Mundelein at 100: Assyrian Orthodox students found a home at seminary

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The University of St. Mary of the Lake counts plenty of Catholic prelates among the men who studied there.

Now, it can count the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East. Mar Awa Royel, born in Chicago, was elected patriarch in Erbil, Iraq, in September.

“We believe that the patriarchal election is a gift from the Lord, so therefore we depend on his blessings and the grace of God and the prayers of the faithful. That is a very sublime and very high responsibility, but the Lord gives it as he wills,” the new patriarch was quoted as saying by the Assyrian International News Agency after his election. “The Assyrian Church would like to stress the fact that our roots are here in Iraq, and in this blessed land, in the region as well.”

The church returned its seat to Iraq in 2006 after several decades in the United States.

Mar Awa Royel — then Deacon David Royel — was one of at least three young clerics of the Assyrian Church of the East to attend the University of St. Mary of the Lake’s Pontifical Faculty of Theology, said Father Leo Lefebure, now a professor at Georgetown University. He was dean of the University of St. Mary of the Lake’s Ecclesiastical Faculty of Theology from 1992 to 1998.

The new patriarch earned a baccalaureate in sacred theology in 1999, the year he was ordained a priest. He went on earn a licentiate and a doctorate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

While Lefebure said he isn’t familiar with other Catholic seminaries in the United States educating clergy for members of other churches, it is common for eastern Christian churches to send students to be educated in Rome, according to Paulist Father Ron Roberson, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariate for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

“The idea of having Orthodox students studying at Catholic institutions at Rome isn’t new,” Roberson said. “It’s a way of strengthening relationships between churches in the long run, getting to know one another on another level.”

The students came to USML after Pope John Paul II signed the Common Christological Declaration with Mar Dinkha IV, then the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, in 1994, resolving a theological dispute and creating warmer ecumenical relations between the churches, Lefebure said.

Mar Dinka IV had studied at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Rome.

Lefebure said he had been asked by Father Thomas Baima, now provost of USML, whether the university could educate students the leaders of Assyrian Church of the East had identified as future candidates for the episcopacy.

“The presence of these students in our community helped broaden the ecumenical horizons of all of us,” Lefebure said. “One of their bishops came to celebrate evening prayer with us during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

Seminarians studying for the Catholic priesthood benefited by meeting members of and learning about a church they had previously known mostly through its history, Lefebure said.

“They’re the church that spread across central Asia into China in the seventh century,” he said. “People knew of their church from early church history, but they hadn’t been part of our lived awareness for most of us at the seminary.”

During the time the Assyrian students were there, USML also hosted some ecumenical conferences in which leaders of the Assyrian Church of the East took part.

Lefebure said he wasn’t sure how members of the Assyrian Church first got in touch with USML, but Baima, who was very active in ecumenical and interreligious affairs, would have known them, and Mar Dinka IV lived in Morton Grove, so he likely would have been familiar with the seminary.


  • ecumenism
  • mundelein centenary

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