The SMA has been present in Egypt since 1877 and at Choubra, in the suburbs of Cairo, where they originally opened a seminary, since 1893. The parish began the following year, when the huge church we still have, St. Mark’s Pro-Cathedral, was built there.
As I write these lines we are celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For our little Catholic community at St. Mark’s, this is an important day. For the past few weeks, some of our people have been asking me how we are going to celebrate the feast. To prepare ourselves, we prayed a novena at the Lourdes grotto in the garden. Every day, two parishioners were assigned the responsibility of leading the prayers and collecting the intentions to be included. These intentions, and the contact we maintain with our parishioners, enable us to discern their state of mind, as well as their goals and ambitions.
Who are the Parishioners of St. Mark’s?
Our parishioners come from three principal groups.
First of all, there are the Roman Catholics. Most of them have been educated and brought up in the French system. Their faithfulness to the parish and its sacramental life is unshakable but sadly they are few in number and most of them elderly. Nonetheless, I have no hesitation in saying that they are the pillars of our parish. Many of the children and grandchildren of these families are actively involved in the choir and are altar-servers.
Our second group is associated with St. Mark’s Club. This club is an offshoot of the parish. It includes an open-air cafeteria, two halls used for various functions or events and a field open for outdoor activities. There’s a vibrant group of people involved in this area and devote a lot of time and energy. They look after its maintenance and organise various events that represent an important source of income for the parish. Most of these people regard themselves as “children” of St. Mark’s although they mostly belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. However we rarely see them in church; usually they only come for the major feast days.
Finally, we have the group comprising the employees of St. Mark’s: the gateman, the maintenance men, the cook and the teachers. There are 16 of them in all and all have Coptic Orthodox origins. They form a special branch of our family because we meet them every day in the course of their activities. They are mostly very loyal and devoted to St. Mark’s – some have been working here for more than 20 years.
Directing the ministry at St. Mark’s is a bit like dancing tango, requiring an effort to adapt to the mentality of each of our parishioners. Bear in mind that some of them move across the groups mentioned above, depending on their socio-cultural background, their duties and their responsibilities, and at times depending on the time of year.
Living in Egypt today
We try to discern the spiritual and social state of mind of our faithful and to take their interests and aspirations for the future into account. It is difficult to talk about Egypt without mentioning the current political situation and how much it affects the lives of the people. There is no doubt, as most middle-aged Egyptians keep emphasising, that the country has never experienced such serious political upheaval as it has happened in the past five years: the ousting of president Mubarak, the coming to power of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and their subsequent ousting by the Army under General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who now rules as an elected President.
Although there are claims that his popularity has declined, particularly because of the economic reforms that have affected many Egyptians, President Sisi is generally strongly approved of by Christians and by our parishioners in particular. They see him as the providential strong man, through whom Egypt will recover its equilibrium after this crisis passes. They all hope that he will be able to restore the country’s vitality and prosperity and that he will protect Christians and other minority groups. His firmness in the legislation against sexual abuse was enthusiastically welcomed. Our parishioners feel that security has improved. The prevailing mood is therefore optimistic and hopeful. However, the economic situation remains uncertain and the rise in the prices of staple products makes it still more difficult. There are fears that unrest and instability may return. President Sisi’s opponents continue to express their discontent, often violently. On the first anniversary of the violent ending of pro-Morsi protests, 14 August 2014, there was further violence. The protesters had been camping out for six weeks in Cairo and in Giza to protest against the overthrow of President Morsi. At least 817 people died during those violent clashes. It is as a result of this original protest that an Irish born citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, remains in jail in Cairo awaiting trial along with hundreds of other detainees. Amnesty International has recognized him as a Prisoner of Conscience.
The SMA at St. Mark’s and beyond…
Despite the political and economic upheavals, life in St. Mark’s parish goes on. Under the vigilant eye of Fr. Casimir Kieszek SMA, the first stage of our Church renovation has been completed. Our parishioners take great pride in it and have been inviting family and friends to visit the church. We now await further funding in order to complete the most needed refurbishment of this wonderful church building.
Having been interrupted because of the political agitation, our Stage programme [pastoral training for SMA seminarians] has resumed. We had one Stagiaire in 2014/2015 and this year 2015/2016 we already have three who arrived at the beginning of August. These are Frank Kitambi from Tanzania, Wisdom Jean Jacques from Togo and Bertrand Vinakpon from Benin Republic. The parishioners are very happy with this because the presence of young men from south of the Sahara enlivens the liturgy and the community spirit of the parish.
As a sign of solidarity with the Church in Egypt, the SMA is projecting to open a new parish in Upper Egypt in the vibrant Coptic Catholic Diocese of Sohag. We hope that three priests will be ready by 2017 to staff that parish. This will involve not only learning Arabic but also how to celebrate the Eucharist and other Sacraments in the Coptic Catholic rite. Please pray that the Lord will bless this new venture and those who will benefit from our service.