An Ethiopian Odyssey: Warm Welcome

Welcome to Ethiopia! Thank you for joining me on this pastoral visit, which includes Thomas Varghese of our New York office. This is my first visit, so we will all be seeing Ethiopia through the eyes of a first-timer.

After a late night arrival in Addis Ababa, a very warm welcome by our host for the entire pastoral visit — Gerry Jones, who directs our office here — and a brief sleep, we scheduled our first visits with the Catholic archbishop of Addis Ababa and the papal nuncio. Our thought was that these visits would be a sort of tutorial on the realities of the church in Ethiopia. It turned out to be a most worthwhile 101 course on the Ethiopian people, their history and the political challenges that confront the church here.

Metropolitan Archbishop Berhaneyesus D. Souraphiel, C.M., who leads the Ge’ez Catholic Church, is a most engaging figure. He offered a wonderful introduction into the Ethiopian landscape and how this Catholic Eastern church navigates as a very small minority player. Out of a population of more than 80 million, the Catholic Church represents only 0.75 percent of the population. Of this small number of about 600,000 faithful, Ge’ez Catholics in Ethiopia number only about a 100,000 people and are scattered in three eparchies — most Catholics live in the south of the country and utilize the Latin rite. (Some 153,000 Ge’ez Catholics live in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the north.)

Historically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (the rites and traditions of which are shared with Ge’ez Catholics) accounts for about half of the Ethiopian population. But evangelical Protestants are making significant inroads among Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians; their numbers have tripled in the last 15 years and now account for about 17 percent of the population. Muslims make up about a 30 percent. So, the Catholic Church here is extremely small.

But what the Catholic Church lacks in numbers it more than makes up in terms of social service outreach. Hundreds of Catholic schools — which are open to Catholic, Orthodox and Muslims students — are found everywhere and contribute greatly to the moral fiber and educational achievements of this great country. Although the Catholic Church (Latin and Ge’ez) is not formally recognized by the government as a religious entity, it nonetheless receives great respect at every level. The government has donated land to the church to open schools, clinics and hospitals, and contributes to the salaries of teachers.

A second phase of my tutorial on realities confronting the life of the church in Ethiopia took us to the apostolic nunciature for a lovely visit with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop George Panikulam. The nuncio is a very amiable gentleman, who is known for his openness and honesty. He shared with us some very interesting insights and never dodged any of the many questions I posed to him. And the best part of the visit was a delightful meal, in part prepared by him. I later heard that he regularly invites guests for dinner, which he personally prepares.

Before we headed out to the rural parts of the country, we visited the offices of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, where the secretary general, Abba (Father) Hagos Hayish, O.F.M. Cap., warmly greeted us and introduced us to many of his collaborators. This body represents the seven Latin vicariates — or prefectures apostolic — and the three Ge’ez Catholic eparchies in the country, and works with the bishops in effecting pastoral and social development programs.

We drove about three hours to the village of Welkite, where we were warmly welcomed by the bishop of the Ge’ez Catholic Eparchy of Emdibir, Abune Musie Ghebreghiorghis, O.F.M., Cap. Along with Abba Teshome Fikre, the eparchy’s secretary general and our guide in travel there, the bishop first showed us the new parish church now under construction. Also welcoming us were members of the parish committee who proudly took us on a tour.

Before arriving in Emdibir, we made a side visit to the Attat Hospital, which is located in the middle of nowhere. If not for the international team of sisters who staff the facility, there would be no healthcare available for the folks who receive treatment there. They come on donkey, carried on horseback, some in dilapidated public transport vehicles — but they come in great numbers to this refuge, where they receive attentive care. The sisters present a most loving image of Christ to all who come.

After a very long day, and in full darkness, we arrived at the diocesan guest house, which also seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. But, it turned out to be a most welcoming site for a nourishing meal and a restful night of sleep. As a surprise, the good bishop had invited all the diocesan clergy (19 in all) and two foreign religious priests to join us for a lovely dinner and some exchange about the eparchy of Emdibir, which was only established in 2003. I was much taken that all the priests were on hand for this most fraternal sharing.

