“Truth! What is that?” We are all very familiar with the context in which that question was asked in the New Testament. We are also aware of the fact that the questioner did not wait for an answer. Wars, international and civil, have been fought all down the centuries to defend one or other interpretation of TRUTH. Today the world is alive with controversies, and indeed wars too, about this word TRUTH. People have been burned at the stake because of their obstinate defence of their version of the truth. I suppose in one way or another all this search for the truth originates in rival claimants to be the followers of the Lord himself who stated “I came into this world to give witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37). In the Church’s liturgical calendar we come face to face frequently during the year with men and women who died, some very violently, in defence of the truth of the Catholic faith.
On August 30 those of us who follow the Vincentian version of the Roman Calendar meet one of these heroes of the truth, Blessed GhèbreMichael. He was not, in fact, a Vincentian in the strict letter-of-the-law sense because, in the words of St Justin De Jacobis, “At the time he was to enter the Vincentian seminaire he was in prison”. He had made the formal request to become a Vincentian and so, again in the words of St Justin, “He belonged in his heart and in his spirit to the Congregation”. But whom have we here anyhow, where did he come from and what is his significance for us today?
Ghèbre-Michael was an Ethiopian, born there in the Godjam region in either 1788 or 1791. Incidentally, already in the uncertainty of the date of his birth we have an external resemblance to St Vincent whose date of birth was disputed for many years. Ghèbre-Michael was a very bright young man who from the very early years of his life engaged in a most anxious and persistent search for the truth. Indeed in the Ethiopia into which he was born it was difficult to find the truth. Though the country was evangelised as far back as the fourth century by a famous man, St Frumentius, who became the first Catholic bishop in Ethiopia, the country has had a long history of struggle in the whole field of religion. Incidentally, it was St Athanasius who elevated St Frumentius to the dignity of the episcopacy. The Jews were very prominent in Ethiopia and Frumentius ran into many of the difficulties in which St Paul was involved in the early church in Corinth, and indeed elsewhere. In addition the Moslems constituted a big obstacle to the spread of the faith. But in 362 or 363 a very severe blow fell on the new faith when it was decided that the Ethiopian Metropolitan should be appointed by the Patriarch of Alexandria. To add to the confusion Monophysitism appeared in the 13th century. The Council of Florence tried in 1441 to bring about a union between the different sects and Catholicism, especially with the Jacobite church and the Coptic church. The union was short-lived. Attempts were made subsequently to heal the divisions in the Ethiopian religious field but again without permanent success.
Brief though this sketch is it gives some idea about the situation into which Ghèbre-Michael found himself plunged. In fact there were three religious sects in Ethiopia when he was growing up and he himself belonged to a sect called the Kevats. A common denominator of all the sects was Monophysitism. His early education took place in the parish church school at Dibio. At the age of twelve he entered on his secondary education in one of the monastic schools which were very much in evidence at the time. He distinguished himself at his studies and came to be known as a young Ethiopian who was shrewd, singleminded, dynamic and exemplary in every way. And so when it came to the time for him to make a choice of career at the end of his secondary studies he opted for a career in the Church. In fact he was only nineteen years of age when he became a monk in one of the Coptic monasteries and was finally professed as a fully-fledged monophysite monk in 1813. But this was in no way a signal for total contentment with the religious beliefs which he professed in the monastery. He was restless and uneasy and felt very deeply that he had not yet found the truth. And to make matters worse he did not find the same kind of enthusiasm for the truth in his confrères in the monastery. So he continued his stated objective which was “to seek only the Church which seemed to him to be in possession of the truth”.
The search uprooted him from his native Ethiopia and sent him on a very long pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to Cairo, Rome and Jerusalem. The object of his pilgrimage to Cairo was with others to petition the Patriarch at Cairo for a bishop for Ethiopia. The Patriarch was of course a Copt. It was on this pilgrimage that Ghèbre-Michael met Justin De Jacobis for the first time. The to the Patriarch failed in the sense that the bishop appointed 5y him’did not meet with the approval of Ghèbre-Michael or Justin. In fact the beginnings of Ghèbre-Michael’s sufferings in the cause of the truth really began here. The newly-appointed bishop abused him, calling him “You wicked old one-eye…”; he had lost one eye as a youth.
