By Fr. Kevin O'Mahoney





We are all aware of the polemic, which centred around the question of the Chinese Rites at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But, perhaps, many of us are not aware that a similar polemic arose concerning the use of the Ethiopian Rite. Catholic missionaries were divided over the adoption of the Ethiopian Rite, and in consequence a controversy developed during the second half of the nineteenth century, which continued into the twentieth century. This article is a brief examination of that controversy.


1. The Beginning (1844-1860): Mgr. De Jacobis' spirit of adaptation


The Catholic Hierarchy of the Ethiopian Rite was formally established by the canonical decree of 9th April, 1961. This canonical decree was the flowering of two seeds planted nearly 120 years previously by Mgr. Giustino De Jacobis, C.M. First of all Mgr. De Jacobis bought a field in Guala (near Adigrat) on 10th December, 1944, for 100 thalers and there built both a church for his one hundred or so faithful, and also a seminary of "The Immaculate Conception" for his twenty-four seminarians. Secondly, in 1845, having retired to Alitiena in search of more tranquil surroundings, he received into the Church the 60 senators and 500 warriors of the Irob-Boknaito tribe.


As Mgr. De Jacobis considered that his seminarians belonged to the Oriental Rite he had originally thought of sending them to Egypt to be ordained by Mgr. Theodorus, the Vicar Apostolic of the Copts (1). Rome, however, instructed Mgr. Massaia, O.F.M. Cap., who was on his way to begin his apostolic work among the Gallas of the south of Ethiopia, that, he should interrupt his journey for the sake of ordaining the clerics of Mgr. De Jacobis. On 2nd December, 1846, Mgr. Massaia arrived in Guala and ordained several Ethiopian diocesan priests in the Latin Rite. Shortly afterwards, Mgr. De Jacobis sent four of these priests to Alitiena to celebrate Easter according to the Ethiopian Rite in the Orthodox church which had been put at his disposal (2). During Mgr. Massaia's stay in Guala news of Pope Pius IX's decree of 19th April, 1847, establishing the 'Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia's arrived. Owing to the initial refusal of Mgr. De Jacobis to accept Episcopal consecration there was a considerable delay before the new Vicar Apostolic was consecrated. Finally, at a ceremony, which took place o the beach near Massawa on 7th January, 1849, Mgr. Massaia consecrated Mgr. De Jacobis as the first bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia.


As Mgr. Massaia stayed in Guala for over a year he had ample time to observe the spirit and method of Mgr. De Jacobis' apostolate. Concerning Mgr. De Jacobis' adaptation to the Ethiopian manner of life Mgr. Massaia commented: "Gathering together the young people…De Jacobis went into their midst; with them he ate, slept and traveled and in all the customs and practices of life he followed those proper to the country. He did not look for big houses, nor think of large constructions and rich churches but was content with huts and caves. Not wishing to appear novel or singular in his way of dress he always wore the same miserable tunic as the Abyssinian monks and he wished that his followers and students should be dressed according to the custom of the country" (3). The comment which Mgr. Massaia on the liturgical practice of Mgr. De Jacobis, while of interest, is of minor historical value as it was make nearly 40 years later and at a moment when the liturgical polemic was in full vigour. Mgr. Massaia recalled that while in Guala he had asked Mgr. De Jacobis in what rite the young Ethiopian Catholic priests would celebrate the liturgy and exercise the ministry. In reply, Mgr. De Jacobis is quoted as saying that: "In Abyssinia there is no liturgy other than a baptismal formula…(and) in addition fourteen Masses (Anaphoras)… I intend to revise and correct one of these and give it to the new priests for the celebration of private Masses… For the other sacraments…. in the absence of another liturgy we have always administered (them) in Latin, but in the future I am thinking of translating our ritual into Ge'ez (4).


Many years later, in 1913, Fr. Tecle-Mariam Semharay, and Ethiopian Catholic priest who lived in Jerusalem, stated that it was quite understandable that the early missionaries should have had difficulty in adopting the traditional Abyssinian ritual for the administration of the sacraments, as it "was the custom to write the sacraments separately, or to insert (them) in different liturgical book of funerals" (5). Even though Mgr. De Jacobis was mistaken in saying that "In Abyssinia there is no other liturgy than a baptismal formula," he pursued his policy of adaptation in liturgical matters, as can be seen from a close study of his life. No less a person than Mgr. Massaia, in an undated letter written between 1861 and 1966, speaks of the priests of Mgr. De Jacobis exercising the ministry in the Ethiopian Rite (6). We know, moreover, that he did not impose the Latin law of clerical celibacy since he ordained married men (7); that Latin was not in the curriculum of his seminary (8); that he taught in Ge'ez (9); that he made use of Orthodox churches to celebrate Mass (10); that he followed the Ethiopian custom in consecrating the church of "Evo" (Hebo?) (11), and that he wore oriental vestments (12) etc. It was, in fact, due to Mgr. De Jacobis' spirit of adaptation that the Ethiopian Rite was maintained by Catholics within his own ecclesiastical jurisdiction and even spread out from there, without being superseded by an alien Latin Rite, as happened elsewhere.


