The Ecumenical Implications of the Ministry of St Justin De Jacobis in Ethiopia, 1839-1860 (Part I)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoJustin de Jacobis1 Comment

Author: William Clarke, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

Dissertation for the Master of Arts programme, Angelicum University, Rome, May 1984. Because of its length the text is divided, quantitively rather then thematically, between this and the following article.

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I. De Jacobis as missionary of St. Vincent de Paul

(a) Entry and formation in the Congregation of the Mission

Justin De Jacobis was born on October 9 1800 at San Fele in the diocese of Muro in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. He was the seventh of fourteen children and grew up in an atmosphere of strong Christian faith. In 1814 the family transferred to Naples where Justin continued his education until he entered the Congregation of the Mission in that same city in the year 1818.1

The Congregation of the Mission was founded by St Vincent de Paul in 1625 and spread rapidly in Italy.2 In succeeding centuries this Congregation has spread to most countries in the world and one of the results is that it is called by different names in different countries. In Italy the members are called Missionaries of St Vincent de Paul, which gives me the title for this first part. In the English-speaking world they are usually called Vincentians, while in France itself and in countries that have come under French influence the members are called Lazarists because the first house that St Vincent acquired in Paris was called Saint Lazare. This is the name used in Ethiopia because the first member of the Congregation to come to that country came from the French Lazarist missions of the Middle East.3

Modern historians writing Ethiopian history in the English language, such as Crummey and Rubenson, always use the term Lazarist,4 so I have followed their example throughout this paper except as above when referring to a particularly Italian situation.

It would go beyond the scope of this paper to give a complete account of the formation received by the young De Jacobis in the community which he joined at the age of eighteen. One thing is very clear, however, that he was strongly influenced by the life and teaching of St Vincent de Paul himself. Much later in life when he was already a bishop and an experienced missionary he gave a very strong testimony to his devotion to the saint and to the Congregation of the Mission:

Instead of thinking it necessary to make changes in our Common Rules, on the contrary I am convinced that the Congregation as it came from the hands of its Holy Founder is the institution most adapted to the needs of our century. I believe that the spirit of prophecy helped our saint when he drew up the Rules and that, as a consequence, even to dream of changing one solitary syllable in this masterpiece of legislation would be a sacrilege. Further, I am persuaded that if such a grave disgrace were to come to our little Company she would be abandoned by the most precious among her sons.5

Since this letter was written to the Superior General of the Congregation, Father Etienne, Justin was putting himself very publicly on the line as a follower of St Vincent and a devoted member of the Congregation, a full Lazarist.

Two particular areas of Vincentian tradition need to be examined before proceeding to the ministry of De Jacobis in Ethiopia so that the principles from which his ministry proceeded may be seen more clearly. These two areas are: (1) Friendship as a central expression of the gospel, and (2) The missionary vocation.

(b) Friendship as a central expression of the gospel

St Vincent de Paul wrote a rule for his Congregation in which he placed great stress on fraternal charity and friendship between the members. In the chapter entitled On the mutual relationships of our members he begins by citing the example of Christ in his relationship with the apostles, how he gave them the precept of loving one another, that they should wash each other’s feet, that anyone who had a differ­ence with another should go and be reconciled with his brother, that whoever wished to be greater become least, etc.6 He then goes on to describe this fraternal charity in the Congregation as “in morem tamen carorum amicorum, inter se semper conviventes” — always living together after the manner of dear friends.7

This stress on friendship is no accident in St Vincent’s thought and life. It comes directly from a very good friend of his own, St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva. Of him St Vincent said on one occasion: “Thinking back over the words of the servant of God I experienced such admiration that I was brought to see in him the man who best resembled the Son of God on earth”.8 Right to the end of his life the two books Vincent preferred to all others were de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God and Introduction to the Devout Life.9 The latter book contains no less than five chapters on the theme of friendship as well as several others closely related to the same topic.10

What is important for this present dissertation is to see how this prin­ciple of friendship was in fact extended by St Justin following St Vincent to include also those Christians who were either out of communion with the Church of Rome or were in danger of reaching that position. I give here some examples of this reaching out in friendship in the case of St Vincent to show how De Jacobis learned from his master and spoke and acted in a very similar way during his time in Ethiopia.

St Vincent left his own missionaries in no doubt that he considered the reforms of Luther and Calvin a disaster for the Church of God. On one occasion he spoke as follows to them:

I have, all my life, been afraid of finding myself at the birth of some heresy. I saw the great ravages done by that of Luther and Calvin and how many persons of every kind of condition have drunk from it the pernicious poison and wished to taste the false sweetness of their pretended reform …11

Yet when his old friend, the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, was put in prison for his Jansenist views Vincent went to visit him and to give him courage in his trial. Again, after his release, Vincent went to visit him several times at Port-Royal and attended his funeral when he died.12

He fought a long battle against Antoine Arnauld’s book On Frequent Communion which contained much of the Jansenist type of spirituality, as well as several errors of doctrine in St Vincent’s opinion.13 But after the publication of the Papal Bull Cum occasione on 31 May 1653 con­demning five Jansenist propositions Vincent hastily visited all those in Paris who had worked to have the propositions condemned. He begged them to keep a restrained attitude in their victory and to moderate their public expressions of joy, and to avoid in sermons and conversations every word capable of stirring up their adversaries. He urged them instead to treat the defeated party with respect, charity and friendli­ness.14

Sermons attacking Protestants had become quite popular in 17th century France. Thus on Christmas Day in the year 1608 P. Gonthier, preaching before the king, called Protestants “vermin and dogs” and added that Catholics should not suffer them in their midst.15 Other examples are not lacking.16 St Vincent, however, counselled not to make a frontal attack on errors opposed to the true faith but to content oneself with an indirect refutation in presenting and demonstrating Catholic doctrine.17

