As 2018 came to a close, it was time for the Coptic Orthodox Church to celebrate a special anniversary: 125 years on its modern-day theological seminary, the Clerical College which opened on 29 November 1893.
Successor to Catechetical School of Alexandria
The Coptic Theological Seminary is an institution based in Cairo, with branches and affiliated seminaries throughout the world. It claims historical continuity with the Catechetical School of Alexandria founded by St Mark in the first AD century, which was in turn in direct succession to the historic School of Alexandria, and became the oldest centre of sacred sciences in the history of Christianity.
The Catechetical School’s activities were not confined to theology; its teaching was encyclopaedic and covered the whole series of secular sciences, moral and religious philosophy, and Christian theology.
It continued until it was closed by the Byzantine Emperor following the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The centre of learning of the Coptic Church moved to the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Wadi al-Natroun in Egypt’s Western Desert, 90 km northwest of Cairo. Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church regards its 125-year-old Clerical College as a reestablishment of the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
Re-established, and branching out
During the papacy of Pope Kyrillos V, the 112th Pope of Alexandria, and after 1400 years since closure of the great school of Alexandria, it was re-established in 1893, as the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, at the hands of St Archdeacon Habib Girgis, canonised in 2013. In 1912, it was moved to Mahmasha, Cairo, where approximately 400 students were enrolled. It has since produced many scholarly church leaders, including deacons, preachers, priests, and bishops; and today has 11 branch seminaries in various places all over Egypt, in Alexandria, Tanta, Shebeen al-Koum, and Damanhour in the Delta region; and in Minya, Balyana, and al-Muharraq Monastry in Assiut in Upper Egypt.
Outside Egypt, six other Coptic theological colleges were established during the 21st century, among them the Pope Shenouda III seminary in Sydney, Australia, and others in New York and Los Angeles. The St Athanasius College in Melbourne is now one of 11 colleges which form the Australian University of Divinity.
PhD and Masters certificates
The recent celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Clerical College was held at the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center, with Pope Tawadros II and a large number of prelates attending. Present were Metropolitan Antonios of Jerusalem and the Near East; Bishop Abra’am of Fayoum; Bishop Lucas of Abnoub, al-Fath and New Assiut; Bishop Maqar of Sharqiya and 10th of Ramadan, and Deputy Dean of the Clerical College; Bishop Makary of South Shubra churches, Bishop Eqlimandos of al-Hagana, Almaza and East Nasr City churches; Bishop Bigol, Abbot of Muharraq Monastery; and Bishop Mikhail of Hadaeq al-Qubba, Abbasiyah and al-Wayli.
During the event, one PhD certificate and six Masters degrees were handed to candidates who had written dissertations about the Clerical College. Names of significant figures who served the seminary were honoured: Archdeacon Habib Girgis (1876 – 1951); Pope Shenouda III, patriarch from 1971 to 2012; Anba Gregorios, Bishop of Scientific Research and Theological Higher Studies from 1976 to 2001, Anba Bishoy, Metropolitan of Damietta and Kafr al-Sheikh from to 1972 to 2018; and the 20th century Coptic luminaries Father Ibrahim Attiya, Youssef Bek Mankarious, Dr Shaker Basillious, and Dr Maurice Tawadros.
“For you I sanctify Myself”
Anba Maqqar welcomed Pope Tawadros and the attendees and said that the Clerical College had come a long way since its first publications during the time of Archdeacon Habib Girgis to the present day of digital knowledge and learning. A website will be shortly launched, he said, featuring uploaded lectures and study online.
Anba Ermiya, Bishop-General and Head of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center spoke of priesthood as a vocation, saying the Church guards the faith and the seminary prepares priests to spread that faith.
For his part, Father Dr Bishoi Helmi spoke of the achievements of Pope Shenouda III in the seminary, and talked about his time as deputy dean of the seminary jointly with Father Bassilius Sobhi from March 2013 to August 2017, after which Anba Maqar took over.
Finally, it was time for Pope Tawadros’s speech which he gave under the title “For you I sanctify Myself”, in which he talked of Christ’s love in sanctifying Himself for our sakes, which put us under the obligation of emulating his example by living lives of love and sanctity.
St Habib Girgis
On 18 August 1991, Pope Shenouda III published an article in Arabic in Watani to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Archdeacon Habib Girgis. The article, titled “Our Teacher Archdeacon Habib Girgis Pioneer of Religious Education in Modern Times”, was translated into English by Watani International Senior Editor and Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia Managing Editor Saad Michael Saad, and posted on wataninet on 22 August 2013 as:
Pope Shenouda began with:
He [Habib Girgis] started his life in an era that was almost void of religious education and knowledge. At the time of the establishment of the Clerical College [seminary], they could not find a religion teacher after the sickness of Hegumenos Philotheos Ibrahim. So, students remained without religion courses for three years, until Habib Girgis was chosen to teach his colleagues. In addition, there were no preachers. In churches, homilies were read from printed books or manuscripts. Other denominations began to invade the Church.
“The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep,” as the Book of Genesis describes. “Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” And the light was Habib Girgis.
9 January 2019