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June, 2018
Volume 44, Number 2
7 December 2012
Greg Kandra

Ethiopian Orthodox deacons celebrate the feast of Mary of Zion in Aksum. (photo: Sean Sprague)

Several years ago, we looked at the changes confronting Ethiopian Orthodoxy —and how the role of the clergy, in particular, was evolving:

Traditionally, a priest’s primary duty is the celebration of the Qeddase — in Ethiopia, typically five priests concelebrate — and other liturgical rites, particularly burials. Liturgical festivals feature rhythmic dancing, the chanting of hymns and the recitation of religious poetry. They require the participation of numerous priests, deacons and scribes, or debtera, a class of learned men unique to the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox tradition. Knowledge of Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches, is required of all clergy.

Monks and priests also function as nafs abbat (spiritual fathers), visiting families and serving as confessors and spiritual guides.

As a rule, parish priests marry and start families. When not attending to their liturgical and sacramental duties, they rear their children (of whom a few are expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps) and till the soil as farmers. Parish priests survive on freewill offerings and fees for their liturgical duties, but subsist largely on their own earnings as tenant farmers. Traditionally, Orthodox parents offer one or two sons — in rural Ethiopian families, five to six children are the norm — to the local parish priest for the priesthood or monastic life. The boy, called a kollo temari, or “grain student,” joins other boys (all of whom are between 10 and 12 years of age) who gather around a priest or scribe for daily instruction.

The boys are expected to memorize passages of Scripture, the works of the church fathers, liturgical texts and religious poetry: Some priests can recite entire books of the Bible. After a kollo temari masters his subject of study with one instructor, he tackles another field of enquiry with a new teacher, often in a different church or monastery.

This period of tutelage can last as many as 10 years, at which point the student will decide if he wants to commit himself to celibacy and enter a monastery or marry, seek ordination and join the ranks of the eparchial (diocesan) priesthood.

But as Ethiopia changes, the Orthodox laity, particularly among the urban population, are demanding more from their clergy. Long-held religious traditions are weakening. Days of abstinence from meat, fish and dairy products have long been a cornerstone of religious observance. But today, many young Ethiopian Orthodox Christians no longer observe these dietary restrictions.

Read more about Ethiopian Orthodoxy at a crossroads at a crossroads in the November 2007 issue of ONE.

Tags: Ethiopia Orthodox