Catholic Coptic Benedictine Monks
Celebration of three years of our Foundation
Brother Maximillian Musindal, OSB
Prior of Cairo (Egypt)
Our humble life began in a rented apartment in the centre of Cairo belonging to the Comboni missionaries. Next we rented a Franciscan villa at Mokattam. This was our first official residence in Cairo.
Today, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we celebrate exactly three years since the canonical recognition of the Coptic Catholic Monks of St. Benedict. As a new foundation, we can only look back and count our blessings.
In this report, I will give a very brief reflection on what we have managed to achieve, our challenges and the focus into the future. Inshallah a detailed report with photos will come later after we have completed our 7-year strategic plan towards financial stability of the foundation.
Our humble life started in a rented apartment in downtown Cairo owned by the Comboni missionaries, which could hardly accommodate five persons. There was a dire need to search for a more spacious facility with its own compound. With help of the then apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, Mons. Bruno Muzzaro the financial support of the Abbey of Muensterschwarzach, we rented a Franciscan villa in Mokattam which became our first and official residence in Egypt. To accommodate our guests, we put up three cabins providing six more rooms with indoor bathroom facilities. We also purchased a 30-acre agricultural farm in the province of Ismailia which had on it a small 3-bedroom villa. One year later, we extended our property by purchasing 15 more acres from our immediate neighbor making it 45 acres in total. By the time of the canonical recognition and official launch, the villa was equipped with a Coptic-style chapel dedicated to St. Benedict that was blessed by His Beatitude Ibrahim Ishaq, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria. Late last year, an Egyptian-Canadian Coptic catholic priest, Abuna Bishoy Yassa offered us a property he owned. After some discussion and consultations, we accepted to take the offer, which is our first property in Upper Egypt. It is a sizeable plot with a villa on it that requires some renovations and adjustments to become a monastic house. We hope to make this house the nursery for our vocations. Most of our interests are in Ismailia, and the future financial stability of our foundation will depend on how we manage the space here.
When we bought the Ismailia property, on it was a villa with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, 2 bathrooms, a front veranda which we later transformed into a chapel, and a dilapidated swimming pool behind it. Given the increasing numbers, thanks to our benefactors we put up two other floors. We currently can host a total of 10 persons. This is enough to host all the brothers at once. Initially it was a big challenge. Beside the main entrance we put up a permanent structure to host our live-in security guard, a simple Mosque for our workers and a room for the police officers just in case the government sends some officers to provide security. Opposite the security house is a small self-contained one-bedroom villa suitable for young people that can host a maximum of four persons. As time passed, many religious in Cairo and Ismailia prefer our place for some quiet environment for either retreat or just recollection and rest. This developing phenomenon requires us to increase the rooms to accommodate our guests.
Olive and Mango Farm
The farm in Ismailia is gradually changing, when we acquired it, it was in a very bad shape. After a long process of cleaning and changing, replacing the old irrigation system (thanks to Missio Muenchen), we are on a steady path to benefit from it. The initial 30 acres has 3247 olive trees of which last year we crafted almost 200 trees that all survived. The newly acquired property of 15 acres has young 2292 olive trees. This gives us a total of 5639 olive trees. Besides the olive trees, the farm has 1873 mango trees of which we crafted around 100 trees.
Dates, Lemons and Oranges
Present on the farm at the time of purchase were 80 trees of oranges which we have been using for our home consumption. We also decided to plant 100 trees first. We have a project for the remaining 100 that we hope to plant sometime next year (2021) if it is approved. Just this month we planted 35 trees of lemon and 5 tangerines. The two will make part of our fruit orchard.
Water Purification Plant
One of the most essential projects we have is the water purification plant. The water available is salty. It meant that we always had to but drinking water.. This project does not benefit us alone. Around our monastery is a big village. Women and children had to walk long distances searching for fresh water. We have extended a pipe to supply piped fresh water to them. With the tap outside the compound and near our main gate, we witness to many of these Muslim poor families through the fresh water supply.
Our monastery in Ismailia is surrounded by several poor villages. One way of gaining entry into them is by supporting the very needy widows and their children. Currently, with the support of St. Ottilien procure, we give a monthly stipend to 13 widows and help in buying stationery and bags for their children who go to school. Depending on the needs of the family, we give between €10 to 15 per month. This might look small but it saves some lives. This has become one of the effective means to witness to our gospel values among our neighbors. They appreciate and consider us their friends. Early this year there was a terrible stormy rain in Egypt. Almost all the neighboring villages collapsed. People had nowhere to sleep. It was a real disaster.
All our workers were homeless. One even requested to come with his family to live in the monastery until he builds a new house. Our confreres from Muensterschwarzach were in Egypt when this tragedy happened. With the help of Muensterschwarzach procure, all our workers have permanent houses. We really appreciate this kind of support. This means a lot to us as a community of monks surrounded by Muslim families. The little we do to touch their lives speaks louder than reciting the whole Bible to them. They always ask what kind of Christians we are. This question speaks volumes to anyone who has the understanding of the religious life in this country. Besides the above, there are always those who come to knock on our gate begging for bread, or medicine or even for a blanket. If we have, we always offer. If we do not have, we give a kind word. The fact that they come knocking is already a sign of confidence.
