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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoJustin de JacobisLeave a Comment

Author: William Clarke, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
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(e) Reflections and dialogues on Ethiopian history and religious development

When Justin gave his first address at Adwa, which I have already quoted at some length, there were some priests present among the ten members of his audience. With these particularly he began to enter into dialogue, or exposition of the Catholic position, with exhortations to union with Rome. There is a slight apologetic strand running through one of these early dialogues of Justin, but following the Vincentian principle I outlined in Part 1, Section (b), he never attacks or blames the Ethiopians for being out of communion with Rome or for teaching wrong doctrines. Again, he skips over the doctrinal controversies of christology. He concentrates instead on the ecclesial problem of com­munion with Rome. Here is an excerpt:

The only faith of Jesus Christ conserved for us by his Vicar, the Bishop of Rome, the only love which Jesus Christ teaches in the Gospel, that is what I come to preach. And it is not for gain. Bind me, if you wish; throw me into the most severe prison; load me with chains; send me to the flesh-eating beasts; put my head under your sword and then say to me “Why did you come here?” …I will reply to you always and without fear, helped by the strength of Jesus Christ, “I have come to tell you that the Christians of Rome want to unite themselves to the Christians of Abyssinia, they want to love them and be their brothers. Ask me again: “What did you come here to seek?” I will reply to you “Your friendship, your love, the health of your souls”. If this reply of mine pleases, for what more do we wait to be united? I call myself a Christian, a Roman, a Catholic; call me this also yourselves; and all together let us preach one faith, one Church, one love…78

Love, friendship, unity of the Churches — does it all seem a little sim­plistic? Why did he not enter into the vexed question of the anointing of Christ? No doubt he judged that the ecclesiological question lay at the heart of the matter and so he entered into that question in a very personal way. A letter he wrote to Father Etienne in Paris on April 26 of his first year in Ethiopia, 1840, shows that despite various protestations of ignorance De Jacobis had studied some serious authors to help him in his task:

I propose to follow more than any others, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis de Sales, Bossuet, who are undoubtedly the controversialists most suited to convince and convert…79

I have already noted the influence of St Francis de Sales on St Vincent’s teachings, especially about friendship. I am not qualified to comment on Bossuet, but as regards Augustine the personal tone of Justin’s early discources seems to echo that of the bishop of Hippo. Justin seems to me to have adopted the style of making a personal Confession of faith to the Ethiopians and, as his later career showed, they were extremely impressed indeed. Whatever the rights and wrongs about mission policy none of the other missionaries won such lasting affection and fidelity as De Jacobis. Perhaps this resulted from his honest, simple sharing of his faith and love with the Ethiopian people.

Although he did concentrate on the ecclesiological issue Justin also understood the christological disputes in their history and develop­ment, as he shows in a letter of November 1844 to Father Sturchi in Paris. He says that everything he could gather from the chronicles of Abyssinia led to the belief that the followers of the great medieval monastic founder St Tekle-Haimanot always held for two natures in Christ against the monophysite Copts. He mentions the importance of the book called Haimanot-Abaw (Faith of the Fathers) in which many of the passages taken from the Fathers of the Church have been cor­rupted by the Jacobites (monophysites). But this book also contains six or seven truths in conformity with Catholic teaching on the two natures, and this can be used to advantage by Catholic preachers since the book is regarded as the faith gospel in Ethiopia. The members of the delegation recently returned from Rome are able to use this book now in a Catholic sense. “The missionaries today, therefore, draw from the Haimanot-Abaw arms to combat heresy”.80

To speak of combating heresy seems to put De Jacobis back into the 16th century. But the actual “arms” he used were love, friendship, willingness to suffer personally, and in this case, using the book Haimanot-Abaw to expound Catholic teachings. He regarded the Ethiopian priests as best at this work because of their better understand­ing of the languages, history and prejudices of their fellow-nationals, and also because they followed the liturgy and disciplines of the east.81 These were all points of unity rather than separation, thereby demon­strating what lay at the basis of De Jacobis’ judgement: to seek what would unite rather than what would divide.

In a letter to Father Sturchi, written on January 2, 1854, De Jacobis describes how he used the Ethiopian book called Geth-Neghest to show the ancient tradition of acceptance of the See of Peter as the supreme authority in the Church. This he did on the occasion of what amounted more to a dispute than a dialogue with some learned but hostile members of the Ethiopian Church. Justin quoted as follows:

Just as a father has authority and jurisdiction over his son, the Patriarch over his suffragans, in the same way too the Patriarch of Rome in his quality as successor of St Peter, prince of the apostles, has sovereign authority and jurisdiction over all the patriarchs of the universal Church, over all human societies, holding among Christians in the whole Church the same place as Jesus Christ.

