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.
People today are troubled. They lack a sense of security and stability. Those who suffer the trauma of death are in dire need of assistance and accompaniment. For Catholics, the sacraments can provide a source of grace, comfort, consolation and healing. However, the role of the priest as a shepherd in attending to the needs of his flock requires more than just an understanding of the nature of the sacraments, but also a well-rounded humanity.
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.
Given these challenges, our formators believe it is crucial to take a psychological approach. Supporting and strengthening self-awareness among priest candidates has become a primary concern for the seminary. Therefore, the seminary employs a psychologist who helps seminarians learn more about their personality, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, and who addresses important topics, such as leadership, human relationships, self-confidence, generosity, thoughtfulness and maturity. The psychologist helps seminarians examine their attachments and traumas, as well as any tendencies toward excessive rigidity, and accompanies them in their healing. This training is aimed at helping the seminarian enter his parish community with the ability to adapt to varying circumstances, handle hardships and conflicts with sensitivity, and exercise sound judgment.
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.
The needs of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church today are shifting, especially in its historic core of Lebanon and Syria, from which a huge number of parishioners are emigrating and establishing new parishes in Western countries — namely in Europe and North America. Accordingly, the priest should be ready to accommodate these needs, with their respective challenges, and should be prepared to learn foreign languages and the culture of the host countries.
Another challenge for the future of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Middle East is the migration of youth, which also directly impacts vocations to the priesthood. Overall, the challenges of recruiting young men for the priesthood have been significant in these times of war and economic collapse.
During the war in Syria, fewer men than usual have been entering the seminary, as Christian villages and communities have been subject to military activities, looting, massacres and displacement. Potential priest candidates have faced emergencies and have had to care for their families to ensure their physical and economic security. Many young men who lost family members have had to take on greater family responsibilities and forego the seminary. And with the present socioeconomic crisis in Lebanon, a young man’s priority is to care for his family.
Understanding the value of the Christian community in the Middle East is something we instill among our priest candidates, so they can work to encourage Christians to remain in their homeland. But the church respects the faithful in their choice of whether to stay or go. Whatever they choose, the church wants to be close to them, to serve and accompany them socially and spiritually.