayoum and Beni Suef was previously rector of the seminary. He says seminary instructors, too, need ongoing formation.
“Formation of seminarians is an important and serious responsibility that needs continuous development of the instructors, because the nature of the youth being trained changes year after year as a result of the rapidly changing system of values in society,” the bishop says.
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 peaceful place with spacious rooms for study and prayer and outdoor gardens for relaxation and reflection.
The rector, Father Bishoy Rasmy, notes that CNEWA subsidizes the expenses for largely everything, from the academic program to daily living expenses for seminarians, as well as salaries for 25 lecturers — clergy and lay people — and 23 support staff, who provide library, secretarial, cooking, cleaning and gardening services.
“CNEWA covers maintenance costs for the building, which are carried out annually,” adds Father Rasmy. “The place here is very large, with the capacity to house 100 people. Plus, it has a soccer field, a volleyball field and four churches — the main one and four small chapels.”
When Father Fahmy entered the seminary in 1993, 23 men had applied and 10 were selected to start their first year. At the time, the total number of seminarians at the various stages of formation was 60. Some 30 years later, only nine men applied to enter the seminary and the total enrollment is now 38. Of these, seven belong to either the Carmelite, Dominican or Franciscan communities.
Six men will graduate this year. Three were ordained priests by the time of publication. The others will be ordained later this year. The number of seminarians continues to decrease, however, especially since the start of the second millennium, says Father Fahmy.
“The shortage of priestly vocations is a crisis at the level of the church worldwide,” adds Father Bishoy. “In Egypt, we have not reached this stage yet. If we calculate the ratio of priests to the number of Catholics, we will find the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt has sufficient vocations.”
The seminarians follow a rigorous schedule. Their day starts at 6:30 a.m. After a period of prayer and liturgy, they have breakfast. Classes begin at 9 a.m. and end at 1:15 p.m., when they break for lunch. The afternoons are dedicated to study or other formation activities.
“We don’t see our families as much as we see each other in the seminary,” says seminarian Fadi Fayek Mourid, 25, who is in his second year of philosophy studies.
“We live a fraternal life, whether in the classroom or the living room. We eat meals together. We pray together. We are companions.”
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.
Those who are selected are invited to a second retreat for a week of prayer, when they decide whether to continue or to withdraw.
Fadi’s parents were not surprised when he told them he wanted to enter seminary. They rather expected it. Holy Family Church in Fayoum, located about 62 miles southwest of Cairo, where Fadi grew up, has been at the core of his life for many years. He served his parish as a cantor and altar server and taught Coptic hymns to youth and Sunday school children.
But his relatives reproached his parents for not stopping him from pursuing his call to seminary. Fadi is the only son in his family, and the custom in Upper Egypt is for the only son to bear the responsibility of marrying and having children to carry on the family name.
“Joining the seminary was a call from God,” says Fadi, who explains that he discerned this call through prayer, the liturgy and “carefully reading all my life’s path to see God’s will.”
He had thought about the priesthood during his university studies in the faculty of arts.
“But I postponed it,” he says. “After graduation, the voice of our Lord was clearer and clearer to me, ‘Come, follow me.’ ”
Fadi, who is in formation for the Eparchy of Giza, Fayoum and Beni Suef, says his goal when he becomes a priest will be to draw young people back to the church. Social media leads young people away from the church, he says, because they do not see what the liturgical life has to do with their personal, daily reality.
He wants to explain the connection, he says. All of life’s activities must be linked with “the person of Christ.”
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.
Before joining the seminary seven years ago, Milad Gamil from Abu Qurqas, about 186 miles south of Cairo, had earned an Industrial Secondary School Diploma.
“My personality has changed greatly since I joined the seminary through the long path of formation at all levels, and this was evident in refining my personality and gaining knowledge, which will help me later in my life as a priest,” says Milad, who is studying for the Eparchy of Abu Qurqas.
“I had a passion to live for God in the service of people,” says Milad, referring to his discernment process. “Our primary calling is to holiness like Jesus, to walk in holiness through all the activities and services offered by the church.”
“Every year there is something new in our formation, with the goal of preparing us to be servants after graduation,” he adds. “We sit with the instructors and discuss what we need. Sometimes we invite people, whether priests or development workers, to pass on their experiences to us.”
The seminary’s program of study is divided into three stages over seven years. The introductory stage lasts one year and focuses on language acquisition, namely of English, French or Arabic.
The second stage is two years of philosophy studies, focused on ancient Greek, Christian, Islamic and contemporary philosophy. Seminarians also study psychology and sociology.
Four years of theology follow, including the Coptic theological and liturgical tradition. At this stage, seminarians may wear clerical garb and engage in pastoral services in one of the nearby parishes on Fridays. While the first three years of theology comprise in-class learning, the fourth year is spent in a pastoral internship, preparing a research paper and studying for a comprehensive exam.
Men belonging to religious congregations fulfill the first two stages of formation within their communities and only join the seminary for theological studies. They do not reside at the seminary, but return to their communities at the end of the day.
Despite the seminary’s heavy academic formation, seminarians are not assessed on academics alone.
“The role of the seminary is not to evaluate its students, but to form them,” says Bishop Adly.
“There is a difference between evaluation and formation,” he continues. “Formation means I have the patience to move [seminarians] from one level to another, so they grow every day. I have the patience to see them pressuring themselves to make things right and so on. This entails a comprehensive system in the daily life of the seminary.”
No candidate is excluded because of academics, says Father Abram.
“For us, the main obstacle is the extent of a seminarian’s acceptance of the formation, the extent of his commitment, whether he is reactive and able to live joyfully, whether he has peace,” he explains. “Anxiety and the lack of peace are indicators of not completing the path.”
On the last day of classes, before Easter break, seminarians gather in a classroom to support one of their colleagues, Franciscan Brother Samer Masoud, O.F.M., in his thesis defense, required for graduation and ordination. Some are wearing clerical garb. Others wear civilian clothes. Still others don the distinctive brown Franciscan habit. Three clerics make up the evaluation committee.
At the end of the defense, the audience files out of the classroom to allow the evaluation committee to deliberate in private. After a short while, Brother Samer and his peers are invited back into the classroom to hear the committee’s decision: The thesis is accepted.
The audience applauds and congratulates Brother Samer, not only for his thesis but for the near completion of his studies and his readiness for ministry.
“My research topic, entitled ‘Jesus Christ the Life,’ is based on the Gospel of John,” says Brother Samer, who developed his research under the supervision of Bishop Adly and who chose a topic he thought would benefit his future ministry among young people.
“I have noticed the value of life is not clear to young people,” he says.
Brother Samer expects to be ordained this year and then assigned a specific service among his order’s many activities, whether in a school, a clinic or other spiritual work.
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.”
Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is the Egypt correspondent for The Times of London. His work also has been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN, Foreign Policy and other journals.
The CNEWA Connection
The small number of Coptic Catholics in Egypt does not impede its priests, religious and faithful from living out the Gospel by serving their local communities in health care, education and a variety of social and pastoral services. For nearly 70 years, St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary has been forming men to shepherd not just their small flock, but all of the people of God, regardless of creed.
Consider sponsoring a seminarian. Your support of this good work helps the church in its efforts to evangelize and live the Gospel.
To support seminarians and other aspects of our mission in Egypt, go to: https://cnewa.org/campaigns/egypt/