While this demonstrates Justin’s knowledge of the Ethiopian texts the effect it produced was to rally his own people to his side, but also to humiliate his adversaries to such a degree that they resorted imme­diately to pronouncing excommunications against Catholics and to reciting all the bad history of the relationship with the Catholics from the imprisonment of Dioscoros onwards.82 So the holy man was not above an occasional lapse into controversialist tactics, but then he was faced with very serious problems of hostility and persecution, with which I shall deal in Part III, (Section a).

Evidence that other Lazarists also took an interest in the religious history of Ethiopia comes in a letter from Father Stella to Father Sturchi, June 20, 1852. Stella gives an account of the various heresies and then remarks:

If the heresy could keep one unique and continuing form it would be easier to know it and to destroy it; but, a strange thing! It dies only to revive, and from the bottom of the tomb where one believed it would never rise up it comes back one day with new seductions. This is why the historians of the Abyssinian religion from the Jesuits to the present are not always in agreement when they want to determine the religious belief of this country.83

Justin’s usual response to this complexity was to offer a rescuing hand while at the same time understanding the theological difficulties from which the Ethiopian Church suffered. In fact, from the very beginning he, Sapeto and Montuori had agreed on a plan of action which Sapeto described as the “tactics of Fr Paez” (the Portuguese Jesuit considered the best adapted of all his confrères at that time). The second point in this plan was “to present a simple and solid Catholic doctrine while avoiding all controversy and inconclusive discussions”.84 This was the route De Jacobis generally followed. At the same time he knew quite a lot about Ethiopian history, religion and culture.

(f) His friendship with Protestants — William Schimper

Since he had grown up and worked in Southern Italy for the whole period before his departure for Ethiopia we can safely presume that Justin had little or no first-hand knowledge of Protestantism, and that he can have met very few Protestants in his life. It comes as a surprise therefore when we read in his letter to Sturchi of November 1844 that he had in fact long since taken the situation of Protestanism very much to heart:

For fear of being ridiculed I have always kept hidden in the depths of my heart a lively sympathy and an irresistible penchant for the conversion of Protestants… Perhaps God sends them to me now to satisfy that burning desire with which he himself has inspired me?85

Then he speaks of the recent events that have led him into this unfore­seen contact with those of the Reformed Church:

While on the one hand M. Isambert, head of the Protestant Missions in Southern Africa, expelled by the civil authorities of Abyssinia, made his exit accompanied by his doctors, on the other hand the scholar Bek and Messrs Bell, Plauden and Parkyns, very amiable young men, fairly erudite and all Protestants, made their entry. As soon as I saw them arrive I said to myself “Perhaps I give these people to believe that a priest, and more, a Catholic missionary, is nothing but an absurd antiquity from the Middle Ages?” To make that test I had to invite them to dinner… They entered my house, it is true, with nerves on edge as if they had to pit themselves against the phantoms of the strong castles of feudal times. But it turned out like this, that when they didn’t meet anything in their path that could frighten them they left me laughing, joyful and in friendship. In fact, with every fear banished we are today at such a point of intimacy that M. Bek on returning to Europe has formally promised me to make known to his nation the true cause of the two successive expulsions of the Protestant missionaries from Abyssinia.86

He goes on to mention as a sign of this friendship how the Protestants permitted one of their most faithful domestics to become a Catholic on renouncing the Islamic faith. Justin is not sure what story the expelled Protestants will tell in Europe, but one of them on arrival at Aden saved a Catholic missionary from the death penalty.

Making a particular note of the completely fraternal charity of the Protestants he goes on to speculate about the future:

As for myself, I’m deeply convinced that when the Protestant mission­aries will be capable of such generous conduct towards the Catholics, no Protestantism will be possible in the world any more…

He sees in the recent events a proof that the missionaries of the Reformation attach great importance to doing well towards the Catholics. It seems, then, that we are not very far from the happy moment when a reconciliation with our brothers could take place. May God will that we will not be kept a long time waiting for this day of consolation.87

Justin wrote this at a time when the Oxford Movement had reached a profound crisis in its attempts to bring the Anglican Church into a closer relationship with Rome. In the year after Justin’s letter John Henry Newman took the personal step of converting to the Roman Church, and some others followed him.88 I do not possess any evidence that Justin knew about this movement, but whether he did or did not, he shows himself here to be fully in the spirit of those early ecumenists, and indeed in the spirit of Vatican II also.

While he hoped and prayed for Church Unity Justin showed no hesi­tation about receiving individual converts into the Catholic Church, and indeed in the case of the Ethiopians he saw that as a means to bring the unity about. In the case of the Protestants the one convert was William Schimper, about whom he writes as follows:

The hand of Providence had elevated the influence of Catholicism to such a degree that Herr Schimper, a German Protestant naturalist, has been so struck by it that he has abjured his errors in order to enter the Church.