The delegation now proceeded to Rome, Ghèbre-Michael still very much in search of the truth. Rome astonished the delegation for many reasons. For one thing they were astonished at the numbers attending services in the magnificent churches of Rome. And perhaps what was more remarkable the delegation was wholly overcome with the grandeur of the ceremonial. They themselves rightly of course are very proud of their ceremonial. The reception given them by the reigning Pope, Gregory XVI, was most cordial and the Ethiopian delegation was greatly impressed by his cordiality. Ghèbre-Michael was brought into discussions with the Pope and in this way his heart and soul which were aching for the truth were very much filled with excitement and enthusiasm. Justin said of this visit: “The journey to Rome will change the ideas of my poor Abyssinians and it will be better than a course in theology for them”.
The next stop was Jerusalem. The reception here was somewhat of a contrast to that at Rome. News reached Jerusalem before their arrival that they were coming from Rome and of course there was a very real suspicion that they had all become Catholics. Having visited the Holy Places they began their return journey through Cairo. Here they visited the Patriarch again and received a letter from him for the newly-appointed bishop in Ethiopia. Ghèbre-Michael still avidly in search of the truth found that the Patriarch had come very near to conversion. In the letter he had imposed a new doctrinal decree on all the faithful in Ethiopia, enjoining that every doctrine rejecting the eternal and human generation of Christ must be rejected and regarded as heretical.
When eventually the delegation arrived back in Ethiopia the bishop accepted the letter from Ghèbre-Michael, but instead of opening it and declaring its contents to the priests put it back in his pocket. When the news got around that the delegation was back the Orthodox planned to kill Ghèbre-Michael. He was actually put in chains, but because he was a friend of the Emperor he was soon released. Escaping many times from traps that were laid for him he ultimately arrived at Adoua where he rejoined Justin De Jacobis. Naturally Justin received him with open arms. At this stage Justin writes of him: “He still reflected for a long time but once he embraced the truth he never rejected it again. Everything became clear to his mind and no objection of the heretics had any further influence on him”. At last he was formally admitted into the Catholic Church in February 1844. It was said of him after this that he was totally transformed and had no other desire than to spread the Catholic faith wherever he could. He soon found himself in the school which Justin opened at Adoua, where he rendered wonderful service to Justin, especially by the instructions which he gave every day to the clergy at Adoua and in the neighbourhood. He produced several books. In particular he wrote a kind of source-book aout the Catholic faith which was simple and clear. He also got together a dictionary of the Gheez language used in the Liturgy which was a very important step, because up to that time there was no such work in existence and Gheez was always taught orally. But none of this interfered with his main objective and that was to form the group of seminarians which were entrusted to him by Justin. It was natural that the kind of formation which Justin inculcated was that of St Vincent. Unfortunately, owing to an incident which had nothing really to do with him, he became unhappy in the seminary and decided to go to Gondar to set about converting some of his old enemies. Justin was very opposed to the move but Ghèbre-Michael insisted. He was recognised while passing through Adoua and was arrested and put in jail for over two months. Soon after his release he met Justin again. Justin ordained him a priest in 1851 in the little church in Alitiena; this was Justin’s first priestly ordination. Ghèbre-Michael was now sixty years of age.
Once ordained a priest his zeal knew no bounds. While he continued teaching in the seminary he co-operated in producing a textbook of Dogmatic Theology and had his mind set on making the Catholic faith the faith of his own country. The Coptic authorities, in the person of Abouna Salama, were greatly disturbed by the activities of the Catholics and especially of Justin and Ghèbre-Michael. A veritable persecution was set afoot during which lay Catholics and priests were put in prison. This time neither Justin nor Ghèbre-Michael was caught; they escaped. In fact because of representations made by Justin to the king the Catholics were released from prison and they and their priests were given carte blanche to preach the Catholic faith. This did not last long either. It is difficult for us to imagine the intense hatred for the Catholic Church which prevailed in Ethiopia at the time we are discussing, though perhaps our own history in Ireland furnishes us with situations which were not all that different from what prevailed in Ethiopia at the time of Justin and Ghèbre-Michael. A typical declaration from the schismatic authorities is this: “If this formula (a heretical one) is not accepted I will break the necks of the offenders and cut off their feet”. Obviously people like Justin and Ghèbre-Michael would not subscribe to a heretical formula no matter what the threat. In fact both of them were imprisoned because of their rejection of this formula. An interesting fact about the imprisonment was that Justin was, generally speaking, treated better than Ghèbre-Michael, probably because of his connection with people in authority. There was a very special hatred of Ghèbre-Michael. He was constantly submitted to the most horrible torture