ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

True to Themselves, Building on Their Faith

Coptic Catholics might be a minority anywhere, but they know themselves and fervently express their faith through their communities.

From Alexandria, Egypt, the ancient seat of the Coptic Catholic Church, Patriarch Stephanos II is working to develop, strengthen, and, in some instances, reestablish the connections between Egyptians around the globe and the faith of their homeland.

It is a difficult labor. Priests from Egypt have been sent to such faraway places as Montreal, Canada; Sydney, Australia; and Brooklyn, New York. In June 1989, the new Coptic Catholic community of Los Angeles will receive its first full-time priest. Besides the daunting and unavoidable challenges of loneliness and overwork, these missionaries necessarily act as religious, cultural, and psychological bridges to the old country for hundreds of people of all ages. To all the emigrants, they are a bit of Egypt in the new world; to the older folk, a welcome extension of home.

But the eyes of the patriarch and his church are not set solely on the horizon. In a country where they are a minority within a minority – Egypt is a predominantly Islamic nation, and the Coptic Orthodox church is the larger of the two main Christian churches – there is a small but thriving community to be cared for.

As in most nations with a Catholic presence, the Church spends large amounts of time, money, and effort – both religious and lay – on education and medicine. Though religious and cultural division is emphatic in Egypt, in the Catholic schools there are few problems because of a student’s particular religion. Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic children study and play together in a rare display of cultural unity in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Coptic churches have been strained since the 1700s. They hold different theological views as to the true nature of Christ. Also, the Orthodox do not recognize the primacy of Rome and now deny the Eucharist to Catholics before they accept re-baptism in the Orthodox Church.

Hope for ecumenical relations improved in 1986, when Stephanos II invited the Orthodox pope to join him in opening discussions which had been dead for many years. The Orthodox church agreed to the establishment of an ecumenical council to study disagreements facing the two institutions. A year later, representatives of both faiths signed an agreement outlining common beliefs. Now they are discussing differences in dogma.

Ironically, there are few problems today between Egyptian Muslims and the Coptic Catholics. According to Church officials, the Egyptian government has worked hard to quell instances of discord, in the past sown by foreign-sponsored fundamentalists or fanatic fringe elements. The government acknowledges the importance of the services provided by Church-operated schools and hospitals, and, short of providing state capital, assures them respectful treatment.

This outside concern enables the Church to remain strong and vital. Internal changes, specifically in certain parts of its Eastern Liturgy have also contributed to its vitality. In 1986 it adopted a newer, shorter version of its traditional Coptic Mass.

“The changes were not undertaken simply to be modern or liberal,” Father John Farag says. “At Vatican II it was said that there is a danger that people may get attached to certain rituals in an almost idolatrous fashion, forgetting the substantive importance of the Sacrament. One way to avoid this is by occasional changes in Liturgy.”

Father Farag is one of Patriarch Stephanos’s living bridges between the old world and the new. He is pastor of the three-year-old Resurrection Church in Brooklyn. Besides 150 families in the Brooklyn parish, Father Farag oversees a congregation of 100 families in the seaside communities around Marlboro, New Jersey, and until next June will continue to look after Coptic Catholics in Los Angeles.

The youthful priest believes that the formation of the communities he serves has more to do with culture than religion. “It must be,” he says, “since as Catholics they can practice their faith within whatever Catholic community they choose. I don’t feel that I am here primarily for Liturgy; rather, I am here to provide much needed pastoral care. These people need someone of the same language, culture, and mentality – especially the first generation immigrants, those people who have experienced such tremendous change between the cultures of the two lands.”

One element of the pastoral care Father Farag provides is comprised of closing the gaps between immigrant parents and their American-horn children. “One of the big problems experienced by families is when parents try to raise their children with the mentality of the old country and do not accept or pay attention to the influences of American life,” he offers. “I do not believe in isolating or destroying the older culture. But I do believe that God has provided a better way of life for these people, and they should try to respect this new culture, to live in American society.”

This bridge building also involves choosing the language for the community’s Liturgy. “We have to translate our Mass, I feel, in order to keep the second generation in touch with the Church,” says Father Farag. “It is so important for the future.” At Sunday Mass, most of the prayers are in English, some in Arabic (which are followed by the congregation in English), and the consecration in Coptic, though like Latin it is regarded as a “dead” language.

Restrictions in U.S. immigration policy means the community of Resurrection Church grows only one or two new families each year. Nevertheless, the care and affection of the congregation for its church is exuberant.

“This is a vital and vibrant community. Painting, construction, electrical work, plumbing, cleaning – all this is volunteered by the people so the church does not have to spend its money on such things,” says Father Farag. “In fact, in three years, we have never had to have a single function catered or done by an outside group.”

After only three years, the Resurrection parish continues to define itself by being increasingly active. At the Saturday night “spiritual meeting,” Father Farag holds scriptural discussions with his parishioners. Their children receive instruction in Arabic and learn various games. On Sunday, after the morning Liturgy, families enjoy a social gathering. CCD instructions and choir are held for the children.

The new parish has benefitted from strong, open ties with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. “According to canon law, we have to report to the local Roman Catholic ordinary,” says Father Farag. “Only if you can get a bishop of your own can you be independent, and that comes about only if you are able to establish three or more parishes in the new country. We are fortunate to have very good relations with Bishop (Francis) Mugavero and his diocese. They offer excellent pastoral care to us,” In fact, through the Diocese of Brooklyn, Father Farag’s congregation obtained the former parish of St. Stanislaus for conversion to the Resurrection Coptic Catholic Church.

Like Roman Catholics, the Coptic Catholics continue to suffer through a shortage of priests. This lack of manpower, though, will not stop the Egyptian church from ministering to its people around the globe. The Coptic priest in Sydney, Australia, will be able soon to cease his four-hour flights to Melbourne when that community is assigned its own clergyman. The same is true for Canada, where one priest travels to Ottawa from his home in Montreal. Before long there will be one priest for each town.

“It is difficult because there are so few priests and not all of them are open to accepting missionary assignments,” Father Farag explains. “Also we don’t yet have the special training for missionary work at the seminary level that we need. Language, of course, is so very important. Most of our priests only speak French or Arabic – some Italian if they studied in Rome. The patriarch has said it is important for the seminaries to teach English. There are now Maryknoll priests there instructing our students.”

They are preparing for service to an increasingly diverse and international community. Here in the United States, Father Farag has made contact with Egyptian communities in Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, and Washington. He hopes to look first at establishing a congregation in Florida.

As the Coptic Catholic church continues to strengthen its links around the globe, it is a time of challenge for Patriarch Stephanos II and his people. It is also, with good reason, a time for hope.

Thomas Riley frequently writes on social issues involving the Church.

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