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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

As It Was, So Shall It Remain?

Ethiopia’s Orthodox church retools its clergy for a fast-changing world

A rickety passenger bus travels along a highway south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. As the bus approaches the town of Ziway, it pulls off the pavement and stops. Off hops a well-dressed but rumpled Deacon Yitagesu Dese. He brushes off the dust, straightens his button-down shirt and slings his briefcase over his shoulder. Sure in his appearance, he walks to the office of the archbishop at a monastery a few miles away.

At first glance, the 28-year-old looks more city slicker than deacon and, dare say, a little out of place in this rustic lakeside town, known for its birds and historic monuments.

The deacon has traveled from Nazret — a commercial town of 225,000 people about two hours by car north of Ziway. Despite what its biblical name might suggest, Nazret is largely secular and affluent. New buildings line the city’s streets. Lively cafes and restaurants, pulsating music shops and high-end clothing boutiques bustle with locals and stressed capital residents on weekend getaways. Nazret, as does Deacon Yitagesu Dese, exudes a confident air and epitomizes modern Ethiopia.

In contrast, life in Ziway carries on much as it has for centuries. At the monastery, signs of traditional life abound. One priest shovels sun-baked cow patties onto a horse-drawn cart. Adolescent deacons in training sit in pairs near the lake shore studying Scripture. And huddled on wooden benches beneath a small grove of shady trees, some 20 young seminarians practice chanting. Their drones drown out the chirping birds.

The seminarians are guided by debteras, a class of learned men unique to the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches. Debteras command respect: They function as catechists and participate as cantors in the celebration of the Qeddase, the eucharistic liturgy.

The seminarians and debteras chant in Ge’ez — the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches — which few people know.

Little about an Ethiopian Orthodox priest’s formation and rural lifestyle has changed over the centuries — at least until recently. Most Orthodox priests receive an education almost identical to that of the generations of priests before them. And most lead lives with their families in the countryside, surviving on subsistence farming and their parishioners’ meager offerings.

But as traditional agrarian Ethiopia develops and 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 to the faithful they serve.

As the afternoon advances, the mercury level on the thermometer rises. To cope with the heat, the archbishop, Abune Gregorius, has moved his office outside the monastery to catch a lakeside breeze. Cloaked in a black, ankle-length cassock, he sits in a plastic lawn chair next to a table with cool refreshments.

Wherever the archbishop goes, a swarm of seminarians and priests invariably forms around him. Among them, Deacon Yitagesu Dese patiently waits his turn. His request is simple and to the point. St. Mary’s parish in Nazret is shorthanded and needs a high-caliber priest.

As he waits, the deacon prepares his strategy.

“I come from a big parish,” says the deacon. “We have priests assigned to three areas: preaching, religious formation and coordination. One recently left for higher education and we need to replace him, but with someone well qualified. My parish serves hundreds of people.

“This will really affect the service of the church,” he adds.

“The public is ahead of priests in terms of modern education — communications, parish activities, church history — in all of these areas, the public is more demanding than ever before,” the deacon says.

“If you consider the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, to be a priest one has to have a diploma from college.

“But in our case, if someone does four years of religious training, he can be ordained. Other than religious training, nothing else is considered necessary. Only in recent years have priests been expected to read and write.

“The capacity of the clergy,” he points out, “is lagging behind.”

Deacon Yitagesu Dese is not alone in voicing concern. Church leaders openly acknowledge the need for some reform — especially priestly formation — if the church is to remain a force in the lives of the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful, who once accounted for more than half of the country’s population. Today, only 43 percent of Ethiopia’s 78 million people identify themselves as Orthodox. The number of evangelical Christians, however, has tripled since 1994, now totaling 14 million people, about 18 percent of the population.

Orthodox leaders insist the church must move in ways in keeping with its own identity — much easier said than done for a faith community entrenched in a culture and nation for nearly 2,000 years.

