ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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


Excerpts from a report of a May field visit to Ethiopia by Catholic Near East Welfare Association staff.

Ethiopian Christianity. Christianity reached Ethiopia very early, probably in New Testament times. Large scale conversions of the people and the king himself took place in the 4th century. Monasticism became widespread, and the monasteries came to serve as centers of learning.

Christianity was the state religion in Ethiopia until the Marxist revolution of 1974. Now church and state are officially separated.

Most Ethiopian Christians are Orthodox. Today the Ethiopian Orthodox Church numbers over 20,000,000 members. It is suspicious of the Catholic Church and sometimes hostile, since the conversion attempts of the Portuguese Jesuits in the sixteenth century and the establishment in the nineteenth century of European Catholic missionary jurisdictions and later, of a Catholic Ethiopian rite. On the other hand, it is very grateful for the massive humanitarian assistance received in recent years from Catholic and other Christian sources.

Sheer numbers dictate that the support and advancement of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are vital to the preservation of Christianity in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Catholic Church. For historical reasons, the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is divided into two rites: the Ethiopian rite, which is similiar in its traditions to the Orthodox Church, and the Latin or Western rite.

The ancient Christian area of Ethiopia, the northern and central part of the country, follows the Ethiopian rite. It is divided into four ecclesiastical jurisdictions: the three Ethiopian rite eparchies of Addis Ababa, Adigrat, and Asmara and the Latin rite apostolic vicariate of Asmara.

The south, originally more animist than Christian, predominantly follows the Latin rite. It is divided into five ecclesiastical jurisdictions: the four apostolic vicariates of Awasa, Harar, Nekemte, and Soddo-Hosanna, and the apostolic prefecture of Meki.

As the sees held by European ordinaries are vacated, they are being replaced with Ethiopians, regardless of rite. In some areas there is a gradual adoption of Ethiopian rite customs in the Latin rite, and there is an increasing use of the vernacular in the place of the ancient liturgical language of Geez in many Ethiopian rite areas.

Seminaries. The Church in Ethiopia is blessed with an abundance of vocations, and the quality of formation being offered to candidates is impressive. Although some religious orders accept candidates at a very early age, most begin their formation at the secondary level.

The priests responsible for theological formation are very impressive. Their enthusiasm, zeal, professional expertise, and vision are striking. Personal conversations with major seminarians reveal them to be mature, confident, and well-motivated.

Although the common medium of instruction is English, often seminarians’ conversational English skills are weak.

The residential, inter-diocesan seminary of Addis Ababa was recently enlarged, but because of the large number of candidates it is very over-crowded. Another wing for the building is sorely needed, and generally it is in need of furnishings and equipment.

Formation of nuns and brothers. There are many vocations to the religious life. Besides religious orders of priests, the Brothers of the Christian Schools have several houses in Ethiopia and there are about 30 congregations of women religious. Their principal apostolic works are nursery care, primary education and health services.

There are a great number of nursery and kindergarten programs, but fewer primary schools. Accordingly there is need for teacher training, both the provision of higher education to religious sisters and the development of lay teachers.

There is an effective, existing summer program for catechist formation. An expansion of this training into a permanent center for catechist formation and the overall development of lay leadership would very much enhance the work of the Church.

Socialist government. The Catholic Church in Ethiopia is disproportionately influential in educational and social services. Although a relatively small community, it supports an extensive network of schools, clinics, nutrition centers, and other institutions.

Although the government is strictly Marxist, only in some areas of the country has it nationalized Catholic educational institutions, and in many parts of the country it offers large tracts of choice land to the Church for the construction of nurseries; primary, secondary, and technical schools; and clinics and dispensaries.

Even though the relationship between church and state is rarely mentioned, there are points of tension and challenge for the church.

Several government policies incarnating certain socialist theory have had a profound effect on the lives of the people. A plan of villagization has been implemented throughout large sections of the country. Small farmers are forced to leave their ancestral homesteads and live in new villages usually of 75 to 150 families. This potentially offers the opportunity for improved educational and social services on the part of the government, although such potential has not been realized. It also creates a situation of control of the populace. One concomitant of this forced relocation is the need for new village churches.

In some parts of the country, for example, the southwest, there is a forced resettlement of people from the northern provinces in compounds associated with vast state farms cleared from the forest. This too poses enormous human and pastoral problems.

Finally, frequent military conscriptions by both government and rebel forces are depleting the youth of the country. Teen-age boys and young men are plucked from their families and villages for the war in the north and are rarely seen again. There is increasing popular resistance to the conscriptions.

Refugees. In the Ogaden area in the southeast there are over 350,000 Somali refugees living in a practically desert region. This is an entirely Muslim population.

In the southwest near the Sudanese border, there are over 335,000 refugees from southern Sudan. Most are Christian, and perhaps 70,000 of them are Catholic. All refugee camps are under the dedicated care of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, working in collaboration with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Food, water, simple materials for shelter, and medicaments are also supplied by several NGO’s.

The large Sudanese Catholic refugee population in the southwest, probably the greatest single concentration of Catholics in Ethiopia, offers a tremendous pastoral challenge to the church.

The Fugnido camp has 52,000 people living there in very primitive conditions, including over 20,000 boys and young men without families. One Sudanese refugee priest lives and ministers in the camp. Four Missionaries of Charity have begun to work there also.

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