by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Why did you decide to join the Legionaries of Christ?
Father Sameer: One of the most quoted lines from the prophet Jeremiah is probably his “You duped me O Lord, and I let myself be duped” (Jer 20:7), and I can say something very similar about the way in which God introduced me to the Legionaries of Christ.
In June 2003 I had just finished a degree in pure mathematics from Queens University in Kingston, Canada. I was heading off to graduate school in September with my life pretty much planned out. But on the last Thursday at Queens a Legionary priest visited our Newman centre on campus and after Mass we started talking. I had never heard of the Legionaries, but over dinner he told me about a summer program his congregation ran every year in Europe for Catholic university leaders - it was held at the palace of the Duke of Liechtenstein, and included visits to Italy, Germany and France - and then asked me if I would be interested in attending! As you can imagine, I didn’t need much convincing, and the very next day I thus found myself at a Legionary house to do an interview for the program. It went well… until the priest told me that the program was unfortunately full for that summer. ‘But don’t worry,’ he said, ‘if you want you can always do it next year; and in the meantime, why don’t you visit our house in the US for a few weeks?’
2 weeks later I thus found myself pulling up at the Legionary seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut, for what I thought would be a program similar to the one in Europe. Except that it wasn’t… it was their candidacy program for young men thinking about the priesthood!
And that’s when something extraordinary happened. Within a few days – I can’t remember exactly where or when – I suddenly knew, with complete and total certainty, that this is where I belonged. That God had made me to be a Legionary. I knew almost nothing about the congregation – about what they did, where they worked, their history, their spirituality – but I knew I was meant to be a Legionary. I suppose it was something like love at first sight – I simply knew that I was home.
2 months later, on September 15, I put on the Legionary cassock, and the rest is history. God had duped me, and I have never been happier that I let myself be duped.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary, and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it so challenging?
Father Sameer: I spent a total of 12 years in formation: 3 years in the US in Connecticut in the novitiate and earning a humanities degree in Latin, Greek, art-history and literature to complement my scientific-mathematics background; 3 years in Rome where I obtained a Master’s degree in Philosophy; 3 years back in the US as a formator for younger seminarians; and then 3 years in Rome again for theology.
I have always enjoyed academia, and so I can’t say that any one course stood out as particularly difficult. I do remember the challenges of my first year in Rome, however. The community spoke Spanish in the house, and classes in the university were held in Italian. I understood neither, so the first 6 to 8 months were really difficult. But thanks to the infinite patience of my superiors and the other seminarians, and a lot of hours reading all the textbooks I could find in English, everything worked out well.
There have been a lot of courses throughout the years that have been fascinating and have enlarged my intellectual horizons. The various classes I attended on metaphysics stand out in a particular way; it is the theoretical heart of all philosophy and with my mathematics training in logical and abstract thinking I could delve right into the thought of giants like Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. In theology this then translated into my interest in Fundamental Theology which is something like the ‘philosophy of the faith’ where the thoughts of giants like Newman, Ratzinger, and von Balthasar have been particularly stimulating.
Gordon: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?
Father Sameer: After 6 years in the seminary I was sent back to the US to help out as a formator of younger seminarians. They were 3 incredible years where God formed my heart and looking back I can see the presence of His grace everywhere and in everything, working to make me into a priest and a shepherd like that of His Son.
I don’t think that a priest can have a mission that is as humanly rewarding as forming future priests: praying with them, accompanying them, helping them to discover the incredible gift of the vocation that they have received, laughing with them, suffering with them. It is a very humbling task, because over time one begins to see the action of grace in the soul of another person, and one realizes how God can work even though someone as flawed as oneself. Many of the brothers I accompanied are now priests themselves, and I have had the grace of attending their ordinations and first masses. There is no joy that can describe those moments.
Those were years in which I received many graces in my spiritual life. I learnt that the most important thing in a priests life is not so much the work that he does, but his relationship with Jesus and God. There will always be lots to do, lots of good projects to fill our time with, lots of work that is important and urgent… but God needs to always come first. He is the great love of our lives, the only One who can fill our hearts. God first, and then everyone and everything else.
I have always had a great love for our Blessed Mother, and those were also years in which I felt her presence in a very special way. She is the one who taught Jesus for 30 years… and I think that in those 3 years I worked as a seminary formator she took me under her mantle and taught me to be like her and her son.
I am very blessed to be able to continue this mission, albeit in a reduced capacity, as part of the formation team in the Legionary seminary here in Rome. It is a gift and a responsibility that I cherish very greatly.
Gordon: What courses do you teach at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum?
Father Sameer: After my ordination in December 2015 I was assigned to our university in Rome as a professor. My area of interest, research, and teaching is double: on the one hand the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI, and on the other philosophy and theology of religions. My doctoral thesis linked the two by studying Ratzinger’s reply to the popular, dominant idea of many people today, including many Christians, that ‘all religions are equal’ by tracing how salvific grace comes from Christ and is mediated through the Church.
