Today was a most uplifting day for me, one filled with many wonderful experiences. Let me share some of them with you.
We began with an early morning visit to Holy Trinity Theological College, where we were warmly met by the rector, Abune Timotheos. He is a very affable, kind and soft-spoken holy man.
A little background about this college: Holy Trinity is the theological seminary of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. It serves the entire country, which includes more than 35 million Orthodox Christians, the largest faith community in Ethiopia. Over many years, CNEWA has reached out to this seminary with some assistance as an expression of ecumenical solidarity with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and as an outreach of our Holy Father. We have helped this seminary to improve the quality of its teaching and formation by supporting the graduate education of three faculty members who received their graduate degrees from the Catholic Pontifical Seminary in Bangalore, India. In doing so, the average seminarian, priest or deacon who attends this seminary is now better educated and prepared for his ministry.
The rector expressed profound thanks to all our CNEWA family for this loving sign of solidarity. The words of thanks were especially powerful as expressed by the three faculty members who received CNEWA scholarships. I am also impressed that the seminary in India, which is itself a huge mission territory, can now reach out and continue Pentecost by offering theological training and advanced degrees to our brothers in the Orthodox tradition.
We were given an extensive tour of this very humble seminary property. It had been taken over by the Communist government in the mid-1970’s and closed for about 20 years. The facilities were left in shambles and most of the classrooms, library, study rooms, etc., are still very old and run down. They were most happy to show us the “new” classrooms built by gifts from our CNEWA family. Excuse my pride, but I felt very honored and happy to find that our gifts had borne such wonderful fruits.
CNEWA has also sponsored a clerical training program for rural Orthodox priests. You must understand that many — if not most — rural Orthodox priests have not had any formal theological training. They are basically subsistence farmers. Their primary training before ordination (often at 19 years of age) is the memorization of chants in the Ethiopian liturgical language of Ge’ez in order to celebrate the Qedasse, the Eucharistic liturgy of the Ethiopian church. But as traditional agrarian Ethiopia develops and modernizes, and as its increasingly better-educated people leave their villages for the cities, many within the Ethiopian Orthodox community worry that its priests will no longer be relevant; ancient Ethiopian Orthodoxy is at a crossroads.
In the last 20 years or so, evangelical Protestants have grown quickly — and usually at the expense of the ancient Orthodox Church. Through your charity, and with the strong endorsement of the Catholic bishops in Ethiopia and the open arms of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, CNEWA has undertaken a program of building some very basic study centers in very rural areas of the country. These clergy training centers have bolstered, however humbly, the theological and scriptural education of thousands of Ethiopian clergy.
The results have been most encouraging. Throughout our visit at the seminary and later in the presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox patriarch, the topic of these clergy training centers was highlighted time and time again. You should all be very proud as our Orthodox brothers find fulfillment in their formal studies at the seminary and at these centers. In fact, in meeting many of the men at the seminary, they were most anxious to tell us that they are now pursuing a degree and perhaps even a graduate degree in theological or scriptural studies. Just a few years ago, this was not possible.
Our next visit took us to one of the major seminary residences housing seminarians from both the Latin and the Ge’ez Catholic rites in Ethiopia. Most of the Catholic seminarians live in one of three residences located within a stone’s throw of each other. This particular seminary residence, named for St. Ephrem, houses about 26 students. We arrived just in time for lunch. After lunch and few words from the rector and me, a group of ten seminarians performed a liturgical song and dance. A special feature of their dance was the chanting and dancing to the pulsating beat of a huge drum. They were delighted to share the rich heritage of their ethnic and tribal heritage. And better yet, they were a mix of both Ge’ez Catholic and Latin Catholics.
The rector, Father Ghirmay, was effusive in his thanks to all of us for CNEWA’s support of these residences. The Catholic bishops of all Ethiopia also thanked me yesterday for the great gift of sponsorship of these seminary facilities, which serve to address spirituality and formation of the seminarians. Each young man has a director (or rector), a spiritual director (or formator) and visiting professors who give in-house classes to complement the formal seminary curriculum at the Capuchin Franciscan Institute of Philosophy and Theology (which we will visit later).
Afterward, the rector and some of the seminarians took us on a tour of the facility. They were eager to show us everything, especially the chapel and the library. Here again, CNEWA has been instrumental in donating resource materials for their studies.
Our last stop of the day, in the late afternoon, was most notable. We were received by His Holiness, Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This role places him as the supreme shepherd of more than 35 million souls in this country, plus a significant number of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians living elsewhere.
The patriarch is quite a character. Entering the receiving room, resplendent with elegant furnishings, and seeing him seated on a throne, one expects that his manner would be quite formal and the visit very pro forma — quite the contrary. This man is full of wisdom and insight, but also very disarming with his humor. Out of the blue comes a quip or a jovial word. But make no mistake; this man is a first-class public relations expert and a high-power salesman. He is so good at promoting the church, I kidded him and told him some of the bishops in North America might want to hire him as a development consultant!
We had a delightful conversation and he obviously regards the solidarity with the Catholic Church as a precious gift. He especially holds Gerry Jones, our regional director in Ethiopia, in highest regard and made references to that relationship many times, sometimes in jest, but always with deep respect.
As I was bidding him goodbye and receiving his blessing, I offered him a heartfelt invitation to honor us with a visit to our office in New York. He received this invitation warmly.
It was a very good day, one filled with good stories and personal accounts of CNEWA being at its best: in reaching out to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, helping our Catholic seminarians be sustained in their spiritual lives and formation and in our expressions of solidarity with some very dedicated church leaders and those entrusted to their care.
Perhaps the most important expression of gratitude from our hosts — seminarians and their formators and teachers, patriarch and rectors — was the promise of remembering all of you, our CNEWA family, in their prayers. And I add my own prayers to theirs: Thank you and God bless you.