Ethiopia is changing rapidly, gaining ground in key areas of economic and social development. Currently, Ethiopia leads those African nations striving to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. Literacy rates are climbing across the country, particularly among women and in rural communities, where 85 percent of the country’s 78 million people live. General public awareness about public health issues, including H.I.V./AIDS, and social issues, such as gender equality, has also reached a historic high.

Even in rural farming communities, where most Orthodox clergy live among the faithful and work as subsistence farmers, new economically and environmentally sustainable approaches to agriculture and development are being introduced.

In 2008, Ethiopia opened the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, which among other things encourages small farmers to consider their farming practices within the national and global economic context rather than just the local market. Small farmers produce 95 percent of Ethiopia’s crops. Most still use age-old, rudimentary techniques involving donkey-drawn carts. As modern agricultural practices take root, the clergy will have to adapt to the changing needs of their parishioners.

One program of the Orthodox Church offers courses to help clergymen — rural priests mostly — integrate development and social issues with understandings of Scripture and Ethiopian Orthodox theology and tradition.

Created by the church’s Development and Interchurch Aid Commission, this training program has centers scattered across the country and receives support from all of its eparchies.

The program is hardly a new initiative. Ethiopia’s Orthodox church has sponsored these centers for more than 30 years — from about the time the country began experiencing its first wave of major social and economic reforms imposed by the former dictatorial Marxist regime. Whereas some of these reforms have continued to gain ground, the clergy training program, weighed down by the church’s financial woes and crumbling infrastructure, has been stagnant.

Currently, eight centers operate in various eparchies throughout the country, including one at the monastery in Ziway. Each center conducts two, four-month-long training sessions per year, from February through May and July through November. Each session enrolls between 50 and 60 participants. All are under the age of 40 and have an eighth- grade education or higher.

Zealbo Wosea Asfau, who worked for years as a director at the Development and Interchurch Aid Commission, estimates that some 10,000 men have graduated from the program. While the number may sound impressive, it constitutes but a tiny fraction of priests — the church includes more than a half million clerics in its ranks.

With renewed interest in the program, however, the number of annual graduates may increase dramatically. At present, a number of bishops have been circulating a project proposal that, if funded, would rehabilitate existing clergy training centers and create 15 new ones, in effect, tripling the size of the current program.

CNEWA, with the generosity of Catholica Unio Deutschland, has already pledged funds to cover the capital costs of constructing a new center in Nekemte, a market town in western Ethiopia, as well as some of its operational expenses. The bishops’ project proposal also calls for a new curriculum to address further — and in greater depth — the critical development and social issues facing Ethiopian society today.

Earlier, these centers focused on the spiritual side: theology, the Bible, modern Christianity, church history,” explains Dr. Nigussu Legesse, who until recently served as the commissioner of the Development and Interchurch Aid Commission.

“Those were the areas we were concerned with, not development.”

But when H.I.V./AIDS emerged as a major public health and development issue, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, encouraged by the government, stepped in to help heighten public awareness about the disease. As a key component of these efforts, the commission, with input from religious and secular scholars, revised the curriculum of the clergy training program to include a section on combating the virus. For the first time, the church was harnessing the program’s potential as a powerful tool for social development.

“Members of the clergy have always significantly influenced the laity. So we’ve wanted to make use of that opportunity for any type of development activities we have,” points out Dr. Legesse, who recently helped secure funding from the European Union for a clergy recruitment program.

“When you see the potential that the members of the clergy have in such development activities, we have to get them engaged. We need to train them. The need is growing for our clergy to be more aware of what’s going on around the world rather than just limited to the Ethiopian situation.”

The program’s current curriculum already reflects this thinking.

“I’d say the curriculum is 60 percent development, 40 percent spiritual,” Dr. Legesse adds.

Participants learn about a number of issues, including alleviating poverty, gender equality, public health and environmental conservation. They also gain practical training in the latest agricultural techniques for the small-scale cultivation of fruits, vegetables, teff and beans. And they learn of the crucial importance of speaking openly with parishioners about traditionally taboo subjects, such as sexual behavior and H.I.V./ AIDS, as well as how to deal appropriately with individuals infected with the virus.

