As It Was, So Shall It Remain?

Ethiopia’s Orthodox clergy races to catch up with a rapidly changing society

by Peter Lemieux

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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.

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