2.     The Ecclesiastical Approval of Mgr. De Jacobis' Practice


The Ethiopian Missal, as edited by Fr. Tasfa-Sion in 1548, had been approved by Pope Paul II (13), and if the Jesuits had adopted that missal they might not have been expelled from Ethiopia during the first half of the seventeenth century. Later, when it was already too late, Fr. Mendez, S.J. wrote to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith on 22nd February, 1637: "If God allows me to return to Ethiopia I firmly promise that I will change nothing in the rite of these people if I do not find anything contrary to Catholic faith and practice" (14). Alas that Fr. Mendez had not paid more attention to the words of St. Ignatius Loyola when, in 1553, he wrote his se of instructions for the first Jesuits destined to work in Abyssinia, saying: "Tollerino quell che si puo…" (15).

It is the light of this historical background that we must appreciate the Brief of Pope Pius IX, dated 6th July, 1847, and which was sent to Mgr. De Jacobis. The brief stated: "Therefore, we grant that all (my italics) the sacred functions be conducted according to the Abyssinian rite…" (16). Furthermore, the faculties granted to Mgr. De Jacobis and his co-adjutor, Mgr. Biancheri, dated 21st April, 1850, recognize that: i) both Mgr. De Jacobis and his missionaries, who are of the Latin Rite, "…may carry out the sacred functions in the Abyssinian Rite": ii) when "celebrating in the Abyssinian Rite…those who normally use unleavened bread may use leavened bread"(17). The official mind of the Catholic Church's authority was further indicated in the same faculties, when it conceded that until such time as an alternative could be provided, Mgr. De Jacobis and his co-adjutor might ordain in the Latin Rite. Moreover, in his letter of 8th May, 1850, Pope Pius IX wrote to Ras Ailu: "There ought to be one faith, just as there is one God and one Christ, but this truth in no way prevents different nations from using different rites, as was certainly used by the Fathers of the Holy Church"(18). By the time that Abuna Salama enclaves, there were already about 5,000 Catholics and 15 Ethiopian Catholic priests, all using the Ethiopian Rite. This sizable Catholic community was a consequence of the spirit of adaptation practiced by Mgr. De Jacobis, which had, in turn, given him both a deep respect for the Ethiopian Rite, as he knew it, and a deep insight into the social and cultural significance of the Ethiopian liturgy.


3.     The Pursuit of Mgr. De Jacobis' Policy by his immediate successors: 1860-1868


The immediate successors of Mgr. De Jacobis, Mgr. Biancheri (Vic. Apostolic of Abyssinia 1860-1864) and Mgr. Bel (Vic. Apostolic of Abyssinia (1866-1868) followed the same policy. Indeed, it is worth noting that Mgr. Bel had adopted the custom of always appointing two Ethiopian priests to work together in a parish. Fr. P. Gimalac, C.M. states that this was done for the sake of celebrating Mass according to the Ethiopian Rite, which required the presence of at least two priests, one celebrant and one assistant (19). At the time of Mgr. Bel's death in 1868 there were twenty-one Ethiopian Catholic priests following the Ethiopian Rite. In the celebration of Mass they used the anaphoras made available by Mgr. De Jacobis, and for Holy Communion, which was distributed under both species, they used fermented bread. For the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, as for funerals, they used the Ethiopian ritual; for penance, marriage and extreme unction they used the Roman ritual translated into Ge'ez. For the rest they followed the Ethiopian calendar and used the Ge'ez language and chant for liturgical functions. From the fact that, before he died, Mgr. Bel had asked permission for his priests to adopt the Latin practice of saying a low Mass daily, we must presume that previously the Ethiopian traditional custom of only celebrating a sung Mass, and that on Sundays and feast days, had been followed. The reasons for requesting this permission are unknown, but I would suspect that it was done for the sake of making use of Mass stipends, which came from Europe, and whose use would prevent his priests from becoming a financial burden to their flock. After all, Mgr. De Jacobis had often advised his priests that, unlike the Orthodox clergy, they should relieve the burden of the faithful by making themselves as self-sufficient as possible (20).