Married to an Ethiopian Catholic woman Schimper was showing great zeal and piety, and his conversion has been truly remarkable and has disappointed the Protestant ministers recently arrived in the country.89

De Jacobis encloses with this same letter Schimper’s dissertation on why he became a Catholic. He also explains what price Schimper has had to pay — the loss of friends and possibly the loss of support from the History Society of Wurtemburg. Justin hopes that perhaps a French Catholic society might help to fund Schimper’s studies. If this were done it would help to destroy the old accusation which proud Protestantism had made against Catholics, that they neglect the progress of the sciences.

Added to this Justin adduces the good example of Schimper’s marriage in a country where the Christian law of marriage is so largely neglected.90

This concludes my survey of the ecumenical elements of De Jacobis’ ministry. In general, we have seen a very positive attitude issuing in very positive action, but there were also some tangled human problems to be faced which sometimes pushed De Jacobis into responses which are at least questionable from the ecumenical point of view. To these I now turn my attention.

III. Problem areas

(a) Persecution: the continuous hostility of Salama

Abuna Salama, the Orthodox bishop who came to Ethiopia as a result of De Jacobis’ embassy of 1841-42 found the presence of the Catholic mission a severe threat to his rather weak position. He decided to stand especially firm on the issue of Catholics taking over Orthodox churches, whether temporarily or permanently. On one occasion he defended his policy thus:

I have no intention … of preventing you from entering the churches; I wished only to prevent, in the future, a priest who is not of our communion consecrating on our altars. I will not allow them to mix themselves up in our religious government.

The occasion of this statement was his closure of the church at Adwa because Sapeto had celebrated Mass there.91

As I already noted in Part II, Section (d), the people of the two villages of Alitiena and Guala handed over their existing church build­ings to Jacobis who simply treated them from then on as Catholic churches. On the face of it this looks a rather debonair approach, out of keeping with his earlier words and actions. But De Jacobis faced a real dilemma. He had failed, as we saw, to get permission from the Patriarch of Alexandria to build churches in Ethiopia. So what was he to do when a whole village came and said they wanted the Catholic religion to be the religion of their village? Did the village church belong to them or to Salama? Was it reasonable to expect them to leave the village church practically empty in order to hold a Catholic celebration under a tree?

What might have seemed a dispute between some particular villag­ers and their Orthodox bishop became in fact a serious point of conflict between Salama and the Catholic clergy. Salama even went so far as to write to Queen Victoria on April 6, 1854:

“Up to this moment the Roman Catholics have proved themselves my enemies. They desire to take possession of our churches…”.92

Crummey regards Salama’s stand as “a reasonable line”,93 but he does not say how De Jacobis was to cater for his flock without having any church buildings or halls in which to hold liturgical celebrations, nor whether the villagers had the right to use their church as they decided best. In the lifetime of De Jacobis this thorny problem was never solved and it played its part in causing the persecution of Catholics during this period.

In the early 1840s it looked as if peaceful relationships could be established with a mutual exchange of gifts between the two Church leaders.94 But news of Catholic successes in Guala sparked off a violent reaction from Salama in April 1845. He issued a decree of excom­munication declaring that anyone who gave food and water to the missionaries, or who accepted money from them, was to be excommu­nicated.95 The prospect of dialogue and gradually finding a way towards unity of the Churches thus received a shattering blow. This was followed in June 1848 by an even more hostile proclamation by Salama:

Kill Abba Yakob (De Jacobis) with all his companions. If you put to death even one of his converts you will have seven crowns in heaven; but if you refuse to obey me in this matter you will be excommuni­cated.

The most severe persecution took place in 1855 when Salama at last received support from a strong ruler called Kasa, who was to become Emperor Tewodros. In this persecution Abba Ghebre-Michael was tortured in a most cruel manner which contributed to his death, and all the Lazarist missionaries were expelled to the coastal area of the Red Sea.97 As the power of Tewodros grew so did that of Salama, because Tewodros regarded the Orthodox Church “as the backbone of the nation”.98 Thus the last five years of De Jacobis’ life (1855-1860) must have caused him severe disappointment as he saw all his ecu­menical dreams shattered by the new order of Church and State that had taken control of Ethiopia’s destinies.

(b) The need for protection; Schimper’s enclave; political activity

Closely related to the problem of persecution is a plan De Jacobis conceived quite early in his ministry. He gives the first inklings of it in a letter to Father Etienne from Adwa on June 18, 1843:

At the moment I am writing to you people are working here on every side and each in his own way to drive out the heretical Abuna (Salama). May it please God to let this happen and to turn it for his greater glory! At the beginning of the good season we will gather together as many as we can of the Abyssinian Catholics to form a Christianity on the model of those Reductions made so famous in the history of Paraguay. Whilst the good dispositions towards Catholicism are general we believe it opportune to place our little flock in shelter from the changes which come so easily in a change­able nation like Ethiopia.99

In his next letter to Father Etienne from Adwa, April 29, 1844, he describes how his dream has been fulfilled:

