Coptic Catholic seminarians at St. Leo’s take a variety of courses, academic and practical. (photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)
The Rector of St. Leo’s, Father Ibrahim Sedrak, celebrates the Divine Liturgy in the seminary chapel. (photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)
A seminarian, his arm tattooed with a Coptic cross, listens to a lecture. (photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)
In addition to academics, silence, reflection and prayer are central to the priestly formation program at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Patriarchal Seminary. (photo: Mohammed El-Dakhakhny)
I have always wanted to study here so that I could spend my life serving the church, says 24-year-old Akram Lahazy, a student at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Patriarchal Seminary in Cairo.
This has always been my dream.
Akram is one of about 70 young men studying to become priests at St. Leos, the only theologate serving all of Egypts Catholic churches. Tucked away in Maadi, a quiet residential suburb of Cairo, it is a picturesque complex of buildings surrounded by high walls and towering elm trees.
Inside, the halls of St. Leos buzz with activity. Seminarians study theology, philosophy and English. They listen intently as guest lecturers speak about pressing social issues and once a week they play impromptu games of soccer in the yard.
Most of the seminarians are Egyptian, though there are a few Sudanese students and an occasional Syrian.
Teachers at St. Leos call their lively students the future spiritual guides of a dwindling Catholic community beset with rapid social change, crushing economic pressures and, in many cases, an uncertain future.
Seminary graduates, however, say St. Leos opens up religious and academic horizons for future priests who are sure to face difficult tasks in the years ahead. More important, the broad education they receive with an emphasis on social work and community action gives them hope for the future. As a result, the seminarians time is precious and their academic schedules are correspondingly rigorous.
Father Antonius Fayez, who directs the seminarians spiritual program and teaches theology during the school year, says the first two years of study are mostly introductory. Students receive their first taste of serious biblical study at this time, but more emphasis is placed on the social adjustments the seminarians must learn to make.
At this time, we try to help them make the transition from family to communal life, he says.
It is hard for some students to do this because Egyptians have such strong family ties.
Next comes the most crucial period in forming the seminarians spiritual personality. They study sociology, psychology, philosophy and history for the next two years.
Then comes three years of theological study, a term of mandatory military service required by the Egyptian government and a term of social work in the community.
In addition to its significant support for the seminary, CNEWA sponsors, every summer, an intensive English study program for the seminarians. Students study English throughout their first four years at St. Leos. They are free to pursue their language studies personally after that time.
The aim of studying English is not just to learn another language, explains Sister Pina De Angelis, who teaches in the rigorous summer program.
For the seminarians, it is a tool to learn more about other cultures and other parts of the world.
She likes to point out that many of the students academic subjects especially moral theology require research in English.
Akram Lahazy is one of the students whose English has improved the most, thanks to the summer program. Although he had no experience with it before entering St. Leos, he now enjoys conversing in the language.
Someday I hope to work in academia, he says, explaining how important languages are to his future studies.
However, learning English is only the first of the challenges the graduates will have to face. Father Ibrahim Sedrak, the Rector of St. Leos, spoke at length about the future roles of his seminarians.
Now, the church concentrates on social services more than ever before, he says, tapping the arm of his wooden chair.
And most of our graduates eventually return to the towns they come from, where they provide important social services no one else offers.
They are difficult tasks, he concludes, but certainly important ones.
The instructors of St. Leos are especially proud of one recent graduate from the southern city of Minya, who returned to his economically depressed community to set up an aid program in the citys prisons.
A spirit of social activism is a key component of St. Leos curriculum. Father Youssef, an administrator and student advisor, says teachers try to encourage future priests to think about the roles they would like to play after ordination.
It is a question for every member of the clergy, he states.
Should one limit his priestly ministry to liturgy or, as a priest, play a greater role in the Christian and Muslim communities?
Those who play such a role do not go unnoticed by impressionable seminarians.
The [Catholic pastor] of Minya is interested in everyone, both Muslim and Christian, 30-year-old Boulous Shawki says.
He always tries to help people to make their lives easier. That includes everything from sponsoring cultural events to fighting illiteracy and helping the poor.
In fact, many students enter the seminary because they admire the roles their local priests play in the community.
In an Egyptian village, who are the most important figures? asks Father Magdi Zaki, who finished his studies at St. Leos in 1987.
The governor, the chief of police, the local sheikh and, of course, the priest.
A priest plays an invaluable social role, not to mention his spiritual one, he continues.
And in this country, there is still room for members of the clergy to make a significant difference in the community.
Seminarians are also encouraged to reach out and make contact with other religious groups.
St. Leos sponsors everything from conferences to soccer games with various Christian churches. The seminarys instructors believe that Egypts many Christian denominations should cooperate more in social services for the collective good of the Egyptian community.
Good relations with Muslims are also encouraged. Seminarians are well aware that positive contact and dialogue are absolutely necessary to foster an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance.
The staff also invites guest lecturers usually university professors to speak to the seminarians about important academic topics and pressing social issues.
Seminarians know, for example, that they will be faced with demographic challenges as they try to care for their future parishes.
Experts estimate that most of Egypts population of 60 million lives on only five percent of the countrys land. Even now, Egyptians are searching for new places to settle, far away from the overcrowded communities clustered around the cities, especially around Cairo.
As this happens, some cities and neighborhoods will be without churches, Father Antonius worries.
Parish priests will have to travel more to reach their congregations.
New churches are rarely built in Egypt, where in some provinces presidential permission is required even for simple repairs. Still the seminarians at St. Leos, though aware of the difficulties they will face, seem eager and ready to meet the challenges of the future.
People trust priests. They believe priests have the answers to everything, Father Antonius says, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up to see more clearly.
The priesthood is a very serious responsibility.
But no matter what challenges Egypt faces in the future, Coptic Catholics say, St. Leos graduates will shine.
The seminary is the heart of our church, Father Magdi explains. If the heart of our church is good, then all the rest will be good.
Jessica Jones, a freelance writer formerly based in Cairo, has relocated to Washington, D.C.