CNEWA Sets New Program Priorities in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, more than 3,500 needy children are enrolled in CNEWA’s sponsorship program. Much of the monies collected on their behalf support the children’s education, often beginning with pre-kindergarten programs. Since the agency is spending a lot of money keeping elementary schools open, Msgr. Stern said, CNEWA should also extend its mission to improving the schools themselves. The agency would do this, he said, by offering teacher training, ongoing workshops and improving the quality of education.

Msgr. Stern’s position that the work of CNEWA is “more than paying the bills,” also applies to the seminary system in Ethiopia, he said.

Two years ago, he noted, the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches asked CNEWA to take over total support of the major and minor seminaries in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“Again, if we’re spending all this money to support the institution, we should be concerned with a little bit more than just paying the bills,” he said.

Msgr. Stern and Christian Brother Vincent Pelletier, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea, began their mission by traveling to the Eparchy of Adigrat, near the Eritrean border. On their way there, they visited St. Frumentius Theological College of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which opened last year.

Msgr. Stern commented that Ethiopia’s Christianity has a highly Jewish character. Many customs follow the Law of Moses. Devotions to the Ark of the Covenant are celebrated and every parish has a tabot, or a replica of the Ark, which according to Ethiopian tradition rests in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in the town of Axum.

Four years ago, Msgr. Stern said, he was in Ethiopia just before its border war with Eritrea broke out. By coincidence, he was at the border when the United Nations released its recent border determination in The Hague. Ethiopians and Eritreans were both apprehensive, he reported, as they waited to see on which side of the border they would fall. The small town of Adigrat is currently home to about 40,000 to 50,000 refugees, almost double its normal population, Msgr. Stern said.

Over the years, CNEWA has established good relations with the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, Msgr. Stern said. The agency is eager to help the Orthodox Church, provide humanitarian aid and work for church unity. “We must act like we are brothers and sisters,” he said, rather than the competition.

Of the five Eastern Catholic jurisdictions in Ethiopia and Eritrea that CNEWA supports, said Msgr. Stern, Adigrat is the only eparchy (or diocese) that has its own major and minor seminaries. (Other dioceses share the vocational training of their priests.) He met with staff and faculty to discuss formation, and reiterated CNEWA’s plan not only to fund seminary training but also to assist in improving its quality.

The Eparchy of Adigrat has an ambitious seminary program, Msgr. Stern said. In the minor seminary, the boys who live in the seminary residence share classes with the girls, who are day students. The young men will go on to the priesthood, and the young women will complete studies for religious congregations.

While there are many encouraging signs that point to the growth of the church in Ethiopia, Msgr. Stern also had some negative aspects to report. The country consists of many different ethnic groups and tribes, and most of them have their own languages. This tribalism is a divisive factor. In one seminary he visited, he said, a fire broke out in one of the buildings. An investigation uncovered the fact that the fire was started by a seminarian perhaps with the instigation of a priest. There were claims, Msgr. Stern reported, that one tribe felt another tribe had been favored.

English is the foreign language of choice in Ethiopia and the language of instruction in the seminaries, Msgr. Stern said. However, the English used by the students needs improvement. For English to succeed in the seminaries, Msgr. Stern said, professional courses in English as a second language will have to be given. The seminaries are also looking to audiovisual aids and videos to improve the language skills of their students.

Except for the Eparchy of Adigrat, all major seminarians in Ethiopia attend the Capuchin Franciscan Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa. Msgr. Stern visited the students in their classrooms.

At a special meeting of the Assembly of Hierarchs of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, Msgr. Stern mentioned the new priorities of CNEWA in fostering vocations by improving education and spiritual formation as well as by offering scholarships.

In meeting with the bishops, major religious superiors of men and women, rectors of diocesan and religious seminaries and theologates and formation personnel, Msgr. Stern stressed that their houses must be places of formation, places where men receive sound spiritual training.

The path that a young man takes on the road to the priesthood in Ethiopia is a difficult one, Msgr. Stern pointed out. He is usually from a very poor family. His life in the seminary is a drastic change: his own room, adequate food, clean clothes, access to a television, perhaps even a computer.

After ordination, he tends to forget his roots and why he wanted to become a priest. The temptation is to lose contact with the village, to “get over and above the people” he was meant to serve, said Msgr. Stern.

All seminarians face this problem. There is a dual nature to the priesthood, Msgr. Stern said, there is a tension between being a man of God and a man of the church. Being a man of the church, means doing the job, serving the people. Being a man of God means following Jesus or, more importantly, following “the suffering Jesus.”

It is easy for the young priest to be caught up in the job and forget his original calling. For this reason, Msgr. Stern asserted, the continuing spiritual formation of the priest is as important as his seminary training.

Msgr. Stern used the words of a hymn to describe the special vocation of the priest, brother or sister: “I have decided to follow Jesus…no turning back…” Without this singular commitment, the spiritual can easily get lost, he added.

To improve the quality of spiritual formation, Msgr. Stern said it was important to have key people involved. He cited CNEWA’s Brother Vincent Pelletier as an expert in this field and others, notably the Jesuits from Galilee Retreat Center near Addis Ababa, seminary staff members and the Archdiocesan Catholic Secretariat.

This June, Msgr. Stern reported, the semiannual meeting of Catholic donor organizations will take place in Rome. The Congregation for Eastern Churches is convoking it. The focus will be on pastoral planning for the churches.

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