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Eventually ordained bishop with faculties to administer the sacraments in the Ethiopian rite, de Jacobis was forced to work underground. The growth of his Catholic community (the “Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia”), which included a seminary for the formation of Catholic clergy, coincided with the Italian colonization of Eritrea and agitated the country’s emperor and patriarch. The advent of Italian Capuchins complicated matters further. In 1846, they erected a Latin apostolic vicariate to help their efforts with the Oromo people in Ethiopia’s south.

However, public hostility to the Catholic Church prevented these efforts from taking root until the reign of Emperor Menelik II, a zealous modernizer who in 1889 allowed Catholic missionaries to establish schools and other institutions throughout Ethiopia. Catholic apostolic activity expanded in Eritrea after it became an Italian colony in 1889. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935 to 1941) boosted Catholic ministries, particularly education and health care, and led to the establishment of additional jurisdictions (prefectures and vicariates) by the Holy See in 1937 and 1940.

The organization of the Ge’ez Catholic Church as an autonomous (or sui iuris) metropolitan church dates to 1961, when Pope John XXIII established the metropolitan archeparchy of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital city) with suffragan sees in the Eritrean city of Asmara and the Tigrayan town of Adigrat. After Eritrea achieved independence in May 1993, Pope John Paul II created two additional Eritrean eparchies, Keren and Barentu. He later established the Eparchy of Emdibir, Ethiopia, in 2003.

In addition to the six eparchies of the Ge’ez Catholic Church (which total some 223,000 people), there are seven jurisdictions south of Addis Ababa that largely follow the rites and traditions of the Roman Church and include more than 500,000 people.

Until the migration of vast numbers of people from the countryside to Addis Ababa and Asmara some 30 years ago, the majority of Catholics lived in remote villages. Most were subsistence farmers, uneducated peasants, whose villages were dominated by Italianate church complexes. Today, Ethiopian Catholics are leaving behind their ancestral villages – many of them armed with high school certificates and college diplomas – for better opportunities in the cities or abroad.

In their relationships with peoples of other faiths, Orthodox, Protestant or Muslim, Ge’ez Catholics are urged wisely by their leaders to stress “what unites, not what divides” and “to grow in understanding and cooperation with everyone.” Indeed, counsel that could extend to people of every race and of every creed.

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Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Catholic Church The Ge'ez Catholic Church