An Ethiopian Odyssey: The Challenges of the Church

It is very early on Tuesday here in Addis Ababa. I’m eager to share with you yesterday’s activities and to offer some insights on the life of the church in Ethiopia.

Yesterday began with an invitation from all the Catholic bishops of the country to meet with them while they gathered for a special weeklong workshop. They welcomed my observations, not only as the president of CNEWA but also as a brother priest. The metropolitan archbishop of Addis Ababa, Abune Berhaneyesus, offered profound thanks to CNEWA for accompanying the Ethiopian church for so many years on its missionary journey. This was really a very loving testimonial to all of you in our family for your many years of support for the poor and for the solidarity that we have demonstrated with the bishops of Ethiopia and to all the faithful.

I began my remarks by insisting that I am not an authority on anything theological or sociological or otherwise, and certainly not in reference to Ethiopia. I described my role with CNEWA as I have done oftentimes as being a parish priest from Pittsburgh, who loves the missions and is on loan to the world. They smiled and warmly invited me to continue.

I combined personal observations with the insights that some of them had personally shared with me during my visits of the past week or so, and also incorporated the considerations of many other diocesan priests, religious men and women, as well as lay leaders. Adding to this mix I also intertwined some of my experience as a parish priest and former vicar for clergy and former national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

The tone and substance of my remarks was very positive. As a brother priest, I offered them some practical suggestions and made some recommendations on how they might improve in certain areas, such as formation of their clergy; the ongoing formation of their clergy and laity; the leadership role of the episcopal conference; how they might address dialogue with men and women religious; and especially how they might better address the pastoral needs in their respective eparchies and in the country as a whole. They seemed to accept my presentation readily and expressed their determination in addressing the challenges facing the church in Ethiopia. I thanked them again for the honor of sharing with them and expressed CNEWA’s solidarity with all of them, stating that we will continue to journey with them as a church.

The challenges facing the Catholic Church in Ethiopia are unique. Let’s begin with the geography: Ethiopia is a huge country that seems much larger because of its poor road systems. It takes more than four days to drive from one tip to the other and these would be very wearying miles indeed. Without heavy-duty four-wheel-drive vehicles, it is impossible to navigate.

There are many ethnic, tribal and linguistic challenges and thus even communication is difficult at best in some areas of the country. Neighboring Ethiopia are countries that have suffered and continue to suffer from war, hunger, social injustice and political oppression. Ethiopia has herself experienced some great famines and an ugly war with Eritrea. Families have been cruelly separated from loved ones because they have been on the wrong side of a demarcation line.

Refugees arrive from bordering countries every day and bring further strain to the local economy. There is a constant reliance on global organizations for clothing, foodstuffs, water, medicines and other basics. The church is very involved in partnering with these agencies in bringing needed relief to the masses of people who are poor.

Ethiopia also has an interesting mix of rites: many of the dioceses are Latin and are called apostolic vicariates and other dioceses of the Ge’ez Catholic rite (which is Eastern) are called eparchies. Some of the bishops of one rite have actually grown up in the opposite rite. But generally, it seems to work. Most of the bishops and priests in many parts of the country are bi-ritual, and thus are comfortable in celebrating the liturgy well in either rite.

I also had a wonderful visit yesterday with our CNEWA family in Addis Ababa — that is, our staff. This group of very dedicated and dynamic workers welcomed me warmly. I took the opportunity to become better acquainted with them and to share with them how I value greatly not only their performance in the office, but their input in helping me to improve on the good works of CNEWA in Ethiopia. They very readily accepted this challenge as we journey together to discover more fully who we are, what we do and why we do it. We included in our visit a lovely lunch together at a local restaurant, a treat for them and also for me, as sharing a meal together is always the best way to heighten a visit.

Today, I have an audience with the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos. I look forward to this great honor, as this church leader is a most important figure in Ethiopia and in this part of the world. I will also be visiting the major seminary here, of which CNEWA is a significant supporter. Stay tuned for more of these visits in my next report. Until next time, be assured of my prayers and the prayers of the poor. May God continue to bless you all.

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