My first exposure to the rich Ge’ez Rite would come at an early morning Divine Liturgy the following morning at St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral. The bishop and most of the eparchy’s priests concelebrated the ancient liturgy. I was taken aback by the beauty of the liturgy, the amazing intricacy of the chanting, not just of the bishop and the priests, but all the many faithful who had assembled as well. The cathedral had a large of number of people for this ordinary weekday eucharistic liturgy, celebrated at 6:20 a.m. All of the faithful are farmers and some regularly walk great distances to attend.

Another impressive aspect of the cathedral is the outstanding paintings that adorn most of the walls. These are works of art in progress, as the bishop has commissioned an 80-year-old Orthodox priest-iconographer to paint the cathedral murals. After four years of labor, I would say this venerable priest is about 80 percent finished. He lives with the bishop and two other Catholic priests assigned there, together sharing their lives, meals and prayers. I had the honor to meet this outstanding artist and thanked him for his great gift.

Our next visit took us to the Meganese Catholic School, directed by the Capuchin Fathers. Talk about a welcome! Some 1,000 children encircled us, chanting happily and raising high their palm branches. Even the bishop was startled at this reception. The children were so warm and welcoming and responded to my every word and gesture.

The very large campus also includes a health clinic, agricultural components and other programs. We were accompanied by members of the parents association and community elders. Their enthusiasm for the school is obvious and they work hand in hand with the Capuchin Fathers on its administration.

I very much enjoyed the visit to the health clinic, which is immaculately clean and a reflection of the good order and management of the two European sisters who staff it. They are particularly proud of their birthing suite and hope someday to be able to perform simple surgeries at this facility. They are also very happy about recently purchasing a brand-spanking-new ambulance that will especially help them attend to the needs of women in labor.

Our next stop took us to Bhurat and a visit to the Bhurat Catholic School. Here, too, we were warmly and wildly greeted by the students, complete with welcoming signs with the name of CNEWA prominently featured and displayed on poles and carried on banners. Our first point of business was to “cut the ribbon” for an extension wing built on to the existing school, a gift from a most generous CNEWA donor. It was a special honor for me to inaugurate this new wing.

The real feature of our visit was a formal program, complete with an elevated stage set up outdoors with a large stand of huge trees as a backdrop. Hundreds of parents, community elders and, of course, children, were all in attendance and offered their expressions of thanks to CNEWA. Even some government officials honored us with their presence.

We were entertained by singers, dancers, acrobats and speakers who included the school administrator, the school director (a Capuchin father), a representative from the elders of the community and the bishop. The program also included the presentation of some special gifts to each of us, including Thomas and Gerry. What impressed me most was the wonderful level of collaboration with school parents (Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics), community elders representing a large number of rural communities and government education officials who gave public testimony to the immense benefit of Catholic schools in this area. The bishop gave some beautiful remarks that reminded all that it is only God who has made and continues to make all of this possible. What a profound summary of how the church invites everyone to come to know the goodness of God, no matter what faith tradition we espouse.

Another very inspiring experience on this day was a brief visit to a class being given to catechists, as part of their continuing education and formation program. And to me an amazing part of their story is that each of them has been chosen for this most important role by their respective communities. They must be men and women of great faith, willing to share their faith with others as catechists.

The big campus at Bhurat also includes a health clinic. Two sisters from India run it and do a superb job in offering first-rate healthcare in an environment of loving kindness. We ended our visit with a marvelous meal, which included the ritual roasting of coffee beans and serving of rich Ethiopian coffee. With us for the entire visit to this site were the elders, almost serving as our security team and “honor guard.” In fact, the honor was all ours.

At the end of this very full and tiring day, the bishop had yet another surprise for us: a barbecue, Ethiopian style, in front of his residence. It was a delightful meal with many tasty dishes and the camaraderie of the bishop and a number of his diocesan priests. We said our goodbyes to all, as we would be departing very early in the morning for Meki, more than three hours away — if the rains do not play havoc with the roads.

Your ears should be ringing as so many of your family friends here extend their loving best wishes and thanks to you, the CNEWA family. God bless all of you. As one of the community elders said to me as he hugged me and wished me farewell: “I love you and all the people of America.”

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