The Catholics of Ethiopia and Eritrea

text by CNEWA-Addis Ababa staff

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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.

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Catholic Church