By Salvatore Cernuzio
ROME, MARCH 13, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Father Orazio Patrone, 33, originally from Salerno, Italy, has for three years been a priest of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt.
He talks to ZENIT in this interview about his experience and the situation of Christians in that country.
ZENIT: Father Orazio, what is the situation of the Catholic Church in Egypt?
Father Patrone: The Catholic Church in Egypt is quite a complex reality: as in the whole of the Middle East region, it has always lived in a religiously pluralistic situation. In Egypt, in addition to the Latin Church, there are several rites (Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Greek). The largest church is the Orthodox Coptic, with about 10% of the total population. The Catholic faithful are close to 400,000 or 0.3%.
There are also many Copts overseas, and after the latest events of the revolution, and above all the political situation that has been unfolding, migration has increased, after being already high in the last decades.
ZENIT: How do Christians live their faith?
Father Patrone: Christians have difficulties living in a country where Muslim fundamentalism is gaining ever more ground and they are strongly attracted by the idea of being able to live more tranquilly in other countries, especially Canada and Australia, but also Europe. Although persecutions are only sporadic, one experiences a strong discrimination of a social more than an ideological nature. It’s not a generalized situation yet and there are places with a peaceful relationship between Muslims and Christians.
ZENIT: How is it that a young Italian priest is called to carry out his service precisely in such a place? Can you tell us about your personal experience?
Father Patrone: I came following my involvement with the Neo-Catechumenal Way through which I felt the call to rediscover the richness of my baptism by means of a journey of faith in a community. During this period I discovered my vocation to the priesthood and I entered the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. The inter-ritual diocesan seminary forms priests for the New Evangelization with vocations to serve in the Eastern Churches. After the course of formation of close to nine years, during which I was able to have, in addition to my studies, pastoral experience in Tunisia, Sudan, and the Holy Land, I was incardinated by the Coptic Church of Egypt. And now, for three years, I have been in a parish in Cairo.
ZENIT: Have you had difficulties?
Father Patrone: Difficulties have certainly not been lacking, and are still not lacking: cultural differences, difficulties with the language, countries that suffer profound conflicts; but I have been able to face them thanks to the fact of having seen the Lord’s fidelity in the past. A bit like Abraham who started out without knowing where he was going, led by the Word and a promise, learning day by day to trust God and experiencing his presence in history.
ZENIT: Returning to the situation of Christians in Egypt. What is their relationship with the other religions, in particular, with Muslims?
Father Patrone: The relationship between Christians and Muslims is increasingly undermined by fundamentalism, even if the Coptic Church has an age-old experience of coexistence with the Muslim tradition, which has had highs and lows in history.
ZENIT: How are intense times, such as Lent and Easter, lived?
Father Patrone: The season of Lent is lived very intensely, with strict fasting, lived devotionally more than as an occasion of preparation for Easter. Perhaps this is dictated also by the strong influence of the Muslim month of Ramadan. As well, the sacrificial aspect of Good Friday is stressed more than the fundamental importance of the Easter Resurrection.
In fact, the funeral of the Lord is celebrated with a very long liturgy as was the custom of the pre-conciliar Latin Churches. Its importance is seen in the fact that participation in worship on Good Friday is almost double that of what it is on Easter Sunday.
ZENIT: What do you intend to do for the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization?
Father Patrone: The Church in Egypt is very tied to her traditions, especially those in the liturgy, and has difficulty in entering the dynamism of the New Evangelization desired by Vatican II. On the other hand, there are attempts and openings especially by the Catholic side, which is attentive to and relatively involved in what happens in the West. This is demonstrated, among other things, by the opening, though slow, to charisms that emerged after the Council. In parishes there are now groups such as the Focolares and the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and other movements born in Egypt with the intention of a renewal in the sense of a New Evangelization.
ZENIT: What are the prospects, therefore?
Father Patrone: There seems to be a time of trial and purification for the Churches, as is happening almost everywhere, because of the processes of secularization and globalization, challenges that call the Christian community to seek its own identity and to deepen its faith. We are going towards a form of Christianity that is certainly different from that lived in the modern period in Europe, towards a Christianity in which the Church is perhaps called to accustom herself to live as a small flock, to journey with other religious realities and, from this point of view, the experience of the Eastern communities is very relevant.
[Translation by ZENIT]