ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Catholics of Ethiopia and Eritrea

A history of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea and their present-day programs and activities.

Last November, on the eve of the feast of St. Michael, Ethiopian Catholic priests and seminarians from the area near the capital of Addis Ababa gathered at the recently established parish of St. Michael to celebrate its first patronal feast day. The celebrations began in midafternoon with the recitation of Psalms and the intonation of Yaredian songs. These remarkable prayers and hymns, set in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church, are attributed to St. Yared, an Ethiopian priest. The services continued until dusk.

The next morning, long before the rising of the sun, the clergy assembled in the new church to recite matins and chant hymns. By 7:00 A.M., Paulos Cardinal Tzadua, Archbishop of Addis Ababa, celebrated the Keddase, or Eucharistic Liturgy, for the multitude that had gathered.

“I am very happy to see so many parishioners here to celebrate as one this religious feast,” announced the leader of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Church in communion with the Church of Rome. “This demonstrates your spiritual unity, which has to be encouraged.”

Encouragement and support are much needed gestures for the 135,000 Ethiopian Catholic faithful; they are a tiny minority. More than 50 percent of Ethiopia’s 55 million people profess Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the principal faith since the fourth century. Muslims and adherents to indigenous tribal religions make up the remaining 50 percent. And while relations between the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch, Abuna Paulos, and some members of the Catholic Church are warm, the Orthodox are quite suspicious of the presence of the Catholic Church. Although Ethiopian Christianity dates to the fourth century, the Ethiopian Catholic Church is of more recent origin.

St. Frumentius, a bishop consecrated by St. Athanasius, Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria, established Christianity in the Ethiopian kingdom in the mid-fourth century, although tradition traces the origins of the faith to apostolic times. More than a century later, nine monks of western Syrian origin traveled to Ethiopia. Most likely these monks, using the established trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean, fled the authorities who sought to impose the Hellenized, or Greek, decrees declared at the Council of Chalcedon. These monks brought with them the Christology, liturgy, customs and monastic traditions shared by the non-Greek members of the Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian churches.

Although the Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintained some contact with Christendom through its ties to the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria and the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, in effect this church, like the Ethiopian Kingdom, was isolated from the Western world.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Dominican priests traveled to Ethiopia in the hope of reestablishing bonds between the Ethiopian and Roman churches. But the Dominicans were persecuted; their mission failed.

In the 15th century, the Ethiopian king dispatched a few monks to Florence, where a council was held to discuss the reunification of the Eastern and Western churches. While the fathers of the Council of Florence (1439) announced the restoration of the Universal Church’s unity, the healing of the breach never took place.

In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants embarked for “the lost kingdom of Prester John,” as Ethiopia was known to premodern Europe. Portuguese Jesuits, eager to win Ethiopia for Rome, accompanied the merchants. The Jesuit effort was somewhat successful: in 1622, King Susenyos embraced Catholicism and, in 1626, established it as the state religion. The imprudent Latinized reforms of the Ethiopian liturgy, proposed by the zealous Jesuits, and the King’s bloody implementation of these reforms stirred the populace. A civil war, lasting five years, ensued.

Susenyos revoked the union and abdicated the throne in 1632. The king’s successor expelled all Catholic religious from the land; his decree was enforced for more than 200 years.

During the 19th century there were two Catholic efforts to evangelize the Ethiopian Kingdom. In the provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, the rites and traditions of the Orthodox Church were adopted by a Lazarist bishop, St. Justin de Jacobis (1839-1860), who led an apostolic prefecture established at Adua. The growth of this Eastern Catholic community coincided with the colonization of Eritrea by the Italians, beginning in the mid-19th century.

While losing ground in the north, the Ethiopian kings seized lands in the south that were inhabited by non-Christian tribes. The Oromo, a tribe that now accounts for 40 percent of the country’s population, were evangelized by the Capuchins, who created a Latin Catholic vicariate in the mid-19th century.

Today, the Catholic Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea is composed of five Eastern Catholic eparchies and six Latin vicariates apostolic, although in many Latin parishes of the vicariates the traditional Ethiopian liturgy is replacing the Latin liturgy.

Paulos Cardinal Tzadua is the Metropolitan Archbishop for the Catholic jurisdictions, Eastern and Latin, in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. A priest for more than 52 years, the Cardinal is a renowned canon lawyer. Abuna Kidane Mariam Teklehaimanot, Bishop of Adigrat, guides the faithful in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigre.

In Eritrea, Abuna Zekarias Yohannes, Bishop of Asmara, leads the faithful in the Eritrean capital city. In northeastern Eritrea, Abuna Tesfamariam Bedho guides the Eparchy of Keren, while in the western lowlands, near the border of Sudan, Abuna Luca Milesi, O.F.M., Cap., directs the Eparchy of Barentu.

The vast majority of Catholics live in remote villages. When Catholic religious were first permitted into the country after an absence of more than 200 years, they were restricted to inaccessible villages in the rural areas. Most of these people were poor subsistence farmers, uneducated and often unchurched. Today, many Catholics are migrating to the cities in search of work; there, the opportunities to use the schooling provided by the church are increasing.

CNEWA, through its office in Addis Ababa, funds the Catholic Church’s substantial network of social and pastoral services. More than 4,300 children enrolled in our Needy Child Program are cared for by religious who administer 81 orphanages, schools and child-care programs in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Catholic schools receive support, as do a considerable number of pastoral and humanitarian projects, from constructing churches and prayer huts to maintaining programs for street children. And, to uphold the future of the local church, about 150 seminarians and nearly 50 novices are enrolled in CNEWA’s Seminarian and Novice person-to-person sponsorship programs.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Paulos approached a number of international charities, Catholic and non-Catholic, to implore their immediate support and assistance for the millions dying of starvation. This horrific cycle of famine, the images of which were easily accessible to the West via television, was exacerbated by 30 years of war and civil strife. Today, peace has returned to the Horn of Africa, but the material and spiritual needs of the people persist.

Meanwhile, back at St. Michael’s Church, Cardinal Paulos, having completed the celebration of the Keddase, put aside the great demands of his office to break bread with the hundreds that have gathered to celebrate the feast of St. Michael.

Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., Director of our Addis Ababa office, and Asseged Fesseha, Projects Manager, contributed to this article.

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