In his early life Vincent de Paul became parish priest of Châtillon­lès-Dombes and took up his residence in the house of a rich Calvinist of the town, Jean Beynier.18 Vincent’s biographer, Pierre Coste, expresses surprise at the intimate relationship between the Catholic cure and the heretic,19 but the friendship matured to such a degree that Beynier gave up his rather loose way of life and converted to the Catholic faith.20 Other conversions in his family followed.21 Perhaps this incident contin­ued to influence Vincent throughout his life, as well as the gentle way in which Francis de Sales suffered the hostility of the Protestants in his diocese of Geneva who prevented him from residing in the episcopal city itself.22

In the following pages we shall see the same attitude of friendship expressed by De Jacobis and also the same firmness of attachment to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Another Lazarist who exhibited these same qualities in more recent times was the Abbé Fernand Portal whose friendship with the Anglican Lord Halifax has sparked off the modern phase of ecumenical encounter with the Anglican Church.23 Both of these Lazarists exhibited the spirit of their founder to a very marked degree.

(c) The missionary vocation

Justin De Jacobis was ordained priest on June 12 1824 and for the following twelve years he was occupied with the task of preaching parish missions in Southern Italy.24 St Vincent had placed this work as the first apostolate of the Congregation25 and it can no doubt be seen as a very positive response to the Protestant Reformation, namely the renewal of the faith and religious life of the poor country people who made up the vast bulk of the membership of the Catholic Church. So instead of ranting against heretics Vincent got down to renewing the Catholic Church from the inside. De Jacobis continued this tradition and thus had already become a missionary before he ever departed for Ethiopia.

By the year 1838 De Jacobis found himself superior of a Lazarist house in Naples and it was there that he met Cardinal Franzoni, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation De propaganda fide, who was looking for missionaries to take up the new opportunity of opening a Catholic mission in Ethiopia.26 A Lazarist missionary, Giuseppe Sapeto, had already entered Ethiopia with two Irishmen of French descent, the d’Abbadie brothers, and Sapeto had succeeded in being accepted by the Ethiopians. Because he didn’t consider himself as superior of the mission he wrote to Propaganda fide asking for a suitable priest. That was exactly why Cardinal Franzoni entered into the discussion with one of the men he was considering, Justin De Jacobis.27 By October of the following year De Jacobis with another Lazarist priest Luigi Montuori had joined Giuseppe Sapeto at the Ethiopian town of Adwa.28 From this point we go on to look at the ecumenical elements of De Jacobis’ ministry in Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was often called at that time.

II. The ecumenical elements of Justin de Jacobis’ ministry in Ethiopia

(a) The first approach of friendship and acceptance

De Jacobis established himself in a small hut in Adwa and immedi­ately set about learning the languages of Ethiopia. People at first viewed him with curiosity, then with respect and then some visited him more frequently to hear him speak of the Christian faith. So it came about that on January 26 1840 he gave his first discourse from a written manu­script to an audience of ten people in his little hut:29

The door of the heart is the mouth, and the key to the heart is the word. As soon as I open my mouth and speak I open the door of my heart, and when I speak I offer you the key of my heart. Come and see: in my heart the Holy Spirit has kindled a great love for the Christians of Ethiopia …

I have seen you, I have come to know you, and now I am happy…; you are the owners of my life because God has given me this life for you. If you desire my blood, come and open my veins and take it all; it is yours; you are its owners; I shall be happy to die at your hands. Unless it might please you to inflict on me this kind of death which I greatly desire I shall come to comfort you in the name of Jesus Christ. If you are naked I shall give my clothing to cover you; if you are hungry I shall give my bread to feed you. If you are ill I shall visit you.

If you want me to teach you what I know, I shall be happy to do that. I no longer possess anything in this world: no father, no mother, no native land. Only one thing is left to me: God and the Christian people of Ethiopia. You are my friends, you are my family, you are my sisters, you are my father, you are my mother … I shall always do what pleases you. Do you want me to stay in this region? I shall stay here. Do you want me to go away from here? I shall leave. Do you want me to speak in this church? I shall speak. Do you want me to be silent? I shall be silent. I am a priest like you, a confessor like you, a preacher like you. Do you want me to celebrate Mass? I shall do so. Do you not want it? I shall not celebrate. Do you want me to hear confessions? I shall do it. Do you not want me to preach? I shall not preach. Since I have said all this to you, you know who I am. Since I have now opened by heart, I have handed the keys of my heart to you. You know who I am. If you should therefore ask me who I am, I shall answer “I am a Roman Christian who loves the Christians of Ethiopia” … Four months ago I came to your region and have lived with you ever since. You have seen me, you have lived with me, you know me. Tell me: Have I ever given scandal? Have I caused you any injury? Not in the least, I believe. However, even if I have not given you any scandal nor caused you injury, I have not done any good either! But from now on I want to change. Not only will I be your friend, but also your servant. Can I be of any use to you? Come, I shall do for you what I can. However, if you do not want to come, call me at any hour, at any time whatever. I tell you once more: I am totally at your disposal. And you, O Lord, before whom I am standing here, you know that I am not lying when I speak like this.30

Justin certainly expresses here the Vincentian principles of a gently friendly approach combined with a willingness to speak of Catholic teachings without attacking those of other faiths. He very deliber­ately identifies himself as a Roman Christian, but one who loves the Christians of Ethiopia. (Throughout this text I refer to them collectively as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or else as the Ethiopian Church). Underlying Justin’s homiletic formula, which appeals to the friendship and the common faith of Christian brothers and sisters, I believe there lies the theology of the Church as a communion which enabled the Fathers at Vatican II to see the positive aspects of the relationship of the Catholic Church with other Christian Churches and communities. Thus the Decree on Ecumenism states: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, commu­nion with the Catholic Church”.31

I wouldn’t claim that Justin formulated a theology of communion, but he seemed to act and speak from it. He doesn’t, for example, usually call the Ethiopians heretics or dissidents or schismatics or non­Chalcedonians or even separated brothers. He addresses them simply as fellow-Christians, friends, family, sisters, father, mother. To the model of the communion of friendship is here added that of the family which is itself another kind of communion.

