A Great African Jubilee

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Eight years after the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Church in Ethiopia is commemorating the arrival of the third Christian millennium.

Celebrations will reach their high point in a May 2-4 National Eucharistic Congress in the capital, Addis Ababa.

The year 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar began Sept. 12, 2007 — the traditional date of the overflowing of the Nile — and will conclude Sept. 11, 2008.

Michael La Civita, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s assistant secretary for communications, explains that Ethiopia “uses its own calendar, the so-called Ge’ez calendar. This calendar, which originated in the Coptic calendar of the Church of Alexandria, differs from the Gregorian used by most Catholic Churches and the Julian used by most Orthodox Churches.”

Last September, Pope Benedict XVI blessed a cross for the veneration of the Ethiopian faithful during their jubilee year. The Sunday after the new year began, the nation’s bishops gathered for a solemn Mass at the cathedral in Addis Ababa.

Bishop Musie Ghebreghiorghis, who leads the central Ethiopian Eparchy of Emdibir, said that each bishop then returned home with a replica of the cross so that the Holy Father’s blessing could be shared with the faithful throughout the nation.

In his January address to the diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict again turned his attention to the Ethiopian jubilee.

“This year,” he said, “Ethiopia is marking the start of the third Christian millennium, and I am sure that the celebrations organized for this occasion will also help to recall the immense social and apostolic work carried out by Christians in Africa.”

In March, Pope Benedict named Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, as his special envoy to the Eucharistic Congress.

While the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is relatively small — only 583,000 of the nation’s 76.5 million inhabitants are Catholic — it is vibrant, with 451 priests, 690 women religious and 253 seminarians, according to the Vatican’s statistical yearbook.

Half of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and a third are Muslim.

The evangelization of Ethiopia began in New Testament times (as recounted in Acts 8:26-40), and Christianity took deep root in the culture during the fourth century through the preaching of St. Frumentius, a bishop ordained by St. Athanasius.

Communion with the Holy See was ruptured after the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the other Oriental Orthodox Churches rejected the teaching of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451.

After unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation during the late Middle Ages and Counter-Reformation, St. Justin de Jacobis (1800-60), an Italian Vincentian missionary bishop, attracted many converts and trained his seminarians in the Alexandrian Rite, which is used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and predates the fifth-century schism.

In time, the saint’s efforts led to the formal establishment of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church with three eparchies (dioceses) in northern Ethiopia and three in neighboring Eritrea. Subsequent Italian missionary efforts of the 1930s led to the growth of the Latin Rite in the southern part of the country.

Church and nation alike suffered from 1974 to 1991 under the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been convicted of genocide.

While Ethiopia no longer suffers from the massive famine of the 1980s, eight million people remain dependent on food assistance, according to Paul Miller, Catholic Relief Services’ Africa team leader and policy adviser.

Following the fall of the Marxist regime, unity within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — which is also celebrating the jubilee — was ruptured, with two rival claimants to the patriarchate. Alex Desta, of St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral in Garland, Texas, said that “the general population seems to be dissatisfied with the [Orthodox] Church’s leadership at this time.”

Desta characterizes Ethiopian Catholic-Orthodox relations as “very poor,” while Michael La Civita calls them “frosty” despite “individual examples of warm friendships and shared concerns,” including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s “excellent relations with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”

Among these shared concerns is the rise of Islam. Desta warns of “a growing threat to the security and stability of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians with an unabated wave of Islamist extremists’ atrocities on Christians.”

“What the future holds for us in this regard,” said Bishop Ghebreghiorghis, “is not easy to guess.”

Spiritual Renewal

Whatever the future may hold, the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is offering the faithful numerous opportunities for spiritual renewal during the jubilee year.

The year “continues to be celebrated at the diocesan and parochial level,” said Bishop Ghebreghiorghis, “with a clearly defined program for each category of our Christian faithful,” including “jubilee celebrations for children, the youth, the sick, for teachers, for religious, for priests, for bishops, for nurses, for promotion of ecumenical dialogue, interreligious dialogue, for peace and reconciliation, for the establishment of a just society, and so forth.”

Jeff Ziegler writes

from Ellenboro, North Carolina.

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