The prince, Webé has given a territory to M. Schimper, of whom I have had the honour to speak to you many times, so that the Catholics can have a place to settle. He has caused it to be published in his name in the public markets that Antitchio, the most beautiful part of Tigré, (now becoming the Eden of the Catholics in the midst of Abyssinia), will be exempt from all taxes, from all passage of troops and from all domination except his own. Its extent is a good day’s journey in circumference; it has thirteen small governments under its jurisdiction and about 4,000 inhabitants. In a few days time our Catholic colony will set out to establish itself there.100

This does seem like withdrawal from normal society into a Catholic ghetto, though at least the land did not belong officially to the Catholic mission.101 He writes further on the results of this initiative:

The good God having willed that this celebrated naturalist (Schimper) should also be a very zealous missionary, the village, of which he is now the owner, without belonging to the mission by right belongs to it in fact. Here we can build churches and place the residence of the missionaries who can, without any obstacle, give full rein to their zeal … I have breathed here the air of modesty and peace which one breathed in the fortunate times of the primitive Church.

He goes on to describe all the normal activities of an active mission: catechesis, confessions, discussion of points of teaching, etc. And again he refers to the hostility of Abuna Salama, “the greatest enemy”.102

I suppose in the stress of such a difficult mission it is difficult to blame De Jacobis for seeking at least one place where normal Catholic life could be lived, even though the danger remains of the Catholics generally adopting a ghetto mentality and cutting themselves off from their Orthodox brothers and sisters. However, De Jacobis probably thought this danger safeguarded by the work of the priests, Ethiopian and European, in the midst of the surrounding society.

The existence of Schimper’s village probably had only a small effect on ecumenical relationships, but political tensions played a very large part in separating the Catholics from the Orthodox. In 1845 Dajdmdch Webé, De Jacobis’ great friend and protector, requested protection from the French government. The person who actually wrote the letter for him was De Jacobis. For this act he received a rebuke from the French Foreign Minister, that “missionaries were best occupied with the affairs of religion”. De Jacobis felt the rebuke keenly, as he wrote to Fr Etienne:

It is a very remarkable thing, most honoured Father, that I who do not at all like politics, I who always read the rule of our Holy Founder which forbids us to concern ourselves with politics, … should find myself by necessity mixed up in just such an affair!

Crummey casts doubt on this “necessity”. Rubenson states that “it was not Webé but Schimper and De Jacobis who sought protection in the first place”. They hoped this would strengthen the position of the Catholic mission, particularly against the hostility of Abuna Salama.104 So here we have De Jacobis, the reluctant politician, working against those ecumenical principles he used so creatively in the pastoral field. I believe the reason for this is that he had become anxious about pro­tecting his Ethiopian Catholics, which was also the reason for creating Schimper’s village.

Although the French rejected De Jacobis’ letter of 1845, by the early 1850s they had begun to give much more definite support to Catholicism, while the English had become more involved with Salama through Plowden who had been appointed consul in 1848. In 1853 Plowden was writing to England:

From his great influence in Abyssinia the frienship of Aboona Salama is, to me, absolutely necessary, and that friendship has hitherto never wavered, serving me well in maintaining a delicate and critical post…

Salama appealed to Queen Victoria “to take me under your protection”, and he received the assurance “that Her Majesty’s Government are watching over his interests”.105 Thus Catholic and Orthodox interests became lined up behind the two greatest colonial competitors of the 19th century, Britain and France. The inevitable drift was towards confrontation rather than dialogue and reconciliation.

In 1858 De Jacobis again entered the political arena in favour of a chief called Neguse who challenged the power of Tewodros and looked desperately for French help. De Jacobis wrote an important memoran­dum to the French Government and they replied by sending an embassy, but to no good effect as Neguse was crushed by Tewodros in a decisive battle.106 In spite of this, however, Crummey concludes that Catholicism gained from its association with the French:

Its usefulness to the Ethiopian elite lay precisely here, and won it toleration. Between 1840 and 1855 on this basis the foundation of indigenisation were laid, while from 1855 to 1860 a position of strength was built up in Bogos.107

(Bogos is a northern area near the Red Sea where the mission station of Emqulo had been established by the Lazarist Stella, who worked there for many years). No doubt some political involvement proved neces­sary in order to gain permission of rulers such as Webé to carry on the work of evangelisation, but the pity of the thing was that Catholic and Orthodox became polarised behind the two great powers of Britain and France, thus adding political to doctrinal and ecclesial tension, a potent mixture indeed.

IV De Jacobis’ ministry in the light of modern ecumenical developments

(a) The Church as a communion

The most significant modern development in the ecumenical field as far as the Catholic Church is concerned has been the Second Vatican Council. Here the best developments of the previous century and a half were summed up and given official approval. From the teaching of this council, therefore, we are able to assess the ecumenical implications of the ministry of St Justin De Jacobis.

The Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, was promulgated on November 21, 1964, and in its very first paragraph uses the word “communions” to describe the different Christian bodies which “present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ” (§1). There exists, however, only one Church of God but from the begin­ning serious rifts appeared and as time went on “large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church, for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame”. People, born into such communities cannot be charged with the sin of separation and are accepted with respect and affection by the Catholic Church as brothers. Why? “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (§3).

The basis of this communion, then, is the sacrament of baptism by which people are “justified by faith” and “incorporated into Christ”. Other ecclesial elements and endowments strengthen this initial com­munion and must belong to the one Church of Christ, though they be found outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Such elements are “the written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as visible elements” (§3). The liturgical life of such communities or Churches is accepted as of the Christian religion, grace-giving and “giving access to the communion of salvation” (§3). So the life of these communions has a great significance for the mystery of salvation but still lacks’the fullness of unity promised by Christ to his Church centred on the college of apostles with Peter at its head (§2).

The Council Fathers then go on to outline some means by which the breaches in communion may be repaired. “First, every effort to avoid expressions, judgements and actions which do not represent the condi­tion of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult. Then ‘dialogue’ between competent experts from different Churches and communities; in their meetings, which are organised with a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features” (§4). Working together for the common good of humanity, common prayer and examining one’s own fidelity to the will of Christ are also recommended for each Christian communion. This programme of action will promote “justice and truth, concord and collaboration, as well as the spirit of brotherly love and unity. The results will be that, little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church” (§4).

Preparation and reconciliation of “those individuals who wish for full Catholic communion” is a work distinct from ecumenism but “there is no opposition between the two since both proceed from the marvellous works of God”. The Catholic Church, of course needs to renew herself, and every member must aim at Christian perfection, while recognising that the work of the Holy Spirit in other communions can contribute to our edification. At the end of the first chapter this decree “commends this (ecumenical) work to the bishops everywhere in the world for their diligent promotion and prudent guidance”. (§4).

Looking at Justin De Jacobis, then, in the light of this document we can see immediately that he did use the language of controversy, he spoke of heresy and heretics and of using the Ethiopian book Haimanot-Abaw to combat heresy.108 He clearly regarded Abuna Salama as an enemy and hoped he would be driven out of Ethiopia.109 He also engaged in political activity which gradually heightened the breach between Catholic and Orthodox communions in Ethiopia and therefore enters in as a theo­logical factor in so far as it lessens the degree of love and communion between the Christians of the two different Churches. The Catholics are backed by French influence and the Orthodox by British. The setting-up of the Schimper village also contains some of the elements of the siege mentality common in the pre-Vatican II era.

I have already discussed in Part III the difficulties which led De Jacobis into these attitudes and actions. Suffice it to say that even a modern bishop, or leader of a mission, armed with the Documents of Vatican 77, his Flannery (2 vols) ready in his briefcase, might find it just as difficult to dialogue with his opposite number of another communion if the latter felt as threatened by the Catholic presence as Salama did, and acted continually on this feeling. Catholic bishops in the North of Ireland experience just this difficulty in establishing any meaningful relationship with such as Rev. Ian Paisley, let alone actually entering into dialogue with him. The comparison is fairly exact as Paisley stays as closely allied to the British Government as Salama did to Tewodros, with the British giving support in the background. In the alliance with a political power Salama, like Paisley, found protection from both temporal and spiritual power of the Catholic Church. Noticeably it was when Tewodros came to power that Salama carried out, with his conniv­ance, his most severe persecution of the Catholics.111

On the other hand, it seems extraordinary to me that so much of the positive teaching of this decree on ecumenism can actually be seen in De Jacobis’ ministry. I have commented already on how his opening sermon seems to presume a very great degree of already existing com­munion, while establishing that he himself is a Roman Christian in union with the See of Peter.112 In this, as in the early discourse from which I quoted in Part II, Section (a), he presumes so many elements of communion with Rome to be already present in his Orthodox listeners that the only real step to be taken is to accept the primacy of the See of Peter and then they could together “preach one faith, one Church, one love”.113 His proclamation of friendship and brotherly love for the Ethiopians is clearly echoed in the Vatican II decree as I have already shown. What are sometimes called non-theological factors all touch very closely on this very theological reality, that the love God asks of us and commands us to show should be expressed for whatever neighbour we happen to meet. In this the Good Samaritan had a sounder grasp of theological reality than the priest or the Levite who journeyed nastily onwards (Lk 10:25-37).

I believe that friendship as an expression of Christian communion can be seen in the way that Jesus built up his friendship with his own apostles through the sharing of the same way of life with them, through sharing all his own beliefs, hopes, fears, teachings and works with them. When this friendship had sufficiently matured he shared with them the Last Supper, the communion of his own body and blood. It is in this setting that St John’s gospel gives us the key to friendship as commu­nion with the Lord:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (Jn 15:12-15; RSV).