Yet the communion is not perfect. Justin expresses this by saying that he is a Roman Christian, knowing that the Ethiopians did not consider themselves Roman Christians and in fact retained very bitter memories of the Portuguese Jesuit mission of the 16th and 17th centuries.32 He also very delicately expresses the problem of his preaching or celebrat­ing the Mass and the sacraments. He asks their permission (instead of claiming the rights of the Roman Church!) and declares himself willing to abide by their decision in the matter. Of course if he had come to work in a Catholic diocese these faculties would have been automati­cally granted. Therefore by asking he is politely indicating the break in full communion between himself and them.

Finally, no doubt aware of the hurts the Ethiopians had suffered from the Latinising Jesuits of the past, Justin goes farther than friendship, which always denotes a relationship of equality, to becoming a servant who is at their beck and call. He offers to comfort the afflicted in the name of Jesus Christ, to give his own clothing to the naked, to give his own bread to the hungry, to visit those who are ill.

By any standards this is a remarkable opening statement from a mis­sionary coming into another country for the first time. He set a very high standard for himself and it will be part of the task of this dissertation to see how far his words are backed up by his ministry, and then in Section IV to assess all of this in the light of modern ecumenical developments. The principle of “taking people where they actually are” could be traced in the Vincentian tradition to St Vincent’s advice to the missionaries he sent to Madagascar,33 but De Jacobis gave this a very personal and sensitive application in coming as a missionary to a country with a Christianity dating back to the 4th century, a strong, living, monastic tradition,34 and a complex theological history, especially in the area of Christology.35 Not every Lazarist followed the Vincentian tradition so faithfully. The Abbé Poussou, visiting Ethiopia twelve years later on behalf of the Lazarist Mother House at Paris, reported back in a letter of February 12, 1852:

Abyssinia and all the neighbouring countries can be regarded as countries more than half savage, where one has first to make men before making Christians of them. Everything has to be done in the civil and political order as in the moral and religious …

He observed also that there were no schools, that the sacraments of baptism and priestly ordination were of doubtful validity and that there were a number of other defects in the Ethiopian character to which I will have occasion to refer at a later point in this dissertation. Poussou wondered whether the French government shouldn’t do something to counterbalance the influence of the English and of the Bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Salama. Finally, Poussou mentions that the Ethiopians love going to Jerusalem to visit the holy places.36 Yet if all the sweeping generalisations he makes in the rest of the letter were true, one wonders how these supposedly ignorant, half savage, people would even come to know of the existence of the holy places let alone know what their significance was and want to visit them.

Yet Poussou was the man trusted by the Superior General of the Lazarists in Paris not only with the visitation of Ethiopia but also and primarily with the visitation of the largest existing Lazarist foreign mission, that of China. It is clear from Poussou’s letter that he visited Ethiopia on his way back from China and in fact he makes some fairly negative comments about the Chinese also.37

What is the difference between these two Lazarist priests, both sharing so much in faith and culture? Poussou sat in judgement on the moral, religious, political, social and intellectual life of the people as he perceived these realities. From the height of his European superiority he issued a sweeping condemnation which included such errors of fact as saying that there were no schools in Ethiopia when the truth was that the debteras, or professors, in Ethiopia had to undergo a rigorous course of learning to read and write the ancient Gi’iz language, of learning the Bible and many works of the early Fathers of the Church by heart, etc.38 Where De Jacobis searched for everything that could unite him to the Ethiopians, especially love, Poussou viewed everything with the cold, loveless eye of the superior European. De Jacobis was to suffer quite a lot from some of his fellow-Lazarists who veered towards the Poussou approach, but he was also to receive great consolation from many other fellow-Catholics, even as authoritative as Pope Gregory XVI.39

(b) Accepting local customs, rites and devotions

From December 10, 1839, De Jacobis had been the only missionary at Adwa, the others having departed to their posts, Sapeto to the region of Scioa and Montuori to Gondar.40 Left alone, De Jacobis immediately began to conform as far as possible to local customs so as not to offer any scandal or to become just an object of curiosity. He took the habit of an Ethiopian monk, dressing in a white linen tunic, white trousers, a cotton hat and the white cloak of all the Ethiopians. He wore sandals on his feet as a first stage towards going barefoot like the rest of the population.41

De Jacobis considered dress so important that he wrote from Adwa on February 17, 1844, to Father Etienne, Superior General of the Lazarists, in Paris, describing the dress of the Ethiopian monks and saying that he himself was dressed in this way:

I believe that the principle of the Congregation in this regard is the principle of our Holy Founder, that the missionaries wear the habit more or less exactly like that of the most exemplary ecclesi­astics of the country in which they live… If you, Most Honoured Father, find nothing unsuitable in this, I pray you at least to rec­ommend it to me so that I can have a reason to make the others conform to it.42

Another area of sensitivity to the Ethiopian Church was in the learning of languages and the very closely allied question of liturgical rites. De Jacobis first applied himself to learning the Amharic language which was the official language of the kingdom and the most widely used. He soon attained a good spoken knowledge.43 He also learned the ancient liturgical language Gi’iz, though he and the other Lazarists gen­erally used the Latin rite themselves, while encouraging their convert priests to use the Ethiopian rite. They also extended this rite to the Galla converts and, as Crummey remarks of De Jacobis, “despite an absence of much theoretical discussion on his part, his entire career was a con­tinuous identification with his neophytes”. The Capuchin missionary Massaja remarked of him: “… he greatly loves the Abyssinian rite and Abyssinia”.

