Clerical College (Cairo)

CLERICAL COLLEGE (Cairo)

The idea of the establishment of a school for teaching Coptic theology to prepare a new generation of educated priests to assume religious responsibilities in Coptic churches goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Until that time the priesthood in Coptic churches held a monopoly as it was a hereditary function. A priest in a church automatically handed his religious responsibilities to one of his offspring, irrespective of how educated his successor was, beyond the reiteration of the Coptic liturgy.

The first COMMUNITY COUNCIL, established by khedivial decree in February 1874 to attend to the welfare of the Copts and the surveillance of their religious properties, conceived among its initial decisions the establishment of a clerical school for the training of educated clerics. Thus in October 1874, the council nominated PHILUTHAWUS IBRAHIM as the first headmaster of the new religious school to be appended to the patriarchate. This decision was endorsed by CYRIL V (1874-1927).

The new school was opened 13 January 1875 in a ceremony attended by the patriarch, the whole membership of the COMMUNITY COUNCIL, and a considerable number of Coptic dignitaries and leaders. Its establishment was hailed with great enthusiasm as the resuscitation of the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, after an interregnum of fourteen centuries since its extinction in the sixth century. The new foundation was a poor image of its distant parent, the mentor of the world of Christian antiquity.

But somehow a modest beginning was made on the road of reform in a society where the very comprehension of religious worship had been declining to the edge of a formality, without real understanding of the spiritual core of the faith. The main purpose of the school was an attempt to graduate priests and bishops who were capable of conveying to the congregation a real understanding of their religious heritage. After several years the school was suspended for lack of funds and sparse enrollment, though the idea was never defunct.

In November 1893, thanks to the sustained efforts of Hanna Bakhum (Bey), a member of the community council and supervisor of Coptic schools, this theological seminary was reopened and a limited numbers of candidates were accepted. He devised a viable school curriculum consisting of a balanced set of subjects from the humanities and religious matters, to be distributed over five years.

Arabic and Coptic languages coupled with history, geography, and mathematics were made compulsory. But greater concentration on religious materials was the backbone of the curriculum. The subjects taught were theology, church liturgy, Coptic ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and church history and rhetoric.

The school began with an enrollment of twenty-four candidates divided into two classes, one for the younger scholars whose studies extended over five years, and the other class comprising older priests and monks who could only stay for one year of intensive work to enrich their comprehension of the standard Coptic religious traditions, before returning to their dioceses and monasteries.

In September 1918, Habib Jirjis was appointed headmaster of the school; he succeeded Yusuf Manqarius (Bey), who introduced a number of reforms and alterations in its program in the light of his examination of the Greek, Roman, Catholic, and Protestant curricula of various modern seminaries in Europe and America. In the 1920s, during the tenure of the new headmaster, the school became divided into two categories of students: the intermediate section drawn from the primary graduates, and the upper-division in possession of the full baccalaureate, whose studies were limited to four years.

In 1973, Anba Shenouda, the bishop in charge of religious education (later Pope Shenouda III), decided to take his intermediate class to the Monastery of Our Lady, known as al-Dayr Muharraq in Asyut. The upper division remained at Anba Ruways and began to attract university students, while Coptic University professors replenished its academic staff on visiting assignments.

In October 1905, evening classes were established to meet the need of university students who wanted to join theological studies without discarding their regular secular education by day. In October 1959 women were admitted to the school. It appeared that the school had definitely come of age, and it assumed the deserved title of Clerical College.

In its new form, its studies were classified into three categories: an intermediate division for five years, upper division for four years, and evening classes for university graduates to last three years.

A further dimension was added to the College by the enrollment of orthodox Syrian and Ethiopian monks. Its position was strengthened by a patriarchal edict to limit the priesthood to graduates of the Clerical College. One of the greater achievements of the College was the publication of the complete and authorized Bohairic-Coptic text of the Bible, in addition to other publications, including the liturgies. In this respect we must refer to the role of IQLADYUS LABIB and that of Pope CYRIL IV (1854-1861), who had previously imported the second printing press into Egypt.

An offshoot of the Clerical College in 1903 was the establishment of the School for Monks in Alexandria under the sponsorship of Anba Yu’annis, metropolitan of Beheira, later Pope JOHN XIX (1928-1942). This expansion spread to other provincial towns, such as Tanta, Minya, Shibin al-Kom, and al-Balyana.

Another interesting by-product of the Clerical College was the attention accorded to the precentors who were mainly blind cantors taking an essential part in the celebration of the Coptic mass. These were known as ‘irfan (pl. of ‘arif ) for whom a special section was established in the Anba Ruways building.

It was named the Didymus Institute for the Blind, to commemorate one of the greatest blind theologians who was selected by Pope ATHANASIUS I to preside over the Catechetical School of Alexandria, Saint DIDYMUS THE BLIND (c. 313-398).

With the foundation of the HIGHER INSTITUTE OF COPTIC STUDIES, closer relations with the Clerical College were nurtured, and many advanced graduates of the college continued their higher theological studies in that institute.

MIRRIT BOUTROS GHALI

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