St Thomas Aquinas follows the above Scripture in placing friendship as a description of the virtue of charity, “a kind of friendship of man for God in which He shares with us his own blessedness”. This is based on participation in the Spirit (first received in baptism) as the Bond of Love between Father and Son. This is fellowship, consociatio, founded on a common share in the divine life.114 St Thomas describes this as a state of peace because of the union of inclinations in wanting the same things that God wants, since “friends always want and don’t want in unison”.115 Schism is precisely opposed to this state because to go into schism is “to separate oneself from the unity which charity creates”.116 Vatican II obviously follows this teaching in placing the emphasis on the common sacrament of baptism which creates the fellowship, but of course it goes further to discuss the situation of imperfect communion in those born into a schismatic ecclesial situation.

Friendship as communion with God and with one another in love — this is exactly what we see in St Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life:

But if your mutual and reciprocal communication is about charity, devotion, Christian perfection, oh, how precious will be your friend­ship! It will be excellent because it comes from God; excellent because it returns to God; excellent because God is its binding-force; excellent because in God it will live eternally. Oh, how beautiful it is to love on earth as one is loved in heaven, and to love while living in this world as we will in the next, eternally.117

I have already shown how St Vincent de Paul was so strongly influenced by de Sales and how he gave great importance to friendship, both in word and in action.118 St Justin De Jacobis extended this in practice to the Ethiopian Christians, and mentioned St Francis de Sales as one of his guides.119 When I was a Lazarist novice myself in 1958-59 one of the standard works was de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. I would therefore take it as certain that De Jacobis read this book also during the time of his formation as a Lazarist novice.

De Jacobis also took another means to repair this damaged commu­nion, generally following the principle of St Vincent de Paul, endorsed by Vatican II, by presenting Catholic teaching rather than attacking the teachings of other Churches. This is to be seen in the sermon and the discourses I have already quoted and follows the principle agreed by the first three Catholic missionaries in Ethiopia “to present a simple and solid Catholic doctrine while avoiding controversy and inconclu­sive discussions”.120 On a more gigantic panorama the visit to Rome by the Ethiopian embassy can be seen as an act of genuine dialogue where Catholic life was presented, and particularly liturgical and social life, while all attempts at proselytism were strictly avoided.121 This surely resembles the invitation to non-Catholic observers to attend the sessions of Vatican II. Added to the above we must mention his study of Ethiopian languages, literature, history and religious development, all of which led him to a deeper understanding and dialogue with those of the Orthodox communion.l22

Other expressions of De Jacobis’ understanding of the theology of the Church as a communion can be seen in his approach to the liturgy, devotional life and priesthood of the Ethiopian Church, but I prefer to deal with these in the next section. I believe that what we have already seen puts De Jacobis into the central stream of the thinking of Vatican II — more than a century before the event — and that he drew his inspira­tion from the theological sources of the gospel, St Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul. St Thomas Aquinas comes in as a corroborating witness who presents the matter in a more systematic manner than the others.

(b) The special position of the Eastern Churches

  1. The above heading is that from the decree on ecumenism from Vatican II. The Fathers of the Council went to great pains to point out the rich heritage of faith preserved in the Eastern Churches, for which these Churches have suffered and still suffer much (§14). This heritage of faith is expressed in the liturgy, and especially the Holy Eucharist by which they “enter into communion with the most holy Trinity”. Through this celebration the Church of God is built up and “through concelebra­tion, their (the local Churches’) communion with one another is made manifest” (§15).
  2. The decree also praises the devotion of the Eastern Churches to Mary, Mother of God, and to the saints. It recognises the validity of the sacraments of these Churches and adds “therefore some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged”. In view of all this “everyone should recognise that it is of supreme importance to understand, venerate, preserve and foster the rich liturgi­cal and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches in order faithfully to preserve the fullness of Christian tradition, and bring about reconcilia­tion between Eastern and Western Christians” (§15).
  3. The Fathers recognise the particular discipline of the Eastern Churches and “while keeping in mind the unity of the whole Church (they) have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful and better adapted to foster the good of souls. The perfect observance of this traditional principle — which indeed has not always been observed — is a pre-requisite for any restoration of union” (§16).
  4. As well as disciplinary diversity the diversity of different theologi­cal formulations comes in for positive treatment: “It is hardly surprising then if sometimes one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed them better in such cases, these various theological formulations are often to be considered complementary rather than conflicting”. These traditions are rooted in the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church and spiritual writers of the East and they lead to a full contemplation of Christian truth and a right ordering of life. All of this heritage “belongs to the full Catholic and apostolic character of the Church” (§17).

The Fathers then invoke the principle stated in the Acts of the Apostles, 15:9, that one must “impose no burden beyond what is indis­pensable”. This paves the way to communion and unity which is an “urgent desire” of the Council. “If this task is carried on wholeheartedly, the Council hopes that with the removal of the wall dividing the Eastern and Western Church at last there may be but one dwelling, firmly estab­lished on the cornerstone, Christ Jesus, who will make both one” (§18).