This same Massaja, however, expressed a very different opinion of the oriental rites when he wrote: “The oriental rites are an eternal monument to the obstinacy of these peoples …; the Levantines will never be Catholics in their hearts until they are Latins and sons of Latins, born and educated in the Latin rite”.44 Massaja became a bishop and on January 8, 1849, he ordained De Jacobis bishop in the coastal town of Massawa.45 Since part of Massaja’s territory reached into Ethiopia46 we are here presented with the spectacle of the ecumenical approach of De Jacobis side by side with the latinising policy of Massaja. Fortunately for De Jacobis and for the Ethiopians the Congregation De propaganda fide stressed the autonomy of local usage and insisted that Ethiopian Catholics be respected in their own practices.47

De Jacobis experienced the difficulty of finding reliable texts for the liturgy, but he nurtured the essential spirit of preserving and developing what was best in the Ethiopian liturgical tradition.48 From his first years on the mission the Congregation De propaganda fide charged him with the task of writing a catechism in the Ethiopian language, presumably Amharic the spoken language, and also of resolving some questions about the Ethiopian liturgy and of correcting the liturgical books. Slowly but surely he sent the results of his labours back to Rome. In the last two years of his life he sent back the manuscripts of the Ethiopian missal and ritual and also a manual of moral theology composed by himself in the Gi’iz language.49

On September 30, 1859, he wrote to Father Giovanni Guarini, Procurator General of the Lazarists at the Holy See, noting that the Lazarists had established a Liturgical Academy at their house at Montecitorio, Rome, and that this had given him the idea of inviting these learned ecclesiastics to occupy themselves with the liturgy of Abyssinia. He states:

The co-operation of a learned Society of Ecclesiastics was nec­essary in order to publish the Ethiopian Missal and Ritual. For this work, in order to be useful to the Abyssinians and honour­able in the face of Europe and of the Roman Wisdom, as well as the knowledge of the languages in which they are written, requires even more a knowledge of liturgy, more difficult and rarely met…

Because of the difficulties he recommends first the printing at the Ethiopian press at the Congregation De propaganda fide of grammati­cal, historical, devotional and other works not so difficult to execute. From these they could proceed to the ritual and missal in Gi’iz after the appropriate scholarly work had been done on them. The production of these would be “a precious fruit”. If all this is not carefully done the pro­ductions of the Gi’iz printing press would be “undigested and therefore useless and little respected”.50

Less than a year after writing this letter Justin was dead. By then he had laid firm foundations for the development of the Ethiopian liturgy in the Catholic Church and therefore for providing a bridge with the Orthodox Christians. But within his own Lazarist congrega­tion great difficulties were experienced by such as Lorenzo Biancheri, who was to succeed Justin as bishop. Writing from Emqulo, Ethiopia, to Father Sturchi in Paris on January 6, 1854, he said that he viewed with despondency the prospect of becoming bishop of a diocese staffed by ill-educated priests to be run in the Gi’iz rite. (He was already co­adjutor with the right of succession). How could they meet the needs of the people when the Ethiopian rite demanded two priests, two deacons and one cleric for the celebration of Mass? “Judge the crushing weight which bears down on my shoulders”, he added.”51 Part of the problem lay in Biancheri’s difficulty in accepting the Ethiopian priests as fellow-workers in the apostolate, but I will return to that point later on.

From what has been said it is possible to see De Jacobis’ anxiety not to present Roman Christianity as a foreign Church but as one which would readily accept rites and customs already existing in Ethiopia. To this he added a personal life of deep prayer and in those first years at Adwa he prayed in the Ethiopian churches and graveyards.52 People and clergy saw in him a man of God whose counsel was always wise. And so on the Orthodox Easter Sunday of that first year the clergy of the four churches came to him dressed in their vestments and accompanied by musicians to salute him for the feast. His devotion to Mary, mother of God, was greatly appreciated and he demonstrated this through the medal of the Immaculate Conception, popularly called the Miraculous Medal, which he was willing to explain and distribute. The Ethiopians had a very strong devotion to Mary and celebrated thirty-three feasts in her honour every year. They began to call him Abba Yakob Mariam, Father Jacob of Mary.53 Thus in the area of devotion also he achieved an identification between Roman Christianity and that of Ethiopia.

(c) The journey to Rome, an essay in ecumenical dialogue

At the time that De Jacobis arrived in Ethiopia the country had been lacking a bishop for more than ten years. Bishops for Ethiopia had always come from Egypt according to ancient custom, so an embassy was being prepared to bring a new bishop back and De Jacobis was asked to accompany this embassy to give it more prestige and security in the journey to Egypt. At first he suffered from scruples of conscience about bringing a non-Catholic bishop back to a non-Catholic people, but after prayer and thought he agreed under certain conditions. These conditions amounted in fact to an ecumenical initiative well ahead of his time, as well as a request for permission to construct Catholic churches in Ethiopia.

