To Be a Priest in the Holy Land

Forming Priests in a Land of Conflict

text by Michele Chabin

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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.”

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