Taking these points in turn we see:

  1. Justin De Jacobis took great pains to learn the Ethiopian lan­guages so that he could enter more fully into the life of the people and appreciate better the tradition and the liturgy of Ethiopia.123 To facilitate the concelebration required by the Gi’iz rite he was prepared to allow Ethiopian convert priests to celebrate with a priest in Catholic orders even though serious doubts existed about the validity of orders in the Ethiopian Church because of the custom of mass ordinations.124 In this De Jacobis clearly expressed the communion already existing between eastern and western Christianity.
  2. His devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which earned him the name Abuna Yakob Mariam, and his use of the medal of the Immaculate Conception, revealed not long previously to Catherine Labouré, a novice in the community of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Paris. This helped him to establish a devotional communion with the Ethiopian Christians.125 But De Jacobis did not let matters lie at the devotional level only. He actively worked on the texts of the Ethiopian liturgy, language, grammar and devotional life so that these might be produced at the highest possible standard and be recognised as such in both Europe and Ethiopia. In this he was helped by the Ethiopians them­selves, particularly by Abba Ghebre-Michael.126
  3. In the matter of discipline he ordained both married and single men to the priesthood.l27 But what seems to me his most fruitful exercise of discipline of life itself was his participation in the community life at Guala and, even before that foundation was established, his sharing of an itinerant community life with his Ethiopian followers.128
  4. His respect for theological diversity might be judged extreme in the sense that he seemed quite happy to let them retain their own theology and become Catholics by simply accepting the Pope as head of the Church. His two early discourses from which I quoted certainly proceed on those lines and nothing I have discovered after that shows a different approach.129

Likewise his initiative in bringing the group of clerics and professors to Rome must be judged as giving the priority to allowing the Ethiopian Christians to experience the unity they already possessed with Rome in spite of theological diversity. In these and other ways he worked to break down the “wall dividing the Eastern and Western Church” so that “at last there (might) be one dwelling, firmly established on the corner­stone, Christ Jesus, who will make both one” (§18).

(c) An Ethiopian Catholic Church

In view of what has been said above about breaking down the wall dividing East and West I think it necessary to discuss the theological meaning of establishing an Ethiopian Catholic Church. How is this to be seen? Does it conflict with the ecumenical drive? We see that De Jacobis helped to establish such a Church which has endured to this day. How are we to evaluate this action in the light of modern ecumenical developments?

First, it seems to me important to note that individual conversions are recognised in Vatican IPs decree on ecumenism as not opposed to the work of ecumenism “as both proceed from the marvellous ways of God” (§4). By means of such conversions DeJacobis hoped to bring the whole of Ethiopian Christianity into union with Rome, and this was one of the motives for his journey to the See of Peter with the Ethiopian embassy of 1841-42.130

This motive corresponds exactly to the challenge given to the Eastern Catholic Churches in the decree Orientalium ecclesiarum of Vatican II:

The Eastern Churches in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome have the special duty of fostering the unity of all Christians, in particular of Eastern Christians … by prayer above all, by their example, by their scrupulous fidelity to the ancient traditions of the East, by better knowledge of each other, by working together, and by a brotherly attitude towards persons and things” (§24).

Undoubtedly De Jacobis recognised this function of his converts in that he preferred Ethiopian to European priests because they could relate much more immediately to the culture and religious traditions of their people.131 The Church that he actually established was rooted in the hearts and the traditions of the Ethiopian Christians and it survived the test of persecution and the expulsion of the missionaries in 1855.132 In recognising the ecumenical vocation of his converts De Jacobis rec­onciled the missionary and the ecumenical strands of his apostolate in that he never ceased to be the Neapolitan missioner of his early days, bringing fellow-Catholics personally into full communion by means of repentance of their sins and reception of the Eucharist. He taught the Ethiopian priests to work in the same way for the salvation of their brothers and sisters. That they were gradually prevented more and more from doing so was due to political events and to the opposition of Abuna Salama more than to any lack of teaching and example on De Jacobis’ part.

(d) Ecumenical trends in Ethiopia today

The situation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has changed in two important respects since De Jacobis’ time: firstly, the Marxist military government has broken the link between Church and State since 1975 and, secondly, Ethiopia now has its own bishops, indepen­dent of Egypt.133 These events have given the Church greater freedom of action and the possibility of carrying on ecumenical dialogue as an autonomous body.