First, he asked to be allowed to try to convince the Coptic Patriarch to enter into union with Rome; second, that the construction of Catholic churches in Ethiopia be permitted; and third, that the whole embassy should accompany him to Rome and make an act of homage to the Pope and at least ask for his friendship. De Jacobis undoubtedly took a risk in making these conditions. Anyone less respected than he might well have been expelled from the country for making such proposals. But fortunately the local chief, Dajámách Webé, assured him that he had written to the Patriarch making these very requests and had also written a letter of homage to the Pope. The two other Lazarists, Sapeto and Montuori, agreed with the plan and so the delegation set out from Adwa on January 20, 1841. It was composed of monks, priests, debteras and other functionaries representing the different states of Ethiopia. Among these the Debtera Ghebre-Michael will appear again in this text as he played an important part in the mission of De Jacobis in Ethiopia. The total number of the embassy came to approximately fifty people, escorted by armed men.54

When people are thrown together on a journey they often begin to talk to each other whereas in other circumstances they might strictly avoid all communication. So it was on this journey also that some of the Ethiopians began to question De Jacobis about his faith. “According to you is it not true that after the union there are two natures in Jesus Christ?” they asked.”Yes, that is our belief, Justin replied. “But if, as the Fathers teach, there cannot be a nature without a person nor a person without a nature, then there should be as many persons as there are natures”, they said. “Is that what your masters teach you?” asked Justin. “Yes, it is” they replied. “Well then, if that is so, how do you explain that in the Trinity there is only one nature and three persons?” At this the Aleka Apté Sellassié seeing his brothers confused said to them angrily “I warned you very well not to dispute with this man”. They were all indeed astonished by the reply they had received. And the Aleka Apté Sellassié continued: “Why then did our masters not teach us this? and why did we not ask them? If we were to be called today to give reason for our faith we would all be covered with confusion”.55

The reason for the Ethiopians’ question and for the strong reaction to De Jacobis’ answer was that since the time of the Portuguese the Ethiopian Church had been deeply divided on christological ques­tions which issued in different schools of interpretation about Christ as Anointed One.56 In the 18th century forty-four monasteries in union with Gondar wrote to Egypt asking that the formula “Weld-qeb”, meaning “The Son is Unction”, be confirmed. This formula lends itself to the monophysite view that after the union of the divinity and the humanity in Christ only the divine nature remains. The Patriarch of Alexandria duly confirmed this formula and indeed De Jacobis was not yet to know that the very bishop whom his embassy would bring back to Ethiopia, Abuna Salama, was passionately devoted to this view of christology.57 Another tradition, however, centred around the monastery of Debra­Libanos and its founder, St Teklé-Haimanot. These held a view called “Tsegga”, Son of Grace: that Jesus was anointed in his humanity by the Holy Spirit. This view seems reconcilable with Catholic teaching.58

As I have already described, De Jacobis approached his mission from an ecclesiological rather than an apologetic or dogmatic standpoint. He recognised his already-existing, though imperfect, communion with the Christians of Ethiopia and sought to conform himself as far as possible to their customs, liturgy and devotion so that the Ethiopians would see that union with Rome did not mean the abandoning of their whole reli­gious, liturgical and devotional tradition. Even before he had reached Ethiopia at all we find him writing back to Monsignor Ignazio Cadolini, Secretary of the Congregation De propaganda fide, telling of the reply of the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria to the question why he was sepa­rated from the Catholic Church: “I am so separated” he replied “but in the end it belongs to the Father to call back to himself the lost son”. De Jacobis hopes that some letter or sign of affection might “strengthen him even more in these laudable dispositions and make the return of this lost Pastor ever more easy, and also that of his considerable flock, to the sheepfold of Jesus Christ”. This was written in July 1839 on the journey from Cairo to Ethiopia59 and now we see him almost two years later approaching Cairo again with his company of Ethiopians who since his reply about the persons and nature in the Blessed Trinity had declined from asking him any further questions.60

Unfortunately for De Jacobis disunity rather than unity was to mark his visit to Cairo. Safe from the perils of the desert the Ethiopians aban­doned him and went to stay with Petros, the Patriarch, to whom they refused to show the letters of Dajámách Webé. De Jacobis then expe­rienced the greatest difficulty in getting an audience with the Patriarch and succeeded finally only through the good offices of a French doctor, Antoine B Clot. When De Jacobis presented the letters the Ethiopians disputed their authenticity and the Patriarch upheld their protest and added that so far from going to Rome they were not even to go to the Holy Land as they had intended. But in this the Patriarch overplayed his hand and a number of the most influential members of the delega­tion rebelled against the Patriarch and asked pardon of De Jacobis for having abandoned him. So it was that after some further confusion and uncertainty twenty-three Ethiopians set sail for Europe with De Jacobis on July 7, 1841.61

On August 17 the Ethiopian delegation was received in audience by Pope Gregory XVI. He first met the three leaders, the Aleka Hapté Sellassié, the Abba Resedbrà and the Abba Ghebre-Michael. He had them seated in chairs in front of his throne. He then welcomed them warmly and entered into a discussion with them about the missions. Then the rest of the delegation came in and the letter of Dajámách Webé was read. Finally the Ethiopians gave gifts of incense, perfume and some rare birds from Ethiopia. The Pope thanked them and said he would reply to Dajámách Webé’s letter at a later date. The Ethiopians left the audience delighted at the affable manner in which they had been received.

The Ethiopians then enjoyed a round of invitations from such cardi­nals as Franzoni, Mezzofanti, Mattei and Tosti, and some of the Romans and the visitors began to speak of entering into a Council for formal discussions on doctrinal matters. But the Pope, who had previously been Prefect of the Congregation De propaganda fide, judged that there was insufficient preparation and preferred to regard this as a courtesy visit only. In fact, rather than discussing ecclesiology they were experiencing it.

