Ethiopian (Ge'ez) Catholic Church

views updated


Beginnings. According to Rufinius, a fourth-century Byzantine theologian, Ethiopia's conversion to Christianity began with two Syrian boys, Frumentius and Aedisius, who were aboard a ship in the Red Sea when it was seized off the Ethiopian coast. The boys were taken to Axum where the king, Ella Amida, appointed Aedisius his cupbearer and frumentius his secretary. Before his death, Ella Amida gave the two Syrians their freedom. Eventually, Aedisius returned to Tyre, while Frumentius traveled to Alexandria. The young man begged Patriarch athanasius to send a bishop to provide pastoral care for the growing number of Christians in and around Axum, the capital of Ethiopia. Frumentius was chosen to be that bishop and was duly consecrated bishop of Axum by Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria. Before returning to Axum at some time around 340, Frumentius had spent approximately five years in Egypt studying liturgy, theology, and the customary practices of the Alexandrian church.

As the first bishop, and recognized as the apostle of Ethiopia, Frumentius, ("Abba Salama Kasasate Berhan," "Peaceable Father, who made Manifest the Light," as he is called in Ethiopia) brought with him the celebration of the liturgy that he had been using in Alexandria. The question might be asked: What anaphora did he use? A satisfactory answer to that question may remain unresolved. But working backward from today's liturgy, both Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic, pride of place is to be given to the very first anaphora of the Ethiopian missal, "The Anaphora of the Apostles." In its present form, that anaphora can be identified as an expanded text of the ancient anaphora in the Apostolic Tradition, commonly attributed to Hippolytus. Of all the churches, only the Ethiopian Church has preserved and used continuously throughout the centuries this ancient anaphora. In the Ethiopian missal the second anaphora is that of "Our Lord." This text is based on a fourth century Syrian document and represents an embellishment of "The Anaphora of the Apostles." With only one exception, today's Ethiopian missal as used by the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholics is the same. That exception is an inclusion in the Catholic missal of "The Anaphora of St. Mark," but it is not from Alexandria.

Initially, Greek would have been the liturgical language for the simple reason that the liturgy originated in Alexandria, where Greek continued to be the liturgical language until after the Council of Chalcedon. But as Frumentius's apostolic endeavors radiated beyond urban to rural areas, Greek was eventually superceded by Ge'ez, the local language.

Toward the end of the fifth century, the Ethiopian liturgy underwent Syrian and Armenian influences with the arrival of the "Nine Saints" from "Rum," the Byzantine Empire. In all probability the "Nine Saints" were the leaders of a large band of immigrants fleeing persecution in the Byzantine Empire after the Council of chalcedon. Whether or not they were anti-Chalcedonian or pro-Chalcedonian is a matter of some conjecture, but in this context their religious affiliation is irrelevant as Eucharistic matters had not been a significant issue at the Council of Chalcedon. These "Saints" are credited with having translated the Gospels and other sacred books into Ge'ez. Confirmation of this Syrian influence lies in the fact that the text of the Gospels translated into Ge'ez was not that used in Alexandria but in Syria.

Centuries of isolation. On 2 Sept. 1441, at the Council of florence, the head of the Ethiopian delegation from their monastery in Jerusalem told Pope Eugene IV:

The separation of other Churches was the effect of voluntary rebellion, while the separation of our Church cannot be explained due to rebellion or inconstancy, but due to distance and difficulty of travel in order to reach you. For 800 years, until today, no one before you has addressed a word of greetings to us.

There is not a single document or a single date that indicates Ethiopia's severance from the Apostolic See of Rome and an adoption of, or formal declaration of assent to monophysitism. Even today, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia condemns both Eutyches and Nestorius as heretics. It is, therefore, theologically inaccurate to label the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as being Monophysite. Rather the Church would claim that its christology is based on that of St. cyril of alexandria, whose writings predated the Council of Chalcedon.

During those eight hundred years of silence Ethiopia had been isolated from the world outside. Throughout those and subsequent centuries the celebration of the Eucharist in Ethiopia continued, however, in its traditional form. But outside of the country developments had taken place in the celebration of the Eucharist, more so in the Latin Church than in the Oriental Churches. As one of the Oriental Churches, the Church of Ethiopia only gradually became aware of differences in the celebration of the Eucharist as contact was resumed with missionaries from the Latin Church. In the wake of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim's ("Gragn," the left-handed) onslaught into the highlands of Ethiopia that began in 1529 those contacts increased with the arrival of Portuguese military assistance. Within five years of Gragn's final defeat in 1543, the Catholic Church had accepted the celebration of Eucharist according to the Ethiopian liturgical rite. In 1548 Pope Pius III had approved the printing of an Ethiopian missal containing a selection of anaphoras complied by Abba Petros Tesfatsion.

