Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sui Juris Churches XIV: The Ethiopian Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches generally)

Liturgical Family: Alexandrian

Primary Liturgical Language: Ge'ez

Juridical Status: Metropolitan

Approximate Population: Between 200,000 and 400,000.

Brief History: Christianity in Ethiopia is very old, as witnessed by the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts, and beginning in the fourth century, when under the influence of St. Frumentius of Tyre, Emperor Ezana converted, the nation became an officially Christian nation. A large number of Ethiopian bishops, however, rejected the Council of Chalcedon, and for much of its history Ethiopia was essentially Coptic nation in its religious life, although they had different customs and used a different language from the Copts in Egypt.

In the late medieval period, however, Ethiopia came into contact with the West again, through the Portuguese, and tentative steps were taken by the West to reinstate communion. Most of these came to nothing, but Ethiopia was in a state of serious peril from the expansion of Islam, and in the sixteenth century, the Ethiopian Empire and the Adal Sultanate (roughly modern-day Somalia) came into direct and active conflict, with the Sultanate making massive gains in Abyssinian territory. Ethiopia appealed to the Portuguese for help, and the Portuguese came through with massive naval and arms support, turning an inevitable defeat into an Ethiopian victory. But the war left the Empire as well as the Sultanate in a weak and vulnerable state, and thus Ethiopia still depended heavily on the assistance of the Portuguese. This led to increased exposure to Western missionaries.

The missionary activity reached its pinnacle in 1622 when the Emperor Susenyos became Catholic; Rome appointed a Jesuit, Afonso Mendes, to be Patriarch of Ethiopia and Catholicism became the official religion of the Empire. But Mendes and Susenyos acted with a very heavy hand, creating a strong popular reaction to their new reforms, and the Emperor's son, Fasilides, took the side of the populace. When Fasilides took the throne, he began to restrict Catholic activity in his realm, and the Patriarch and a number of other foreign priests were exiled from the country. The union was broken, and for over two centuries the Ethiopians refused to allow Catholic missionaries into the country. These restrictions loosened, very slightly, in the 1830s, so that in 1839 the Apostolic Prefecture of Abyssinia was established and St. Justin de Jacobis began slowly to rebuild the Catholic Church in Ethiopia. One of the things he did was to require priests to celebrate in the Ethiopian Rite. When Emperor Menelik II took the throne, among his many modernizing reforms was to remove the restrictions on Catholic missions, and slow growth continued until the conquest of Ethiopia by Italy in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, after which missionary activity increased, and the number of Latin Rite churches grew.

At the end of World War II, foreigners were expelled, however. This meant that there were a large number of Ethiopian Catholics of Latin Rite with no priests. The duties had to be taken over by Ethiopian priests who had kept their rite on conversion. To handle this complication, the church in Ethiopia was organized into an Apostolic Exarchate in 1951, and Addis Ababa was raised to the status of a Metropolitan see in 1961. There have since developed minor Latin Rite jurisdictions in Ethiopia, but it is still the case that the primary Catholic hierarchy in Ethiopia is Ethiopian Rite.

Notable Monuments: The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Addis Ababa; the church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini in Vatican City, which is the oldest extant church in Vatican City and the national church of Ethiopia in the diocese of Rome.

Notable Saints: St. Justin de Jacobis (July 31); St. Frumentius (October 27); St. Kaleb Elesbaan of Axum (October 27). (It is perhaps worth noting that St. Kaleb, who has been in the Roman Martyrology since the 16th century, lived during a period in which Ethiopia was not in communion with Rome.) There are also a number of beatified Ethiopians, such as Bl. Ghebre Michael, who may eventually end up on the general calendar.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: Archeparchy of Addis Ababa and eparchies in Adigrat, Endibir, and Bahir Dar-Dessie. ( (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside of any official jurisdiction of the church.)

Online Sources and Resources:

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