On the feast of the Assumption they assisted at the Pontifical Mass in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the crowd which awaited the papal procession gave a lively applause at the group of Ethiopians who moved up to a special tribune within the church, rather as the observ­ers from among the “separated brethren” were given special positions near the Pope at the Second Vatican Council. The Ethiopians were very impressed by the liturgical ceremonies and by the enthusiasm of the congregation. They also noted the great respect given to the Pope. One of them, the Abba Ghiorghis, was heard to quote from Hermas: “I have gone down to the Church of Rome; I have seen her; I have recognised and loved her as a sister; I have always presented her in her beauty; I have seen her again after many years and I have found her made cleaner than the waters of the Tiber”. What precise degree of cleanliness the Tiber possessed in those days I am not expert enough to say, but the Abba Ghiorghis expressed the truth that the Ethiopians experienced themselves to be in fact much closer to Rome in their religious beliefs than they had expected. Four of them became Catholics and remained to study at the College De propaganda fide.

On August 29 the deputation had its final audience with the Pope and received a letter for Dajámách Webé, as well as many gifts. All were deeply moved. On their departure from Rome in September the Aleka Hapté Sellassié declared: “Ah! If I were not head of this embassy I would not leave Rome at all”. To which De Jacobis replied: “Rome! Rome is wherever its name and its unity are found”.62

The departure from Rome did not end the ecumenical aspects of the journey. On reaching Cairo De Jacobis again visited the Coptic Patriarch Petros but did not succeed in getting permission to build Catholic churches in Ethiopia. In fact the Patriarch tried to avoid this importu­nate Roman missionary and finally wrote a letter to Webé saying only that the Ethiopians had gone to Rome “with his full consent”.63 Clearly the Patriarch was not at all keen on entering into serious relationships with Rome and viewed the Roman mission in Ethiopia, his depen­dent province, with suspicious eyes. His earlier expression of goodwill towards Rome was made at a time when De Jacobis was just setting out for Ethiopia and therefore had no power or influence there. He could afford to be magnanimous towards Rome as long as there did not seem to be any danger of a practical follow-up to general expressions of a vague desire for unity, but the actual establishment of Catholic churches which might prove to be centres of dialogue towards unity — that was going much too far!

Departing from Cairo they journeyed on to Suez (pre-canal Suez) and here an extraordinary ecumenical event took place. They met a group of missionary sisters of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary who were on their way to India and together one day they celebrated a Missa Cantata and Vespers in the house of the French consul. With the two groups of Catholic missionaries there were joined the Ethiopian Orthodox members of the delegation, the French consul (himself a member of the Orthodox Church), and the English consul and his wife, both Protestants. The priests and sisters alternated the singing in choral fashion and at the end all were deeply moved by the experience.64

Looking at this journey to Rome, then, we can see the same vision at work as De Jacobis had expressed in his first sermon: “I am a Roman Christian who loves the Christians of Ethiopia”.65 As a Roman Christian he had shown them his father’s house and they had been made very welcome without being asked to change their faith or their alle­giance. De Jacobis trusted in the truth of their belonging to the universal Church. So we are not dealing here with just what are (disputably) called non-theological factors, e.g. removing the prejudices of history. We are dealing with the reality of the Church as a communion, and of some parts of the church lacking the full communion of the universal Church. In view of this reality it is not surprising that the Ethiopians experienced their communion with the universal Church very strongly at two particular liturgies on their journey, the solemn Pontifical Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore and the ecumenical House-Mass at Suez. They were both celebrations of the Holy Communion of the body of Christ of which all the baptised are made members.66

In bringing this particular group to Rome De Jacobis had seized upon a golden opportunity to influence some of the most learned religious leaders in Ethiopia towards the cause of reunion of the Churches. In this he was not to be disappointed as a number of the members of this delegation who returned to Ethiopia with him were to spend their lives working to bring Ethiopian Christianity back into union with the univer­sal Church.

(d) Church unity by means of an Ethiopian Catholic priesthood

Just over a year after his return from Rome De Jacobis wrote to his Superior General, Father Etienne, in Paris describing how the Catholic faith was spreading in the capital city of Ethiopia, Gondar, which was also the seat of the Orthodox bishop, Abuna Salama, and of the powerful head of monks whose title was Ichegé. De Jacobis describes how the Debtera Ailou made a strong profession of Catholic faith before Abuna Salama and declared himself willing to suffer for his beliefs rather than retract them. According to the report De Jacobis had received (he himself is writing from Adwa and had never visited Gondar) all the debteras publicly proclaimed their Catholic belief. This change at Gondar was the work of the Ethiopian converts:

The Abyssinians who have most worked at Gondar to bring matters to this point are, among others, Debtera Ailou, Abba Melchisedek, Aleka Hapté Sellassié and the monk Ghebre-Michael, who nowadays should be known in Europe, and especially the young Attassab recently converted.67

From this point on it becomes crystal clear that De Jacobis saw the return of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to Roman communion as primarily the work of these debteras, priests and monks. They would persuade the others to come into full communion with Rome while retaining their own liturgy and local customs. The reverse of this eccle­sial vision was that the role of the European missionary fell into second place, and this did not please many of his fellow-Europeans at all. But in September 1846 De Jacobis put his view-point in writing to Father Sturchi, an Italian assistant to the Lazarist Superior General in Paris:

A priest of Abyssinia, profoundly Catholic and sufficiently instructed, because of his perfect knowledge of the language, of the customs and, finally, of the prejudices of his co-nation­als, knowledge at which a European arrives with great difficulty, because of all this the Ethiopian here always works with a success incomparably above that of a European. Since the Ethiopians follow the liturgy and the oriental Catholic discipline they advance the Catholic cause among a people such as this which allows itself to accept only what it sees and what it counts in the hand. In fact the three Abyssinian Catholic priests we have do more than all of us Europeans.68