I think that we have been enormously blest to have had so many saintly Popes this century like Paul VI and John Paul II, and I am convinced that Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI will also in time be recognized both as a saint and as one of the greatest theologians in Church history. I discovered his writings over 15 years ago, when I first arrived in Rome, and have been an ardent admirer since. He has the unusual gift of being able to express the core of the Christian faith in words that are deceptively simple in appearance but actually deeply profound, and has strived his entire life to answer the fundamental question of what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. Much of my work in the Atheneum involves classes and study groups to explore his thought and it has been a journey of discovery that has had enormous fruit, both personally and academically. There are several projects that the Atheneum and the Ratzinger Foundation at the Vatican are working on, and my dream is to eventually create an international centre for studies on his thought here in Rome.
The question of the meaning and value of other religions is one that is also very personal. My father is a convert from Hinduism, and I grew up in Dubai which is, of course, a Muslim country. So the other religions – with all their good, holy, and true elements, together with their errors – is not just a theoretical issue for me but has been a lived reality and experience. From a theological perspective, I am investigating what role the other religions could possibly play in God’s providential plan, without however falling into the error of seeing them as parallel paths to Christ that are independent of Him. There is so much confusion on this topic in today’s world and much work needs to be done in this field.
Gordon: Please share with our readers your work with UNESCO on religions and bioethics.
Father Sameer: My interest in religions eventually led to my involvement in the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics & Human Rights in which I now sit on the organizing committee. We are a group of international scholars, from over 20 countries, who meet every two years to discuss current bioethical challenges from an inter-religious perspective under the tutelage of UNESCO. Bioethical literature tends to be very secular in character, so our aim is to give the different major religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism – the opportunity to contribute to that dialogue based on their wisdom and insights, and to explore to what extent these religions converge in their ethical evaluation of certain issues.
Two years ago, for example, we met in Casablanca, Morocco to discuss the question of surrogate motherhood. There are so many issues that the practice brings up: biological vs legal motherhood, the rights of children to know their (biological) parents, the rights of (biological) mothers to know their children, the desire of so many infertile couples to have children, problems of legal recognition of children born to a surrogate, questions about the techniques and technologies used and the implicit tendency to see people – women and children in this case – as objects who can be bought and used etc etc. It was fascinating hearing how the different religious traditions approach these questions, sometimes from very different perspectives and with very different results, and through our discussion to try and arrive to certain points of convergence that can hopefully affect international law.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as the Director of the 'Christianity and Culture Program’ at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum?
Father Sameer: This is a program that I developed 5 years ago and which occupies a very important place in my heart. The idea is to form university professors from around the world in their knowledge and appreciation of the fundamental role that Christianity has played in the formation of Western civilization in order to better equip them for the challenges of the new evangelization and the specific role of the Catholic University in contemporary culture. I am convinced that universities of today are enormous fields of evangelization, and our goal is to help Catholic professors – in every field, whether it be medicine, law, economics, politics, art, literature – better appreciate the immense richness that the Catholic faith has to offer in terms of its vision of who man is and who God is, and thus convert them into implicit agents of evangelization who can propose that vision through to their students in their different classes.
The program has three components, which all work together to provide what many, many professors have told me has been a life-changing experience: (1) At the theoretical level it consists of the systematic study – historical, philosophical, and theological – of the key elements that make up the Catholic ‘Vision of the World’, especially its vision of the human person, of God, and of the natural world, and an analysis of the contemporary society from this perspective; (2) At the experiential, historical level it includes guided visits of Rome and the surrounding regions of Italy where the theory of the Catholic Vision of the World is enriched by witnessing the historical development of a Christian culture: we visit the monuments of the Rome of the Romans, the catacombs and the early Christian churches, Roman Imperial Christianity, the birth of monasticism, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and Christianity in the modern world; (3) and finally at the spiritual level it consists in religious activities like a retreat day, daily mass, opportunities for confession, a pilgrimage to Assisi, and an audience with the Pope in order to encourage a personal and transforming encounter with Christ.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities in the St Peter's Cricket Team, the unofficial Vatican Cricket Team of Pope Francis?
Father Sameer: The St Peter’s Cricket Team, popularly known as the Vatican XI, is composed of priests and seminarians studying and working in Rome and is affiliated with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and Sport. It was founded in 2014 with the objective to promote inter-religious, ecumenical, and inter-cultural dialogue, increase the awareness of the importance of religion for society, address important social themes like slavery, and foster the spread of the Christian Gospel through the means of cricket. I was privileged to join the team as one of its two managers in 2014 and have been with it ever since.
We have played in several high-profile matches in our short history, engaging in several ‘Light of Faith Tours’ to England, Portugal, Argentina, and Kenya, not to mention our matches in Rome. One unforgettable memory was travelling to Windsor Castle, playing The Royal Household Cricket Club, and meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
For me, the cricket project is above all a means for the Church to enter into the enormous world of sports, engage with people it would not otherwise have the opportunity to, and bear testimony – at times solely through our example – to the truth of the Gospel.
Gordon: Thank you for a beautiful and memorable interview.