Jesuits And The Coptic Church


Three stages mark the relations between the Jesuits (or Society of Jesus) and the Coptic church, as well as the Coptic community in general. At the outset, these relations were intermittent and may have even been limited to two tentative attempts at reunion of the sees of Alexandria and Rome by a Father Giambattista ELIANO, who was born into a Jewish family with ties in Egypt. He launched his project of reunion in 1561-1563, during the reign of Patriarch GABRIEL VII, with the assistance of Christophe Rodriguez, a Roman theologian. The second attempt took place in 1582-1584, in the reign of Patriarch XIV (1570-1585). Here he was accompanied by another Jesuit named Father François Sasso. They met the patriarch in a holy synod summoned on 1 February 1584, but the results remained ambiguous and contested through mutual lack of understanding between the two parties. Then John XIV died in September, and Eliano was temporarily imprisoned by the Turks. Throughout the seventeenth century, little of note occurred between the and the Copts; however, the interest of Father Anastasius KIRCHER (d. 1680) in the Coptic language should be noted. He had a feeling that a study of Coptic could lead to the decipherment of hieroglyphics.

The second stage began in 1697, when the established a small house in Cairo from which they could launch missionaries to Ethiopia. To facilitate this assignment, they courted the support of patriarch XVI (1676-1718), who accorded a favorable welcome to them and even commissioned one of them by the name of Father Dubernat to carry to Ethiopia the CHRISM consecrated in 1703. Father Dubernat, who died in 1711, recounted this incident to a Bollandist colleague by the name of Baptiste Sollerius, who wrote a treatise on the patriarchate of Alexandria. His successor in Cairo was Claude Sicard, whose writings are a principal source of knowledge about Coptic monasticism in this period. Later the opened a modest coeducational school, whose existence was rather precarious, and in 1773, the suppression of the decree permitting its establishment ended its activities altogether.

The third stage of the relationship between and Copts began in 1879, when the Jesuits were called back to Cairo in order to found a seminary for the benefit of the Coptic community. Eventually this seminary became a college open to all. Since then, however, the Society of Jesus has continued to collaborate in the edification and preparation of Coptic Catholic clergy, a function they have occasionally assumed alone. Moreover, starting from their own house at Minya, built in 1887, the founded numerous schools in Upper Egypt, in the villages densely populated by Copts. These schools were eventually united in 1940 in the Association of Schools of Upper Egypt, founded by Father Habib Ayrout. Under his guidance the number of schools increased to 130, frequented mainly by Coptic Orthodox children.

In a more recent stage of the relationship, many have made contributions to Coptic studies. Among others may be cited M. Jullien (L’Egypte, souvenirs bibliques et chrétiens, Lille, 1889), M. Chaîne (Chronologie des temps chrétiens de l’Egypte et de l’Ethiopie, Beirut, 1904), M. de Fenoyl (Coutumes religieux des coptes, Cairo, 1953), and Le Sanctoral copte (Beirut, 1960).

Like other religious orders of the Latin rite, the integrated themselves with the local church, which they continued to serve both by swelling their numbers with new recruits and by adopting the Coptic rite. In these ways, their principal orientation became ecumenical in character.

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