ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

To Be a Priest in the Holy Land

Arab Catholics pursue their call to priesthood

On a frigid Sunday morning in January, Sleiman Hassan stands in the center of the beautiful but unheated St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Jifna, a village in the West Bank 14 miles north of Jerusalem. The 24–year–old seminarian rubs his hands together before leading the church’s small choir in prayer — his cassock does little to keep him warm.

Following Mass, Mr. Hassan assembles more than a dozen children in the church’s front pews and explains, in simple language, the finer points of the Eucharist. The tall and slender young man smiles often and effortlessly.

Ten minutes later, he rushes to the parish’s simple multipurpose hall. There, an elderly parishioner hands out hot coffee. Taking his place next to Father Firas Aridah, the parish’s affable young pastor, the seminarian warmly greets the village’s more than 400 Catholics.

“I plan to do pastoral work and I’m preparing myself for the needs of the people,” says Mr. Hassan, a native of Jordan, who attends the Latin Patriarchal Seminary in Beit Jala, a town adjacent to Bethlehem.

“I’ve learned that life isn’t easy here, but the fact that it’s complicated challenges me to find new ways to help people and address their suffering.”

Not until shortly before noon does Mr. Hassan take a break from his duties and rest a little before tackling the three–hour drive back to the seminary.

“It’s a shorter trip by private car, but seminarians travel in public taxis through the checkpoints with other people,” explains Father Aridah, himself a 2000 graduate of the seminary. “It’s important the seminarians experience the life and difficulties of the people. It makes them better priests.”

Established in 1852 — five years after the restoration of the modern Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Pope Pius IX — the seminary has graduated 267 priests since, including the first Palestinian Latin archbishop of Jerusalem, Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, and the first Jordanian, Patriarch Fouad Twal. Administered and staffed by the Latin patriarchate, the seminary receives significant financial support from the Catholic world, primarily through the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem as well as direct assistance from parishes and individuals worldwide.

Perched on a hill that affords its residents and visitors a panoramic view of Bethlehem, the striking stone structure includes a minor seminary for secondary school teenagers interested in the priesthood and a major seminary for men in academic and spiritual formation. The seminary is the only center of priestly formation in the patriarchate, which serves the Latin Catholic faithful in Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Palestine, some 100,000 people.

The grounds include a basketball court and a soccer field while the facility has a computer lab, a music room and a recreational hall with a television, DVD player and Ping–Pong table.

“We don’t cut off our students from the world,” says Father Adib Zoomot, the seminary’s rector. “They know what goes on outside these walls.”

Throughout the historic center of the Middle East — Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria — the number of Arab Christians is dwindling. Decades of war and economic stagnation have prompted widespread and disproportionately Christian emigration. In Israel and Palestine, respectively, Christians represent less than 2 percent of the total population, and in Jordan, up to 6 percent. Emigration has been most dramatic in Gaza and the West Bank, which combined have lost more than 35 percent of their Christian population since 1967.

Even with an ever–shrinking pool of local candidates for the priesthood, the Latin Patriarchal seminary stays true to its mission to form local priests for Arab Catholics in the Holy Land or in one of the patriarchate’s three Arabic–language parishes in the United States.

“Many Arab Christians, when they leave the Holy Land and emigrate, ask for Arab priests,” explains the rector. “We also send up to three newly ordained priests to Rome to study for a doctorate. Later, they become teachers, often in the seminary.”

Almost all of its students grew up in the Holy Land; about three–quarters in Jordan and a quarter in Palestine. And enrollment is at an all–time high — 29 men in the major seminary.

“The number of our students is growing,” Father Zoomot says proudly. “The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is strong and our seminary has always flourished. Last year, we had to build 10 more rooms. We are the living stones, the mother church, and young men continue to feel the calling.”

The Latin Patriarchal Seminary carefully screens its students to ensure they understand the commitment and sacrifice their priestly vocation requires.

A love for Christ and commitment to service are obvious prerequisites. But the seminary’s faculty also looks for and develops other attributes in its students.

