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Amir’s Choice

Journey of a young man discerning the call to service in Egypt

text by Magdy Samaan with photographs by Roger Anis

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Amir Maher, 28, remembers when he first started to think seriously about entering religious life. It all started at a youth conference in Cairo in 2008, when the young man was still in college. Jesuit Father Henri Boulad was giving a talk.

“I don’t remember the topic,” Mr. Maher says today, “but I remember clearly my feeling at that moment: I felt that I wanted to be like this man.” Is it possible, he wondered, that he was called to be a priest?

He tried to put such thoughts out of his mind. He returned from the conference to Al Wasta, his town in Assiut, thinking that it was just a passing whim.

He now realizes, however, that it was something more.

“What happened that day was like a seed thrown into the earth, which then disappeared,” he says. “I went on in my life and forgot about it. But after a while the seed started to grow and the call became clearer.”

He adds: “I was trying to reject the idea, saying that it was just an outburst of youth. I was telling myself, ‘When I get a job and have money I will forget it.’ “

But he did not; the seed had taken root.

“What attracted me to Father Boulad was the lifestyle he had chosen,” he says. “He left everything and chose this way.”

Still, Mr. Maher continued on his course. He graduated from Assiut University in 2011 with a degree in engineering. He went on to serve a year of military service, and then traveled to the United Arab Emirates to work as an electrical engineer for a street lighting company.

His job seemed to be a good opportunity for a young graduate, but it brought him no happiness.

“I felt that something was missing,” Mr. Maher says now. “I felt this was not the fulfilling life I had wanted for myself.” He found himself remembering that talk by Father Boulad. “I was not able to focus on my work, because the idea was overwhelming me. I told myself: I will pray and ask for guidance from God. If this is the way God chose for me, I will leave everything; if not, I will stop thinking about it.”

For Mr. Maher, the church had always been the axis of his life — a welcoming place where he went as a young boy to spend his time, to play with friends or just pray. The idea of spending his life serving God did not seem far-fetched.

Finally, after months of prayer, he decided to attend a discernment retreat at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Patriarchal Seminary in Cairo.

There, everything clicked into place.

“During the retreat, I felt very satisfied,” he says. “God was clear with me.” He left the retreat knowing exactly what he needed to do: He would apply to the seminary and begin studies to become a priest.

Founded in 1953, St. Leo the Great Patriarchal Seminary is located in Maadi, a quiet neighborhood in noisy Cairo. The large building sits in the middle of 10 acres. It is a place of peace, with gardens outside for relaxation and spacious rooms inside for study and prayer.

There are currently 28 seminarians studying here as part of an eight-year program that includes a wide range of subjects — including Arabic, English, Greek, history, Islam, music, philosophy, psychology and theology.

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