“In earlier times, a young girl went to a priest and told him she had H.I.V.,” recalls Abba Welde Gabriel of St. Michael’s Church in Meki, 12 miles from Ziway. “She asked for a blessing, and the priest said, ‘You’re too young for H.I.V. Go away.’ Now they’ve been trained to address that situation.”

The curriculum also aims to develop and strengthen the clergy’s interpersonal and communication skills. Traditional priestly formation emphasizes memorization, celebrating the liturgy, administering the sacraments, preaching and chanting. In general, this formation does not provide young clergy with the people skills required to lead a parish community in today’s fast-changing world.

“Some priests are born religious people and receive due respect, but others aren’t and don’t. They lack self-confidence,” says Abune Gregorius of Ziway. “You have to consider their position as role models for society. Priests have to live up to that requirement. The clergy training centers help them do that.”

Deacon Kassahun Teka, who serves St. Michael’s Church in Meki, recently completed the clergy training program. The 27-year-old credits it with having made him a more effective minister.

Deacon Kassahun began preparing for the priesthood at the age of 8 and has been serving the church ever since he failed his tenth-grade exams — which are required to enter college. Each morning, he rises before dawn, plants his feet on the dirt floor of his windowless, one-room adobe home and makes his way to St. Michael’s. There, he assists with the celebration of the Qeddase, prepares homilies and mentors Sunday school teachers. After lunch, he makes his rounds to the homes of parishioners, many of whom, he says, “are lost and who don’t show up at church anymore.

“In the beginning, they think you’re visiting them for your own business, to ask for support,’ the deacon explains. In talking to these parishioners, he tries to understand why they stopped attending church and to convince them to come back. “It’s easy to be misunderstood. But somehow you have to connect with them.”

“Know the audience. That’s the main thing the program taught me,” he says.

“When there are children present, don’t give them adult education. Keep it on their level. Homilies need to more realistic. People can’t sit and listen for hours as they used to. So don’t present something that’s not connected to the people.”

Seated behind the deacon, Abba Welde Gabriel nods in agreement.

“The reality is that deacons and priests are the engine of the parish. But the parishioners have more education than before,” the priest says. “So we need to be well prepared and well informed to face today’s challenges and to practice what we preach.”

Most deacons and priests, especially those with families to support, struggle financially, making it difficult for many to remain fully committed to serving the church. Deacon Kassahun Teka, for example, receives a monthly stipend of 300 birr (about $24) from his parish. He manages to scrape a living only by supplementing it with money he earns from small trade and from making and selling injera, a spongy bread that is an Ethiopian staple.

“Having a low salary has its own psychological, social and economical impact,” explains Abba Welde Gabriel.

“This should not be a last-chance job.”

The clergy’s personal financial hardship mirrors in many ways those of the clergy training program — both of which are strapped for resources.

“We don’t want to limit the centers to just 23. The program will expand in the future,” declares Dr. Legesse confidently. “But when you see the financial situation, there’s not really the finances to start them up, to kick start the construction for the buildings and facilities. That’s why we need some assistance from CNEWA and others to do it in a proper way.”

“We’ve had a social revolution in this country in education. The church is also part of the society,” he continues. “That’s why we’re trying to expand this program. Clergy members don’t have to be left behind in their parishes and monasteries. We want to bring them back to the mainstream of education and development in the country.”

But in all likelihood, the clergy training program of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will remain under-funded in the years to come. Moreover, it will take quite awhile before the program implements every aspect of the revised curriculum. In the meantime, the legions of impoverished and poorly educated Ethiopian Orthodox clergy continue to lag behind in a daunting game of catch-up with Ethiopia’s rapidly changing society.

“The survival of Ethiopian Christianity is of concern to Orthodox and Catholic alike,” says Msgr. Robert L. Stern, CNEWA’s secretary general. “This program is vitally important — better priests mean a strong and vibrant church. It merits and needs our help.”

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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