“To become a priest, a seminarian must be intelligent and have common sense. He should display leadership and be honest, generous and ready to sacrifice. He should also have the Christian virtues of forgiveness, obedience and detachment from materialism. And he must accept celibacy willingly,” says the rector. Though full of love, he adds, the road to the priesthood is long and the faculty’s scrutiny, intense.

“For us, being a priest is a special vocation from God, and our task is to help them become the good priests God wants them to be,” the rector continues. “On average, students live here 12 to 13 years and we’re able to follow them spiritually, intellectually and personally. You must follow someone a long time to judge whether he is fit to be a priest. A priest has to be able to deal well with people, to be a man of dialogue, a man of service, a man of understanding, of credibility, open and accepting of everyone.

“The final demand is that he must be happy in his vocation,” Father Zoomot says. “If he isn’t happy, then it’s not a good fit.”

The faculty and staff also keep an eye out for any indications of behavioral disorders that have sadly plagued the church elsewhere, in particular, the abuse of children.

“We’re aware of the problems outside the Holy Land,” says Father Zoomot in an unwavering voice. “Thank God we haven’t had any such problems, and until now we have never heard anything amiss about our clergy. If we have any doubts about a student, for whatever reason, he is asked to leave or leaves of his own accord. Seminarians are free to leave at any time.”

The rector attributes the absence of abuse among the patriarchate’s priests to Arab society’s traditional values — which are linked closely to family pride — as well as the seminary’s stringent screening process.

“We know that if we do something wrong, it will reflect on our entire family,” explains the priest. “It should also be said that Arabs are a very expressive people. We embrace each other. Now we pay more attention to ensure we do nothing that could be misinterpreted.

“Priests are not perfect,” Father Zoomot admits. “We continue to work on ourselves, always.”

Minor seminarians typically board at the school for up to five years. For the most part, they follow the Palestinian secondary school curriculum, which is similar to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s curriculum, though both differ significantly from the program in Israel.

Major seminarians study at the institution for up to eight years, beginning with a preparatory year of discernment, followed by two years of philosophy and four years of theology. In the preparatory year, students study the French language, which serves alongside Arabic as the program’s languages of instruction. In subsequent years, they also study English, Hebrew, Italian and Latin.

“They need Hebrew to read the holy Scriptures, and afterward, as priests, to communicate with Israelis,” Father Zoomot explains.

Throughout their tenure at the seminary in Beit Jala, the young men work with the local community on a regular basis — usually on weekends at local parishes.

“This way, they learn the mentalities of different people, which changes from one village or town to the next,” says Jifna’s Father Aridah about the seminary’s community service component.

“Sleiman Hassan is working with the young people, 15 to 18 years old, and also with university students,” continues the priest. “They can relate to him because he is young and acts as a role model. It is good to have good witnesses who can influence the young.”

During the seventh year, students’ weekly community service takes center stage. Each seminarian is placed in a local parish where he lives, assists the pastor and experiences life as a priest over an extended period. When the students return to the seminary, they study theology intensively for a final year before graduating and, ultimately, ordination.

As did many of his fellow seminarians, Sleiman Hassan first felt the call to the priesthood as a child, largely due to priests who served his family parish in Jordan.

“My late uncle, Father Rafiq, was a priest and I idolized him,” Mr. Hassan recalls. “He died in 1999 from cancer, and I was touched by the way he lived — and the way he died.”

Issa Shomali, in contrast, hesitated to become a priest because he witnessed firsthand how demanding the priesthood is. The 24–year–old comes from a prominent Catholic family in the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Sahour. One of his relatives, Bishop William Shomali, is the seminary’s former rector and now serves as an auxiliary bishop and patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine.

“Initially, I attended the seminary because my friends were here,” admits Mr. Shomali.

Most of the students in major seminary graduated from the institution’s minor seminary. Some attended parochial or public high schools and a few graduated from college before enrolling at the seminary.

