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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 133-135
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Monumenta Proximi-Orientis, VI: Égypte (1700-1773). By Charles Libois, S.J. [Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, Vol. 155; Monumenta Missionum Societatis Iesu, Vol. LXVII. Missiones Orientales.] (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu. 2003. Pp. lx, 658.)
This volume is the fourth and last on the history of the Society of Jesus in Egypt before its suppression in 1773. It is also the last in the series "Monumenta Proximi Orientis." It covers the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century.
The dream of reaching Ethiopia came to an end at the beginning of the century—in 1706—after the death of the Franciscans, Jesuits, and envoys of the King of France who were sent to Egypt, but of the 252 documents reproduced in this book more than one hundred none the less concern these missions and cover half of the work.
A ferocious competition can be discerned there between each group of those sent—civilians as well as religious—to be the first to achieve the desired allegiances—a competition which in part would cause the failure of those commissioned. This competition among the envoys of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, Franciscans of the Holy Land, Jesuits, and consuls would be manifested as well in Cairo, in the pursuit of a union between Rome and the Orthodox Coptic Patriarch as for the mastery of the care of souls—a competition that is astonishing for us and unfortunate indeed.
Father Libois's introduction is quite reserved on these tensions—more reserved in any case than a reading of the documents reveals—and is extended at greater length to the pastoral activities of the Jesuit Fathers in Cairo, to their school and their garden.
As the project of a mission to Ethiopia faded in the early years of the century, the Fathers began to interest themselves in Egypt for its own sake. They built their residence and attached to it a garden that was to be the place of meetings of the French merchants in Cairo and of Copts converted to Catholicism.
Their efforts were directed toward several objectives. The dream of bringing the Orthodox Coptic Church under the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome and of restoring unity: two fruitless attempts in the sixteenth century had not stifled this dream. But in view of the uselessness of all these efforts, it was toward the establishment of a Catholic Coptic community that it had an unhappy outcome. The Jesuits opened a small school to fight against the total ignorance of [End Page 133] the Christians. The teachers in it were to be young Egyptian priests who had studied in Rome. The financing of this school was to be a constant worry for the Fathers.
Father Sicard was certainly the most remarkable Jesuit of this period. He spent, however, only fourteen years in Egypt before the plague carried him off in 1726, but he had scoured the whole country and had founded the first scientific Egyptology, exploring from Damietta to Aswan or Siwa, making cartographic surveys and identifying the monuments and giving them their ancient names according to Strabo and the Greek inventories of times past.
It was also during this first quarter of the eighteenth century that the first small Catholic Coptic community came into being—more, however, thanks to the missions of the Franciscans than of the Jesuits themselves. This appearance of a first Catholic Coptic nucleus did not occur without many problems—
tensions with the local church and problems of communicatio in sacris between the Propaganda and the Jesuits. The documents regarding these tensions are abundant—letters between the Franciscans and the Propaganda, between the Propaganda and the Jesuits, between the Jesuits and the Propaganda.
The decline of the mission started in 1744 with the death in two weeks of the three Jesuits of the community. None of their successors would attain the level of Father Sicard and of Father Elia Aleppino. The school, nevertheless, was maintained almost up to the suppression of the Society, as well as all the pastoral ministries...