Greek-Melkite seminarians at prayer. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Maronite seminarian listen attentively to their American guest. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Aspiring Carmelite seminarian-musicians. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Msgr. Stern addresses the seminarians at the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary while Mr. Issam Bishara, Director of our Beirut office, translates and Bishop Paul Mattar, then Patriarchal Vicar, listens in. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Greek-Melkite students at St. Anne’s Seminary not only study, but wash dishes too. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
also dishes. They supervise youth camps, offer counsel and chant. They do all this while pursuing a life of spirituality and prayer as they prepare themselves for ministry as priests in the Greek-Melkite, Latin, Maronite and Syrian Catholic churches of Lebanon. Each church has its own history and traditions, the sources of their strength and spirituality. But as individualistic as each is in liturgy and community, their commitment to Jesus Christ binds them firmly together. In no area does this unity show a stronger presence than in the seminaries, where teaching faculties and facilities are shared among the four churches.
Beautiful in location and architecture, the seminaries are situated high in the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains. They face west toward Lebanons ancient Mediterranean coast. A thousand years before Christ this coast was dotted with Phoenician city-states. From these shores sailed the commercial fleets of the Phoenicians, loaded with the products of their land: fresh olives and olive oil, cedar wood, golden grains and the most important seed of all, the first alphabet.
Respect for the written and spoken word is well represented in the courses at the seminaries. The need and desire to communicate with the West dictates a knowledge of English and French. For Maronite and Syrian Catholic seminarians, lessons in Syriani, or Syriac, the liturgical language of their churches, are challenges all have to meet. Lessons are given after a hearty lunch and a short rest. Well-fortified, the seminarians face their Syriac tutor. Blackboard and photocopied text ready, its a matter of let the pain begin.
A student is directed to read a passage. The tutor frowns and judges: Five mistakes. Another seminarian tries. Seven mistakes, the tutor charges before setting a good example. Good-natured groans bear witness to the difficulty of this ancient tongue, akin to the language Christ spoke.
For three Iraqi seminarians studying under the Carmelite fathers, the first language challenge has been to understand and speak Lebanese Arabic. There is a gulf of difference between the two dialects. These seminarians will have to learn French as well because the Latin Catholic Church in Lebanon is historically French oriented. English too is required as a working tool for the priesthood.
But the study of languages is an anticipated challenge. For some of Lebanons seminarians the first hurdle came unexpectedly when they told their families they wanted to become priests. The Arabic word majnuun, or crazy, came up more than once from some families and friends. One seminarian said that even after being in the program for over two years, he is still asked, Are you really happy?
Some come from families of engineers or doctors. When one son broke the mold by not following familial footsteps there was a cry of objection. In another case there was a lot of discussion when not one but two brothers entered the seminary. One family offered land with high commercial potential to their seminarian-to-be in hopes he would catch the entrepreneurial spirit.
Fortunately for many of the young men their families support their decision and most report that in time families and friends accept and even admire their commitment. No one appreciates them more than the churches themselves. In the Maronite Church, 70 of the 115 priests presently serving in Beirut are over the age of 60.
These young men already find themselves in a society very different from the one their priests faced as young clergy. The youth of postwar Lebanon have an often indiscriminate hunger for Western pleasures and values. For some, money is fast and easy. Seminarians ask rhetorically if Christians like these will respect the clergy and the teachings of the church.
Equally challenging work lies at the other end of the economic scale, with the impoverished of the Christian community. Thousands displaced by war still live as refugees in their own country. They need housing, jobs and schooling for their children. They need the reassurance of the church and its clergy. What answers will these priests of the future have for these impoverished refugees?
Todays seminarians are war babies, born in the mid-70s when Lebanon fell prey to 16 years of civil and regional strife. Many know the hardships their parishioners have survived; most have experienced their own. The three Iraqi students suffered through the 1991 Gulf War as well as the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. With all commercial flights into and out of Baghdad still banned, these students had to leave Iraq by land. Crossing Jordan, they should have continued through Syria, but because Syria does not recognize the Iraqi regime they had to fly into Beirut from Jordan.
As communal as their lives are, living quarters provide each seminarian with a single room in which to study, meditate and do some soul-searching. Not all those who begin finish the six-year course. And everyone has a moment or two of doubt. The energies of the young seminarians need to be harnessed. All must learn that neither a single priest nor a seminary of clergy can cure the ills of the country.
An example of this truth is seen from the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchate at Raboueh, a short distance from Beirut. Once, the view across the valley offered a spiritual experience. The deep folds of the mountains gradually softened into a verdant coastal plain that gave way to the blue sea. The sunsets were golden and glorious.
But developers, hungry for profits, quarried fold after fold of the limestone mountains to make the multi-story apartment blocks that interrupt the skyline and sunsets of Lebanons cities and towns. The patriarchate shakes each day with the noontime explosions at the quarry. After enough explosions, cracks appeared in the walls.
Complaints are lodged, but not heard. The explosions continue. This generation of seminarians will need to speak out about the threats to Lebanons environment and the misapplication of Gods mandate to humanity.
Other issues wait in the wings of the countrys parliament. Civil marriage, still not allowed in Lebanon but scheduled for discussion among the countrys lawmakers, will also require some serious dialogue among the Christian churches and with the countrys Muslim and Druze communities as well. All the seminarians study Islam both as a religion and as a philosophy. Several of the seminaries have centers that sponsor Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Music plays an important part in the lives of the seminarians and those with talent or interest are encouraged to develop it. Several who play the guitar use it in their pastoral work. The Carmelite seminarians take formal courses in music and, as part of their tradition, learn Gregorian chant.
At each seminary I was greeted with enthusiasm. The rectors, staff and seminarians were warm and welcoming. Sharing a meal with the rectors and seminarians made conversation easy. And inevitably we uncovered some connection to places or persons we had in common.
For Lebanons seminarians there is much to learn on their way to becoming priests. Cooperation and camaraderie are daily lessons that take many forms including the doing of dishes. Pastoral work includes counseling and community service as well as visiting prisoners. Summer breaks are spent helping out in the seminarians home parishes. One Syrian seminarian spent the summer building a church in a small community outside Damascus. More typically the seminarians staff summer camps and Bible schools.
As for doing windows, the kind these seminarians do are on the computer, all part of the modern approach to doing Gods work.
Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Beirut, has returned to Wisconsin after an extensive trip to Lebanon in December.