in the hope, of course, that he would renounce the Catholic faith. The schismatics felt that if they could get a renunciation of the faith from him they would score a great victory. He was a very able man, very respected because of his ability and his singlemindedness, and hence the appalling tortures to which he was submitted. Occasionally the authorities varied their tactics and offered him all kinds of benefits if he would change his mind. “Father”, he said to a young priest undergoing similar punishment to himself, “we cannot be far from the great day when we will see Jesus face to face and when we will be ravished in his blessed presence”. Messages were constantly passing from Justin to his fellow-prisoners and they were messages of encouragement and exhortation to continue in their fidelity to God and to Rome, no matter what the suffering. One such message brings out the quality both of Justin and the recipient of the letter, Ghèbre-Michael: “As we sit night and day on the floor of the cell we preach without saying anything; our mouths are closed but our dying limbs cry out unmistakably ‘Believe in the Catholic Church’”. The prisoners were arraigned before the judges from time to time. One such occasion was on August 23, 1854. This was in fact the fourth time that they were summoned to the judges and of course once again they were called on to renounce the Catholic faith. The fiendish hatred for Ghèbre-Michael asserted itself again on this occasion when Abouna Salama called him “this detestable old deceiver”. Again, on Christmas Eve 1854 Salama again presented him to the public saying “Here is the great disturber of the Empire and he is the one who is causing the others to be obstinate”. In fact he was accused of holding out because of the money he was getting from Rome. Salama told him he would give him money and property if he renounced the faith: “If you abandon your own belief and accept mine I will give you all the money you want”. Ghèbre-Michael’s response was: “I want neither your faith nor your property”. All this resistance of his meant more and more punishment.
When a new Emperor was appointed in Ethiopia he too tried his hand with Ghèbre-Michael. All he got was “O king, I will never believe or proclaim any other truth than that Christ has a human and a divine nature”. To make a statement like this before the king would most certainly bring the prisoner execution. This was a capital crime at the time in Ethiopia. In fact they did not condemn him to death. They were very much hoping that if they were to continue the tortures he would ultimately give in. If he did, they of course would have gained an enormous victory, and as well as that they would not have to face the very real criticism that would have been levelled against them had they executed the great man. But he did not give in; he continued to submit himself to the daily increasing tortures without the slightest sign of succumbing to them. In fact it was said that on one occasion, after being beaten very severely, to such an extent in fact that people thought he was dead, he stood up and moved away without the slightest trace of torture on his body. The people proclaimed him a second St George; this was the saint who was said to have had seven lives.
Once again Ghèbre-Michael had to fall in behind the marching soldiers of the Emperor Theodorus and stumble along as best he could. And again with almost monotonous regularity he was presented to the public. This time it was a special occasion and there were many dignitaries present, including a very important English Anglican. Theodorus proclaimed publicly again that this old man was the only one of all his subjects who continued to resist him and refuse to renounce the despicable Catholic faith. Ghèbre-Michael stood firm. Theodorus asked the assembled crowd what did they think should be done with this man — How similar to Pilate’s question! The people shouted that he should be put to death. However, the British consul William Plowden with his entourage asked for mercy for him and it was granted in a qualified sort of way. The king agreed not to execute him but decreed that he should carry his chains to the end of his life. And so once again he must line up behind the marching soldiers. This time he was of course extremely exhausted. He was unable to walk; in fact he was unable to stay on the back of the mule which they gave him either. Ultimately, as we would put it, he died on the side of the road, totally exhausted and worn out, but not before he warned the soldiers and those standing by, that he was about to die. He died on 28 August 1855 only four years after his ordination. The actual date of his death, like the date of his birth, has been disputed. Some say he died on 29 August, and the liturgical calendar gives his feast on 30 August. Many confrères have tried to locate his grave but without success. But does it matter? It is not his grave that really matters, but his amazing faith, courage and love. His last agony lasted for a period of over thirteen months, which was almost half of his priestly life. He was beatified on 31 October 1926 by the late Pope Pius XI.
Justin De Jacobis had a great love and admiration for GhèbreMichael, whom he called so often “the generous athlete of Christ”. I am sure that St Justin would completely agree with a sentiment which is often expressed in Ethiopia today, namely that if Justin is canonised so too should Ghèbre-Michael. Naturally the Ethiopian Catholics earnestly desire his canonisation. We must of course wait for Holy Mother the Church to bring this about, but surely we must pray for the acceleration of this event which would bring so much joy to this ancient Christian nation of Ethiopia.