One such student is 23–year–old Tamer Al–Massadeh from Jordan. He attended a Catholic high school then went on to college.

“I have a B.A. in computer engineering and worked for several months before deciding to pursue my priestly vocation,” Mr. Al–Massadeh explains. “People saw it as a big change, but for me it was the natural thing to do. My cousin Wissam is a priest and I admire him.”

Currently a first–year student, he finds some aspects of seminary life challenging.

“Waking up so early in the morning, being on a very strict schedule, not being able to control the way things are can be challenging. But I love it all the same,” Mr. Al–Massadeh adds.

“I doubt myself sometimes,” he admits, though stressing he never doubts his calling. “Before going to university, I ignored my true path. I had strong career ambitions. But, I fear I’ll become weak, that I may not be strong enough to be a priest.”

Bernard Poggi, the only Latin Catholic seminarian from outside the Middle East, also followed an unconventional path to the priesthood. A college graduate and former office manager at a distribution company in northern California, the San Francisco native felt his calling while serving as the secretary to Msgr. Labib Kobti, the founding pastor of the Arab Catholic parish in northern California.

“Slowly, my job changed into a spiritual role. I became a eucharistic minister, tending to the sick, serving at Mass, all the while studying at San Francisco State University.”

Around the time Msgr. Kobti became seriously ill, Mr. Poggi discerned his calling.

“I realized my time away from the church wasn’t as fulfilling as my life centered around the church. I felt I had to come home,” the 29–year–old adds. Mr. Poggi chose the Latin Patriarchal Seminary in Beit Jala for its traditional and rigorous program as well as its proximity to Christianity’s holiest sites.

“It’s incredible to study the Bible and theology in the place where it all happened,” says Mr. Poggi, his voice full of wonder.

All but one of the 29 major seminarians intend on serving as priests of the Latin Patriarchate. Tony Hayoun, the seminary’s only Israeli and Melkite Greek Catholic, plans on entering a monastic brotherhood upon graduation.

Ever since the end of high school, Mr. Hayoun has felt a calling to be a monk.

“My parents said, ‘Enough of this craziness,’ and I went to college,” recalls the 22–year–old.

With an undergraduate degree in business, Mr. Hayoun easily landed a good job at Tnuva, a large Israeli company. But in early 2010, he felt once again a calling to the religious life.

“I had a problem. The Melkite Greek Catholic seminary is in Lebanon, but as an Israeli citizen I couldn’t go to Lebanon.”

As an alternative, Mr. Hayoun enrolled at the Latin Patriarchal Seminary to pursue his vocation. And though he does not share his fellow students’ wishes to serve as parish priests, he feels nothing but camaraderie with them.

“We’re all friends, brothers,” he says, smiling.

These seminarians live in a holy land at the center of a conflict zone, the realities of which affect them on a daily basis.

“Living in an occupied country, the seminarians experience the difficulties of occupation,” explains Father Zoomot. “We’re always scrambling for entry visas back into Israel, permits to move from here to there. There are roadblocks.”

Still, these young men see themselves as disciples of Christ, as peacemakers and as bridge builders. And as members of the region’s declining Christian community, they are also acutely aware that their future roles as priests will help ensure its continued existence.

“Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, but it’s difficult sometimes,” confesses Munir Bassam Khader, a 17–year–old student in the minor seminary from the Palestinian city of Jenin — a place that has seen more than its share of bloodshed.

“From Jesus’ words we know we are not to use violence. Peaceful resistance, but no violence,” continues the youth.

“People ask me how I can live in Israel,” adds Mr. Hayoun. “I tell them I was born there, my parents were born there and their parents were born there. I tell them we all have to find the good in others.”

These students’ words of peace are encouraging to Father Zoomot.

“It is a special privilege to serve in the place where Jesus announced the Gospel,” says Father Zoomot. “Our seminarians know this.”

Contributors Michele Chabin and Debbie Hill live and work in Jerusalem.

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