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The Chaldean Connection

by Mary Kay McPartlin

Since 1989, the Chaldean Catholic Church has entrusted its seminarians to Sacred Heart's careto the benefit of the entire seminary community.

Through preparing Chaldean Catholic, as well as Roman Catholic, seminarians for the priesthood, Sacred Heart Major Seminary keeps connected two vital branches of the universal Catholic Church. The respect and affection between the seminary and the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle are mutual, and all who study at Sacred Heart are strengthened.

Not Ours but Beautiful

One of the things the Chaldean community brings to us as a Latin Rite is a whole new perspective on the ancient traditions, the way in which the Church evangelized earlier on, Sacred Heart's rector, Msgr. Todd Lajiness, says. We can see some liturgical and theological devotional aspects that may not be part of the Latin Rite, but are certainly a part of the richness of our whole Christian and Catholic tradition.

It's not ours; it's not Latin, but it's beautiful.

The eastern-oriented Chaldean Rite Church and the western-oriented Latin Rite (or Roman Catholic) Church both are part of the corporate body of twenty-four Catholic churches worldwide that are in union with the pope, the bishop of Rome.

Latin Rite Catholics see the richness of the Church through us, from a broader sense, says Bishop Francis Kalabat, head of the Chaldean Eparchy [Diocese] of St. Thomas the Apostle, located in Southfield, Michigan. Bishop Kalabat is also a Sacred Heart alumnus, Class of 1995.

The pope is our father, the bishop says, and to know the Roman Rite tradition grounds us, as well.

In the Language of Christ

More than two thousand years ago, the disciples of Christ began their work of spreading the kingdom of God. Most Roman Catholics know the western journey of the apostles, such as St. Paul's missionary ventures, but are unfamiliar with the eastern journey made by the apostles.

Chaldean Catholics were early eastern converts to the Church. Christian life in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, was inspired by St. Thomas the Apostle around 35 AD. It is one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world.

The Chaldean liturgy today, as from the Church's beginning, is in Aramaic, the language of Christ. Aramaic is also one of several languages spoken by the 1.5 million Chaldean Catholics around the world, even though more than half live outside Iraq.

The Vital Family Connection

The immigration of Chaldean families to the United States began in the 1920s, with the desire for religious freedom and material security. Tension in Iraq between Muslims and Christians, as well as the dangers from the Gulf Wars, brought even more Chaldeans to the U.S., beginning in the 1990s and continuing to present day. Today, there are approximately 150,000 Chaldeans living in the United States, with 100,000 in metro Detroit.

The opportunity for freedom and security, however, did not overshadow the Chaldean focus on community and family.

The early Chaldeans who came to the United States thrived, Bishop Francis explains, but they did not forget their families back home in Iraq. The Chaldeans have always worked to provide for their family members still living in Iraq.

The vital family connection for Chaldeans goes beyond the United States. Chaldeans are connected to each other and to the Church through immediate and extended families that span the entire globe.

We all seem to be one person away from knowing each other. You will always find someone who will know someone who will know me, Bishop Francis explains. It's because Chaldeans never had a country of our own. We are a minority in Iraq and we are a minority here. We have been hot-wired to stay close and remain close. We create community wherever we go.

The Family Grows

The patriarchal seat of the worldwide Chaldean Catholic Church is in Baghdad, Iraq. The seat created the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in 1982 and appointed Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim to lead the Chaldeans in the United States. Bishop Kalabat assumed leadership of the eparchy from Bishop Emeritus Ibrahim in June 2014. Another American eparchy was created in 2002, St. Peter the Apostle, for Chaldean Catholics living in the western states.

In 1989, the Chaldean extended family grew to include Sacred Heart Major Seminary. Bishop Ibrahim could have sent his men to the seminary in Iraq, but he wanted them to be close to their parishes and communities. Since the largest number of Chaldeans in the U.S. lives in metro Detroit, Sacred Heart was the closest choice.

Location was important, but Bishop Ibrahim also wanted theological study and spiritual formation of high quality, and proper liturgical training. After thoroughly researching the seminary, he became impressed with Sacred Heart's commitment to all three. The willingness of Sacred Heart to expand its focus to include Eastern Rite traditions made the seminary the right choice for the eparchy.

I asked the Archdiocese of Detroit if we could enroll students there. They were very welcoming, Bishop Ibrahim says. I sent the first seminarian in 1989. I was able to see in the life of this seminarian that Sacred Heart was a good place for priests. Now we have twelve seminarians. I ordained fourteen priests during my tenure.

