Spirited Support for Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church

by Rev. Owen Lambert, CSSp

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Few works of the Catholic Church in Africa over the past 25 years can compare to that of the Spiritans, or Holy Ghost Fathers and Brothers, among the tribal peoples of Gamo Gofa in southwestern Ethiopia. When the work began, our congregation presumed that Gamo Gofa was unevangelized – a ripe area for the congregation to follow its charism of bringing “the Gospel everywhere…to undertake the most humble and laborious works for which it is difficult to find laborers.”

This hypothesis influenced the congregation’s decision to send a team of missionaries to the region in 1972. (I arrived in 1974.) Soon after we arrived, however, the dynamic presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shattered our impressions and, ultimately, altered our mission. We discovered that this Eastern church, numbering more than 30 million members, was ministered to by more than 200,000 priests and bishops. In addition, more than 25,000 monks and nuns, successors of the desert fathers, nourished the faith life of these people.

Feast of the Archangel Gabriel. A most significant experience for me occurred in December 1974, just a few months after my arrival. I joined thousands of Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims from the Chencha area, where I had been stationed since September, in celebrating the feast of the Archangel Gabriel. We walked deep into the mountains to the Church of St. Gabriel, some 18 miles away, along footpaths congested with pilgrims.

Many of the 50,000 pilgrims brought along their children for baptism. Many brought gifts of livestock – sheep, goats or chickens, perhaps an ox – to be offered in thanksgiving. Most had in their hearts a prayer intention or a promise to make so that their prayer might be heard by St. Gabriel.

The highlights of the feast were the early morning baptisms, the blessing of the people with the waters of a holy spring situated beside the church, the processions with the tabot (a small wooden coffer patterned after the Ark of the Covenant), and the celebration of the Eucharist. Though a stranger, I was absorbed into this Christian event and shared in it.

Reconsidering Our Mission. How can our mission here have relevance, I reflected as I walked back to Chencha, if it does not take this Christian tradition and presence into account?

Other members of our mission group, familiar with Vatican II’s insights on ecumenism and the council’s inclusive ecclesiology, had similar experiences. Spiritans in Arba Minch, a town not far from Chencha, initiated regular contact with the Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop, Abune Salama, and the local clergy. These Spiritans frequently attended the liturgy at the two Ethiopian Orthodox parish churches in the town.

When Abune Salama built a third parish church, which he named Holy Saviour, Spiritans assisted in the effort. On the day the church was consecrated, one Spiritan donated a chalice to the parish priest. This gift was greatly appreciated and gave witness to our having the same Eucharist, though not yet shared.

Since that time the town of Arba Minch has grown from 15,000 to over 50,000 people. In the meantime two additional Ethiopian Orthodox parishes have been opened.

To serve the needs of the Catholic community in the town, the Catholic Church of the Presentation of the Lord was opened in 1990 with the understanding of the Ethiopian Orthodox archbishop, clergy and faithful.

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Tags: Ethiopia Orthodox Church Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity