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 patriarchates 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 seminarys 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 facultys 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 were 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 isnt happy, then its 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.
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