Bishop Kalabat was the second Chaldean seminarian to attend Sacred Heart. When I started, I was the only one, he says. We were more trailblazers of sorts. The seminarians are doing things now that I wish I had the opportunity to experience.

Adapting to Special Requirements

There are many benefits to studying here at Sacred Heart, says Chaldean seminarian Rodney Abasso, who began his first year of graduate theology in September. First, it's close to home and to all of the Chaldean parishes here in Michigan. Also, there are many brilliant professors here who want to help us to succeed in the mission that God has for us.

Chaldean seminarians study alongside their Latin Rite brothers, but Sacred Heart offers education and training in areas specific to the requirements of the eparchy. It's important that we listen to what the bishop needs, says Monsignor Lajiness. We have all these different doorways to help people with their discipleship.

Fr. Daniel Jones is director of graduate seminarians at Sacred Heart. Instead of the requirement of Latin studies, he explains, Chaldean seminarians engage in Aramaic grammar, Chaldean spirituality, and Chaldean Rite liturgical training. The Registrar's Office provides a time for the Chaldean men to take these classes. Instructors are usually priests from the Eparchy of St. Thomas, some of whom studied at Sacred Heart.

Upon entering the Theologate, the Chaldean men are assigned to a local Chaldean parish on weekends to immerse themselves in the community and liturgy, Father Jones explains. This enables the men to discern the realities of priesthood, while also growing in deeper love for the community the man is called to serve. Per the vocations director, each man is required to attend the Saturday Vigil Evening Prayer (Ramsha), Sunday Morning Prayer (Supra), and Chaldean High Mass chanted in Aramaic.

Chaldean seminarian Bardeleon Jaddou is a second-year theologian. The priests at Sacred Heart stress that each man takes charge of his own formation,' he says. A vital part of my formation is my studies in Chaldean language and Church history. The seminary has been accommodating to our specific needs, and I could not be more grateful.

Just Like Brothers

Whatever the rite, whatever the language, the seminarians are all brothers.

As I approach my last year in seminary, I sometimes forget I am in a Roman Catholic seminary because I feel very much at home here, says Bryan Kassa, a fourth-year theologian who will be ordained to the priesthood in July 2016. The faculty, resident priests, and brother seminarians have always welcomed us with open arms.

Bryan was ordained a sub-deacon this past March. Fr. Gerard Battersby, Sacred Heart's vice rector, made accommodations for the seminarians in Bryan's class to miss obligations at the seminary to be present at his ordination. This meant a lot to me to have my brothers there as I took one step closer to priestly ordination, Bryan says.

Also feeling right at home is Chaldean seminarian Mark Owdeesh. His bishop, Most Rev. Emanual Shaleta, heads the Eparchy of St. Adday, whose seat is in Toronto, Canada. The eparchy is the only Chaldean diocese in Canada and serves about 38,000 Chaldean Catholics.

Mark arrived at Sacred Heart in 2013 after completing four years of study at St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ontario. Greater interaction with brother Chaldean seminarians and the Metro Detroit Chaldean community has enriched his seminary experience, he says. My diocese of St. Adday faces the challenge of unifying a community spread throughout a whole country, continues Mark, but it is hopeful that the liberties enjoyed by Canadians will nourish the strong seed of faith that Chaldeans bring from back home.

Could You Pray that in Aramaic?

Women from the St. Thomas Eparchy also come to study at Sacred Heart. They are supported by the eparchy and guided by the seminary to deepen their spirituality and understanding of theology. As with the Chaldean seminarians, the women learn the connection between the Latin Rite and Chaldean Rite. Through their personal knowledge and experience, the bond between students of both rites strengthens.

Respecting that we all share in one commonality, which is the Catholic Church, we also understand that there are differences in each rite, but we are able to embrace the traditions and ethnicities of one another, says Chaldean student Stephanie Bahoura, who is working toward her Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies degree. When students and professors realize I am Chaldean, they are interested in me reciting the Our Father' in Aramaic/Chaldean and want to learn it.

Through love and respect, we are able to learn from each other. We are learning how to implement new things for our Church to build stronger, more faith-filled programs that will help the children of the future.

As the early Church was strengthened by disciples in the East and West, Sacred Heart Major Seminary also provides strength to all its seminarians and students through the unity of the two rites. Commitment to Christ's work knows no boundaries.

Mary Kay McPartlin

Mary Kay McPartlin is a Catholic freelance journalist who writes from Maumee, Ohio.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.