Dialogue had already begun in the reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie when the Ethiopian Church became a founder member of the World Council of Churches in 1948. This trend continued in the unofficial meeting at Arhus, Denmark, 11-15 August 1964 when the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian participants agreed “that their main difference was terminological rather than dogmatic”. The precise area of discus­sion was the christological teaching of Chalcedon.134 A further meeting in Bristol spelt out the agreement more exactly: “Both affirmed and agreed upon the dynamic presence of the Godhead and of the manhood with all their material properties and faculties, in the one Christ. Those who speak in terms of two do not thereby divide or separate. Those who speak in terms of one do not thereby commingle or confuse”.135

These were not official dialogues, but from other sources also the growth of a Chalcedonian christology can be seen. When Abuna Theophilos was enthroned as bishop in Addis Ababa on May 9, 1971, he made a public profession of faith which included the following:

(Jesus is) perfect man, consubstantial with us, unchangeably and inseparably, unconfusedly and indivisibly… All the divine properties on the one hand, and the human properties on the other, are in him without confusion or division. Therefore all the words he spoke, all the deeds he performed, were expressions of his one Person formed of a union of Godhead and manhood. In him Godhead and manhood came to their ultimate union, and in this union he lives eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit as the mediator between God and man.136

In the year previously a handbook of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was published which mentioned that three schools of christology exist in the Church but that the official belief is in the two natures of Christ, “the Church which believes that Christ is perfect man and perfect God”.137

All of this confirms the astuteness of De Jacobis’ judgement that it was better to begin by loving people than by arguing about christol­ogy, and that the ecclesiological factor maintained the division of the Churches more than any other. This remains true today and I have not succeeded in finding any information about dialogues with the Catholic Church, but if the non-Chalcedonians draw closer in agreement about accepting the teaching of Chalcedon then that brings them closer, ipso facto, to the Catholic Church also.

In this as in the other ways I mentioned already some of the obstacles which De Jacobis encountered have been removed or reduced. Perhaps the greatest obstacle now lies in the internal disputes and divisions within the Ethiopian Church. But, finally, the work of re-unification of the Churches is a work of God alone who can inspire such men as Justin De Jacobis and Abba Ghebre-Michael to make his kingdom come among us with great power.


  1. Pane, op. cit., pp 307-310.
  2. Ibid, p311.
  3. A.M., vol. 10, 1845, pp 179-182.
  4. Betta, op. cit., pp 31-32.
  5. A.M. vol. 20, 1855, pp 492-493.
  6. A.M., vol. 17, 1852, p 227.
  7. O’Mahoney, op. cit., pp 20-21.
  8. A.M., vol. 10, 1845, p 171.
  9. Ibid, p 172; the “Plauden” referred to is the British Consul, William Plowden.
  10. Ibid, pp 172-174.
  11. Piolanti: “Newman, John Henry” in Encyclopedia Cattolica, vol. VIII, p 1800.
  12. A.M., vol. 10, 1845, pp 149-150: De Jacobis to Etienne from Adwa 18 June 1843.
  13. Ibid, pp 171-174.
  14. Crummey, op. cit., p 87.
  15. Ibid, p 87.
  16. Ibid, p 87.
  17. Ibid, p 88.
  18. O’Mahoney, op. cit., p 47.
  19. Ibid, p 65.
  20. Crummey, op. cit., pp 95-99.
  21. Ibid, p 110.
  22. A.M., vol. 10, 1845, p 167.
  23. Ibid, pp 166-167.
  24. Ibid, p 166.
  25. Ibid, pp 186-190.
  26. Crummey, op. cit., 68-69.
  27. Rubenson, op. cit., pp 110-111.
  28. Crummey, op. cit., pp 90-91.
  29. Ibid, pp 104-108.
  30. Ibid, p 109.
  31. A.M., vol. 20, 1855, pp492-493.
  32. Ibid, vol. 10, 1845, p 167.
  33. Crummey, op. cit., pp 97-98.
  34. Ibid, pp 97-98.
  35. Pane, op. cit., pp 303-307.
  36. Ibid, pp 307-310.
  37. Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, qq 23-28.
  38. Ibid, q 29.
  39. Ibid, q 39.
  40. Op. cit., pp 213-214.
  41. Cf Part I, section (b), of this text.
  42. Cf Part II, section (e), of this text.
  43. O’Mahoney, op. cit., pp 20-21.
  44. Cf Part II, section (c), of this text.
  45. Cf Part II, section (e), of this text.
  46. Cf Part II, sections (a) and (b), of this text.
  47. Crummey, op. cit., pp 82-83.
  48. Cf Part II. section (b), of this text.
  49. Cf Part II, section (b), of this text. See also A.M., vol. 23, 1858, p 447: “A grammar and a dictionary in Gi’iz or Ethiopian, composed by our martyr Abba Ghebre­Michael, helped by some missionaries”.
  50. O’Mahoney, op. cit., Appendix II.
  51. Cf Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 117-123.
  52. Pane, op. cit., pp 303-310.
  53. Cf Part II. section (c), of this text.
  54. Cf Part II. section (d), of this text.
  55. Crummey, op. cit., p91.
  56. Lucatello & Betta, op. cit., pp 238-239.
  57. Uqbit, op. cit., p 11.
  58. Ibid, p 12.
  59. Ibid, pp 185-186.
  60. Ibid, pp81-82.

(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.)

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