De Jacobis committed himself to this viewpoint to the extent of devoting his energies to finding a place to establish a community of priests and students where a formation-process along very Ethiopian lines could be pursued. After numerous journeys and searchings he found a suitable place in the village of Guala. A contract for the purchase of the land was signed on December 12, 1844, just two and a half years after this return from the Roman journey.69 This Catholic centre was constructed on Ethiopian lines, a complex of little houses and huts, one of which served as an oratory since De Jacobis still did not have permission to build a church. He dedicated this first foundation to the Blessed Virgin, calling it the Seminary, or College, of the Immaculate Conception. The teaching body of the seminary was composed of De Jacobis, Lorenzo Biancheri and Abba Ghebre-Michael, by now a Catholic. Twenty young Ethiopians came to prepare for the priesthood and a short time later Abba Welde-Gabriel, who had left the delegation in Rome to study at the College De propaganda fide, returned as an ordained priest and joined the staff of the little seminary.

From the neighbouring villages both people and priests came for instruction. A short time later De Jacobis founded a house at Emqulo near the coast and, more importantly for later history, at Alitiena among one of the poorest tribes of Ethiopia who welcomed the white missionary and handed over to him their church of St Mary.70 From this we can see the missionary character of the foundation at Guala. It was a centre from which missionary efforts were made in the surrounding villages, and such was the success of these efforts that the people of Guala also handed over their church to the Catholics. Only a few of them objected, but the local ruler authorised it.71 No doubt this raises a problem of the tension between mission and ecumenism, but I will discuss that in Part III, Section (a).

De Jacobis obviously put great personal effort into the formation of the Ethiopian Catholic priests of the future. At the same time he gave a very unmistakable sign of acceptance and communion with the Ethiopians, that is, sharing a life together as a Christian community. Ordinations began in 1847 and between then and his death in 1860 De Jacobis saw 35 Ethiopians ordained as Catholic priests, 18 celibate and 17 married.72 Crummey comments on the creativity of this approach:

His commitment (to a national priesthood) anticipated by several generations Catholic practice elsewhere in Africa. Obviously, the way was eased by the existence of the Orthodox Church, but this scarcely lessens the creativity of his approach, for the commonest missionary view was that traditional piety constituted their biggest barrier. De Jacobis saw deeper. Jettisoning European preconcep­tions about clerical training, he accepted Ethiopians as they came, and pressed them for the ministry with few alien trappings.73

By the 1850s De Jacobis had moved into an even more radical position. From regarding Ethiopian priests as superior in their efficacy to Europeans he came to the point of writing to Paris to say he did not want any more European priests to come out to the mission. This view is seriously questioned by Father Poussou, whose views on the half-savage nature of the Ethiopians we have already noted. In that same letter from which I quoted in Section (a) of this Part, written on February 12,1852, he shows how isolated De Jacobis had become from the other European missionaries:

This respectable and worthy confrère seems to have, on the subject of the need of the mission, an idea which is not shared by his con­frères, and which I would not adopt either: it is that the indigenous priests can be sufficient to renew the face of Abyssinia without it being necessary to have more European missionaries and that is why he wrote to me about two years ago not to send any new ones. I think myself that for Abyssinia as for China the indigenous priests are useful for the mission, even necessary, but that they have the need to be directed, otherwise they do little work and that little they do badly; I am therefore of the opinion that for the moment two more missionaries are needed, one with Mgr De Jacobis and the other with M. Stella.74

I have already quoted Biancheri’s letter of 1854 on the subject of having to work in the Gi’iz rite which demanded five clerics for the celebration of Mass, but Biancheri suffered from a deeper problem than that of liturgical rules, namely, he had the greatest difficulty in accepting and loving his fellow-priests of Ethiopian nationality. Even before he took over as bishop in 1860 the Ethiopian priests had rebelled against him during an absence of De Jacobis in Gondar. This was to happen again after Biancheri took over the diocese. The Ethiopians petitioned the Congregation De propaganda fide for a “Patriarch” who would act in humility, patience and love. To give Biancheri his due, he consid­ered himself unsuitable for the task and went to Paris to convince his Superior General of this. Etienne recommended to the Congregation De progananda fide that he be permitted to resign, but nothing was done.75

In the area of the priesthood, therefore, De Jacobis saw the step towards unity as quite a small one. He seemed to enter naturally into a communion of love with the Ethiopians and this enabled him to approve such practices as celebrating the Gi’iz liturgy with Catholic priests, assisted by men in Orthodox orders so that the numerical requirements of the Ethiopian rite might be fulfilled. The doubts raised about the validity of Orthodox orders did not appear to trouble him.76 He loved the Ethiopians and thereby overcame many of those factors which are sometimes called non-theological (pride, selfishness, arrogance, personal ambition, fear of standing for the truth, fear of losing control of the Church, racial prejudice, etc.). In fact all of these have a very definite bearing on the degree of communion that exists within the Catholic Church herself and between her and the other Churches and ecclesial communities. I have not discovered in De Jacobis’ writing a theology of communion of the Church but he seemed to act consistently from the vision of loving and accepting the Ethiopians as the way to heal the damaged communion of the two Churches.

A final illustration of this is provided in an incident which took place at Massawa when De Jacobis arrived with two Ethiopians, one a priest. The priests at the mission were the Lazarist, Stella, and the Capuchin, Felicissimo. Three places were set at table for the three Europeans. But when the food was served De Jacobis left the table with his portion and went to share it with the two Ethiopians.77 Nothing could be a clearer expression of communion and non-communion. Just as Jesus estab­lished a life and table-fellowship with his apostles which prepared the way for the Last Supper so De Jacobis saw how essential it was to have a real, lived communion if the sacramental communion was to embody its full sign-value.


