Forming Coptic Catholic Priests

text by Jessica Jones
photographs by Mohammed El-Dakhakhny

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“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. Leo’s, the only theologate serving all of Egypt’s Catholic churches. Tucked away in Ma’adi, 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. Leo’s 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. Leo’s 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. Leo’s 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. Leo’s. 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. Leo’s, he now enjoys conversing in the language.

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