Encounter breeds confrontation. In 1557 Bishop Andre de Oviedo accompanied by five Jesuits and a small party of servants landed at Arkiko. Shortly after arriving at Gondar Bishop Oviedo antagonised the imperial court and was banished to a site between Axum and Adwa, which they called Fremona. They had been forbidden to proselytize among Ethiopians but were permitted to minister to other Portuguese and their offsprings. In that capacity, undoubtedly, they would have used the Latin rite. The last of the Jesuits who had accompanied Bishop Oviedo died at Fremona, aged, 80, in 1597. Only six years later, in 1603, did the next Jesuit, Fr. Pedro Paez, arrive. The following year, on 20th June, and only in response to repeated requests from Emperor Za-Dengel, Fr. Paez celebrated Eucharist in the presence of the emperor according to the Latin rite, read the Gospel in Ge'ez and preached in Amharic.

During his nineteen years in Ethiopia Fr. Paez repeatedly tried to reconcile the different theological terms used by both sides to express their Christology. Perhaps his efforts in this regard bore fruit later as Emperor Fasilidas wrote to the then expelled Patriarch Mendes.

But this matter (of Christology) is not so important as it is not the reason why the people have withdrawn from us. The cause of dissent isto be found in being deprived of Christ's Blood at Communion. Neither is it for that reason alone that we displeased the people, but also because the Wednesday fast is violated and all the feasts of the year are changed from their established days to other dates.

Fr. Paez does seem, however, to have achieved a degree of mutual understanding during his lifetime with regard to the celebration of Eucharist. In areas that were traditionally Christian, Ethiopian Catholic priests used an Ethiopian Ge'ez missal for the celebration of Eucharist. But only two anaphoras were retained and they had been purified of any anti-Chalcedonian insinuations. The name of Pope Leo, for example, had replaced that of dioscorus. When the Jesuits, however, undertook missionary work beyond the traditional Christian territory, as they did among the Agaw, beginning in 1618, they used the Latin rite, language and vestments.

Three years after the death of Fr. Paez, Patriarch Alfonso Mendes reached Fremona in 1625. From the moment of his arrival Patriarch Mendes vigorously pursued the total Latinization of the Ethiopian Church. To provide pastoral care for the 160,000 Ethiopian Catholics scattered over a vast area, Mendes ordained 20 Ethiopian priests in December 1625. But in the following year, on Feb. 12, he proclaimed that all Ethiopian priests were suspended until such time as he had individually approved each one. He even imposed the use of the Latin rite in monasteries that were traditionally of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. To mollify the mounting hostility to Latinization, Emperor Susenyos, who had become a Catholic in 1622, asked Mendes in 1627 that Ethiopian Catholic priests might be allowed to retain the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. His request was refused. Again, in June 1629 and in December of that year, the request was repeated, but on each occasion Mendes refused.

With greater perspicacity than the Patriarch, Emperor Susenyos issued a proclamation in 1631 to the effect that Ethiopians "might follow their ancient customs provided they were not repugnant to the faith." Mendes insisted that the proclamation be rescinded. A ferocious religious battle ensued with the loss of 8000 lives. Even though Susenyos had won the battle he was so depressed that he granted his subjects freedom of religion. Subsequently, Patriarch Mendes and the Jesuits were expelled from Ethiopia.

After his expulsion from Ethiopia, Mendes may have regretted his intransigence, but it was too late. The damage had been done. The deep-seated antagonism between the Ethiopian and the Latin celebration of the Eucharist had taken root; one was indigenous, the other was a foreign imposition. This tragic, sad, historical episode illustrates, however, that, at least in part, there had been at that time a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist according to the Ethiopian liturgical rite.

Renewed initiatives. Over the following 150 years of the approximately twenty papal initiatives to reactivate the mission to Ethiopia, only two are significant to the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite by the Catholic Church. On May 3, 1640, Fr. James Wemmers, a Flemish Carmelite, was given a papal brief to make the overland journey to Ethiopia. The words of the brief allow for the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite.

Wemmers knows well the Ethiopian language and by orders of His Holiness the missionaries have been given instructions not to change the Ethiopian rite, but only to recommend union with the Holy See and (so) with the hope that the priests will be able to appease both the archbishop and the monks as it was they who chased away the Jesuit priests for having changed the rite."

Wemmers was consecrated Vicar Apostolic of Ethiopia in late 1644 but, unfortunately, died at Naples when about to embark for Egypt.

The second initiative involved an Ethiopian priest, Abba Tobia Ghiorghis Gebreziabhier, who was studying in Rome between 1782 and 1788. On April 21, 1788, the Holy See issued a decree nominating Abba Tobia as the Titular Bishop of Adulis. As a condition to being consecrated bishop the decree specified that the nominee should take an oath to retain the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. As if to underline the significance of that oath Abba Tobia was consecrated bishop on June 24, 1788 using the Byzantine liturgical rite. Towards the end of 1789 the bishop arrived in the north of Ethiopia. For the next eight years the bishop led a furtive apostolic life as the Coptic Patriarch of Egypt had sentenced him to death. As he feared dying alone and without the sacraments, Bishop Tobia eventually left Ethiopia in early 1797. In Egypt, on May 7, 1801 he died of the plague. Apart from the robes and episcopal vestments of Bishop Tobia, which are still preserved in the monastery of Debre Damo, there is no trace left in Ethiopia of his years of furtive apostolate.

Abiding initiative. Pope Gregory XVI appointed Justin de Jacobis, C.M., as Prefect Apostolic of Abyssinia on March 10, 1839. Msgr. J. de Jacobis, eventually, arrived at his original residence in Adwa, Tigray, on Oct. 29, 1839. Some seven years later, on May 4, 1846, the original Prefecture was divided by the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of the Sudan to the west and the Apostolic Vicariate of the Galla to the south. In the following year, June 19, 1847, the Prefecture of Abyssinia was made the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia, which included Tigray (also Eritrea prior to the colonial occupation), Amhara, Shewa, Wello, Gondar and Gojjam.

While making his journey southwards to his Apostolic Vicariate of the Galla, Msgr. G. Massaia passed through Gual'a, the residence of Msgr. de Jacobis, in late December 1846. Msgr. Massaia, since he had already been consecrated a bishop, performed the ordination of several Ethiopian Catholic priests. Although Msgr. Massaia had been authorized to ordain the priests according to the Latin rite it was understood that they belonged to and would exercise their ministry according to the Ethiopian liturgical rite. For the following Easter Msgr. de Jacobis, together with four of the newly ordained priests, went to Alitiena where they solemnly celebrated Easter according to the Ethiopian liturgical rite. A Papal Bull of July 6, 1847 granted Msgr. De Jacobis permission to carry out "all the sacred functions according to the Abyssinian rite." Pope Pius IX renewed and extended the earlier permission for the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite in a decree dated April 21, 1850. This decree also stated that: (1) both Msgr. de Jacobis and his missionaries who are of the Latin rite "may carry out the sacred functions in the Abssinian rite," and (2) when they were "celebrating in the Abyssinian rite those who normally use unleavened bread may use leavened bread."

Confirmation of the Vicariate's personnel's use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite and its practices has been provided by Fr. Poussou, C.M., who carried out an official visitation in December 1851. He reported that, in accordance with the practice of the Ethiopian liturgical rite, individual priests did not celebrate a private daily Mass. There was only one Eucharist daily at which the community attended. On Sundays, or major feast days, the bishop usually sang the Eucharist. There was no frequent Communion as members of the community only received on Fridays and Sundays.

Attitude of subsequent vicars apostolic. Monsignor M. Touvier was consecrated in Rome as the fourth Vicar Apostolic of the Vicariate of Abyssinia on April 30, 1870. During an audience with Pope Pius IX on May 4, 1870, the faculties permitting the use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite, as granted to Msgr. Touvier's predecessors, were renewed. In addition, the authorization to celebrate Low Mass, as originally requested by a previous Vicar Apostolic, Msgr. Bel, but never granted, was now conceded.

At that time other Latin practices were introduced such as the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist and the distribution of Holy Communion under only one species, i.e., bread. This practice, however, was not immediately put into effect. It is on record that for the feast of the Holy Cross on Sept. 27, 1877, Fr. Coulbeaux together with six Ethiopian priests celebrated Eucharist in the Ethiopian liturgical rite at Maibrazio. All the members of the congregation received Holy Communion under both species.