It is also important to mention the role being played by the procure of Muensterschwarzach. Egypt is experiencing high influx of the refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The Eritrean and Sudanese refugees are taken care of by the Comboni Fathers. In the past few years, the overwhelming numbers exceed what the Comboni fathers can offer. When it comes to pastoral care, they requested Father Maximilian to help in the home visits and administration of sacraments. During their main hour of need, the procure of Muensterschwarzach came in to support their education and basic needs. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation worsened. Since, the refugees depended fully on donations, the procure of Muensterschwarzach assisted a lot with money to buy foodstuffs, sanitary towels, face masks, etc. We really appreciate this kind of social help. This help coming from a Benedictine monastery, it speaks volumes about who Benedictines are and what we stand for. The challenge remains. We formed a board to look into the ways of sustaining these refugee families fully dependent on donations. We came up with several projects and realized that it is hard to obtain papers for some projects due to the restrictions put in place by the civil authority. The only viable project is one that can be run directly by the church for the sustainability of the refugees. The technical team is working on the project before we can share it with the bodies that support these Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
Personnel, Vocations, and Formation
We are a community of 6 members, one finally professed (Abuna Maximilian), two junior confreres (Br. Bruno and Br. Arsanius), two novices Abuna Emmanuel and Br. Antonius), and one postulant (Mikhail). In addition, we have one oblate novice (Abuna Bishoy from Asyut diocese). Until November 23, 2020, we had three junior confreres.
Just before the Covid-19 invasion, we had three young men aspiring to join us. With time, two changed their minds. One is still determined to join us by April next year. The greatest challenge is that more young people from the Orthodox church are calling to inquire about us and expressing the wish to join us than do the Catholic young people. The tension between the two Churches is evident. Some Catholic bishops are not so keen on us admitting young people from the Orthodox background. They see it as an invasion. They rule is that for one to be deemed to have changed from the Orthodox Church to Catholic, he must have finished six uninterrupted months in a Catholic parish. The recommendation of the Parish Priest is not enough. He also must obtain one from the Bishop of the diocese where he joined. The fear of some Bishops is that if those from the Orthodox background will one day be the majority, they will in future end up influencing the whole community. How true this is, only heaven knows. We have three young men from the Orthodox background requesting to join us. We have advised them to take the first steps so that by July 2021, they will have accomplished the six months requirement. During this period, they will be visiting us to ‘come and see’. It is not a surprise that we are attracting even the Orthodox young men.
Our novitiate in Egypt has a team of formators. Since all this formation program is contacted in Arabic language, our confrere, Br. Arsanius plays a very significant role. He translates for the Abbot President who teaches via zoom. He also translates all the lessons on the Rule of St. Benedict that we use in class. We should also remember that he is the one who translated the RB into Arabic while he was a novice in Tigoni. We cannot fail to mention the role played by the Abbot Emeritus of Muensterschwarzach, Fidelis whose many visits to Egypt to offer short conferences and courses to the community have always enriched our formation. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted this mission. We trust that once a remedy is found, Abbot Fidelis will resume his visits. We miss him! Abbot Fidelis has helped to strengthen our bonds with the Coptic Orthodox great monasteries of St. Makarius and St. Anthony the Great. We are still exploring how to maximize on these relationships so that some formation programs can be conducted in these monasteries since we have the same roots. This is a challenging venture that only we Benedictine monks of the Catholic Church can exploit.
Our liturgy is Coptic. For the past one year, we have been working on the structure of our liturgy. We had different trials before settling on what our liturgy looks like. The entry of Abuna Emmanuel was a blessing to the community. Being a Coptic Catholic priest, we had to learn a lot from him about the Coptic Rite. Mass, office of the hours, special liturgies follow the guidelines by the Synod of the Bishops of the Coptic Catholic Church. The two languages for our liturgical celebrations are Arabic and Coptic. We have Mass three times in a week, Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Our day begins at 5:30AM in Summer and 6:30 AM in winter. The Coptic Catholic prayer Book (Agbiyya) provides for the Morning, Terce, Midday, Evening, Night, Office for monks and Midnight prayers. Usually we pray the morning, Midday, Evening, Night, and the Office for monks (given that we are the only ones to pray this office). On the days we do not have Mass, we also pray Terce. Every Saturday evening, instead of the Evening office, we have the ceremony of the incense (a very solemn liturgy with a lot of incense) that includes part of the Night Office.
As Missionary Benedictines, our missionary exposure is very significant. Some of our confreres have had the chance to visit our Benedictine abbeys and priories for either formation or experience. Abuna Emmanuel just before joining our community, had two weeks in Tigoni in Kenya. He needed this to have a first-hand experience in a Benedictine community to refine his intention. His experience was positive and upon his return, he was convinced that this is what he wanted. He then joined us. Br. Arsanius had his second part of postulancy and the whole novitiate in Tigoni. While in Tigoni, he visited Tororo in Uganda. Last year (2019) he participated in a meeting in Germany. While in Germany he had the chance to visit some of our monasteries in and outside Germany. Br. Bruno recently (October-December) had the chance to visit St. Ottilien, Muensterschwarzach, Schweiglberg, Georgenberg Abbeys. All these experiences enrich our foundation.
To conclude, we wish to give special thanks to all those who have stood by us and helped us to be where we are. We value each one of you for your unique contribution. Without your valued support, things could have been different.