(a) In the notes I use the abbreviation A.M. for Annales de la Congregation de la Mission.

(b) Quotations from Vatican II documents are taken from Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post-conciliar Documents, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1975, General Editor Austin Flannery, OP, and are used with the publishers’ permission.

  1. Lucatello and Betta: L’Abuna Yaqob Mariam, Roma, 1975, pp 17-19.
  2. Ibid, p 19.
  3. Ibid, p 15.
  4. Crummey: Priests and Politicians: Protestant and Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia, 1830-1868, Oxford, 1972, p 173. Rubenson: The Survival of Ethiopian Independence, London 1976, p 434.
  5. De Jacobis to Etienne, 10 February 1850, in Annali della Missions 82, 1975, pp 36­ 37.
  6. Common Rules, 8:1.
  7. C.R. 8:2.
  8. Coste: Monsieur Vincent: Le grand saint du grand siècle, Paris, 1931,vol. I p 158.
  9. Ibid, vol. Ill p 408.
  10. Introduzione alia vita devota, Marietti ed., Torino-Roma, 1925, pp 206-268.
  11. Coste, op. cit., volIII, p 135.
  12. Ibid, vol. Ill, p 164.
  13. Ibid, vol. III. pp 171-186.
  14. Ibid, vol. Ill, p 188.
  15. Ibid, vol. II, p 405.
  16. Ibid, vol. II, pp 404-405.
  17. Ibid, vol. II, p 412.
  18. Ibid, vol. I, pp 95-96.
  19. Ibid, vol. I, p 96,n 1.
  20. Ibid, vol. I, p 101.
  21. Ibid, vol. I, p 102.
  22. Petrocchi: “Francesco di Sales” in Enciclopedia Cattolica, Città del Vaticano. 1950, vol. V, p 1601.
  23. Furlani: “Halifax, Charles Lindley Wood”, in Ibid, vol. VI, pp 1339-1340.
  24. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp21-22.
  25. C.R. 1:1.
  26. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., p 15.
  27. Ibid, pp 15-17.
  28. Ibid, 65.
  29. Teklé Haimanot: Episodi della vita apostolica di Abuna Yacob, Asmara, 1915. pp 9-10.
  30. Pane: Vita del Beato Guistino De Jacobis, Napoli, 1949, pp 303-307.
  31. §3 from the Flannery edition as noted above; subsequent citations will be indicated in the body of the article by a bracketed reference to the paragraph in question.
  32. Uqbit: “Current Christological Positions of Ethiopian Orthodox Theologians” in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 196, Roma, 1973, p61.
  33. Coste: op. cit., vol. II. pp 229-230: “… to help these poor people born in the darkness and ignorance of their Creator to understand the truths of our religion not by subtle reasons of theology but by reasonings taken from nature. We will send you pictures of all our mysteries which serve marvellously to help those good people understand what one wishes them to learn and which they are pleased to see”.
  34. Santi: “Etiopia II, Storia” in Enciclopedia Cattolica, vol. V, pp 684-685.
  35. Cf Uqbit, op. cit., pp 24-60.
  36. Poussou to Salvayre, in A.M., vol. 17, 1852, pp 130-153.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Coulbeaux: Vers la lumière, Paris, 1926, 2nd ed., pp 22-34 and pp 35-42.
  39. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 87-90.
  40. Ibid, pp 69-70.
  41. Ibid, p 71.
  42. Annalidella Missione 82, 1975, pp 29-30.
  43. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., p 71.
  44. Crummey, op. cit., p 80.
  45. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 139-142.
  46. Ibid, p 125.
  47. Crummey, op. cit., p80.
  48. Ibid, p 82.
  49. Betta: “Spigolando fra gli scritti di Giustino De Jacobis” in Annali della Mission 82, 1975, p 37.
  50. Ibid, pp 37-38.
  51. A.M., vol. 20, 1855, pp 512-513.
  52. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., p 72.
  53. Ibid, p75.
  54. Ibid, pp 78-79.
  55. Tekle Haimanot, op. cit., p 21.
  56. Uqbit, op. cit., p72.
  57. Ibid, pp 76-77.
  58. Ibid, p 57.
  59. Quoted in Betta, op. cit., p 46.
  60. Tekle Haimanot, op. cit., p 21.
  61. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 81-84.
  62. Ibid, pp 87-90.
  63. Ibid, p 93.
  64. Ibid, p 93.
  65. Pane, op. cit., p 306.
  66. cf I Cor 12:12-13.
  67. De Jacobis to Etienne, from Adwa 18 June 1843, in A.M., vol. 10, 1845, p 153.
  68. Quoted in Betta, op. cit., pp 31-32.
  69. Davitt. Justin De Jacobis, Dublin, 1975, p 39.
  70. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 122-123.
  71. Davitt, op. cit., pp 39-40.
  72. O’Mahony: The Ebullient Phoenix, Asmara, 1982, Bk I, appendix II.
  73. Crummey, op. cit., p 82.
  74. Poussou to Salvayre, in A.M. vol. 17, 1852, pp 130-153.
  75. Crummey, op. cit., p 112.
  76. Ibid, p 83.
  77. Ibid, p 83.

One Comment on “The Ecumenical Implications of the Ministry of St Justin De Jacobis in Ethiopia, 1839-1860 (Part I)”

  1. I am grateful for these posts about St Justin’s ministry in Ethiopia as I am researching the life of Archbishop Arthur Hughes MAfr who was briefly assigned to Ethiopia in 1942. It is good to have this background information as well as details of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. Many thanks,

    Maurice Billingsley.

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