In 1882 Msgr. Massaia wrote a scathing repudiation of the validity of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. Perhaps he had overlooked the repeated renewal by the Holy See of its authorization to use the Ethiopian liturgical rite. Moreover, between 1866 and 1882 there had been at least five authoritative replies addressed to various vicars apostolic clarifying in detail the use and practice of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. Msgr. Touvier was obliged to answer the repudiation of the rite that had been made. He admitted that the thirteen anaphoras of the Eucharist that had been revised and so considered to be "catholic" needed further study.

After Msgr. Touvier's death in August 1888, Msgr.J. Crouzet was consecrated Vicar Apostolic on Oct. 28, 1888. The Holy See asked him to carry out an in-depth review of the Ethiopian liturgical rite. A commission began the work in July 1889. With undue precipitation the Holy See issued a decree on July 10, 1890 that the Latin rite translated into Ge'ez was to replace the Ethiopian liturgical rite. But that did not impede the work of the established commission. Finally, on Nov. 8, 1891 Msgr. Crouzet informed the Holy See that fourteen anaphoras, dated 1890, had been revised, printed and circulated. The Vicar Apostolic explained that he had not given his "imprimatur" to the revised anaphoras, as they could not be considered as definitive. Nevertheless, the priests had been authorized to use the Missal, ad interim, for the celebration of Eucharist. With regard to the administration of the sacraments it is worth noting that only during the time of Msgr. Crouzet was the custom abolished of administering Holy Communion and Confirmation at the rite of Baptism.

The Holy See had not renounced its intention to impose the Latin Mass translated into Ge'ez, as was made clear when Fr. M. da Carbonara, O.F.M. Cap., the new Prefect Apostolic of the Italian colony, was entrusted with that responsibility in February 1895. By as late as 1907, however, when nothing concrete had been forthcoming, the exasperation of the Holy See was expressed in a letter dispatched to the Prefect Apostolic. He replied by stating that for a variety of reasons he was now opposed to the adoption of the Latin liturgy translated into Ge'ez. But perhaps the deathblow to the Holy See's initiative was dealt by Fr. E. Gruson, C.M. who wrote from Alitiena:

The Latin Mass translated into Ge'ez is not unknown. In the XVIIth century the Jesuits did try to introuce it. And we all know the fate that the Abyssinians's attachment to their traditional rite reserved for it.

When Msgr. C. Carrara succeeded Fr. Da Carbonara in 1912 he wanted to reprint the original missal of 1890. Twenty-two years had passed and eighteen years since the original decision to translate the Latin Mass into Ge'ez, but nothing had come of it. Now for the first time, in a dispatch dated Feb. 25, 1913, the Holy See gave its official approval for the reprinting of the original Mass. Henceforth, the Catholic use of the Ethiopian liturgical rite could no longer be questioned. And in the intervening years it has simply been a matter of editing and reprinting the Catholic Ethiopian missal.

Bibliography: a. alberto, The Apostolic Vicariate of the Gallas (18461938): Three of Its Vicars: Massaja, Cahange, Jarosseau (Rome 1993). j. bandres, "The Ethiopian Anaphora of the Apostles: Historical Considerations," Proche-Orient Chretien 36 (1986): 613. t. beine, La Politica Cattolica di Seltan Sagad I (16071632) e la Missione della Compagnia di Gesu in Etiopia (Rome 1983). p. caraman, The Lost Empire: The Story of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, 15551634 (Notre Dame 1985). d. crummey, Priests and Politicians: Protestant and Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia, 18301868 (Oxford 1971). k. o'mahoney, The Ebullient Phoenix: A History of the Vicariate of Abyssinia, 3 v. (Asmara, Addis Ababa 19821992); "Abune Tobia and His Apostolic Predecessors," Quaderni di Studi Etiopici 89 (19871988): 102171; The Spirit and the Bride: A Manual of Church History (Addis Ababa 1994). a. paulos The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church: Faith, Order of Worship and Ecumenical Relations (Addis Ababa 1995). a. takla-haymanot, The Ethiopian Church and Its Christological Doctrine (Addis Ababa 1982).

[k. o'mahoney]

About this article

Ethiopian (Ge'ez) Catholic Church

Updated About content Print Article