4.     1869-1888: The Repudiation of the Ethiopian Rite by Mgr. Touvier and Massaia


The successor of Mgr. Bel was Mgr. Touvier, C.M. (Vic. Apostolic of Abyssinia 1868-1888). Prior to arriving in Abyssinia at the age of forty-four, Mgr. Touvier had been working in Peru and had had no previous experience of Abyssinia, nor the Oriental Rite. In making this comment I do not with to detract from the exemplary apostolic zeal of Mgr. Touvier who, in fact, bore the brunt of the worst persecutions. This comment, however, may be of significance in considering the controversy surrounding the maintenance of the Ethiopian Rite and the particular stand taken by Mgr. Touvier. Given the ecumenical significance of this paper it is worthwhile quoting, in passing, the reply given by one of the Catholic prisoners to Kassa (later Johannes IV). "We are not rebels," he said, "We pay our taxes. Our goods are Kassa's, our hands, our heads are Kassa's, but our souls are God's. The faith is divine and concerning it you can do nothing. The 'Fetha Neguest' (21) testifies that the Patriarch of Rome is the supreme judge of the faith"(22). Although Mgr. Bel had requested permission for the priests to celebrate daily low Mass, according to Fr. Gimalac, the practice was only adopted in the time of Mgr. Touvier. This custom caused a considerable degree of scandal to the faithful and to avoid further scandal Mgr. Touvier gave instructions that during such celebrations the doors of the churches should be closed. Indeed, the very fact that he continued the practice, despite the scandal, may give us grounds to suppose that Mgr. Touvier was less amenable to Ethiopian susceptibilities than were some of his predecessors. Moreover, it was during this period that the various Latin practices of using unleavened bread, of reserving the Blessed Sacrament and of distributing Holy Communion under only one species were introduced (23).


In the light of these practices we should not be too surprised at the attitude taken by Mgr. Touvier with regard to the Ethiopian Rite in general. Unlike the charismatic Mgr. De Jacobis some of the remarks of Mgr. Touvier showed that he failed to appreciate the cultural significance of the Ethiopian Rite and that he either overlooked or repudiated its spiritual formative value during the course of Ethiopian history. He wrote, on 15th September, 1882, that he personally thought that the same year Mgr. Massaia took a stand which was contrary to the opinion of Pope Pius IX as expressed in his letter to Ras Ailu. Despite the Pope's expressed appreciation of a diversity of rites, Mgr. Massaia clearly rejected such diversity when he said: "According to me, who have studied the Orient with such attention, the variety (of rites) is not an adornment…. but an impediment to the church." His personal hostility, or ignorance of the Ethiopian Rite was clearly expressed when he went on to say that: "If a rite existed in Abyssinia it might be convenient to support it, but because there is none it should not be created" (25). No doubt, in the light of the official brief, which had been given to Mgr. De Jacobis in 1847, and because of the information, which had been received from such, and illustrious missionary, Rome was slow to take a stand on such subsequent individual testimonies.


5.     Rome's attitude in this controversy: 1888-1913


When Mgr. Crouzet, C.M. succeeded Mgr. Touvier as Vicar Apostolic of Abyssinia (1888-1894) Rome asked him to make a special study of the Ethiopian Rite. In consequence, Mgr. Crouzet, together with the eminent linguist Fr. Coulbeaux, C.M., resumed the work of revising the Ethiopian Missal, which had been initiated and personally supervised by Mgr. De Jacobis. Eventually, and Ethiopian Missal containing the fourteen anaphoras as revised by Fr. Coulbeaux was printed in Keren and distributed to the Ethiopian priests in 1890. It was made clear that this could only be a provisory missal pending a definitive evaluation of the anaphoras by Rome. In the meantime, a copy of the missal, which Mgr. Crouzet sent to, Rome for approval failed to arrive.


After the establishment of the Italian colony in Eritrea, together with its politico-religious consequences, notably the expulsion of the Lazarists following the erection of the Apostolic Prefecture of Eritrea, 13th September, 1894, it was increasingly imperative that Rome should take a definitive stand on this complex and grave issue. Finally, on 3rd February, 1895, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith announced its decision. "At the opportune moment the pure and simple Latin Rite should be adopted for Abyssinians…as seems to be desired in the reports of Cardinal Massaia and Mgr. Touvier and not that (desired by) the Vicars Apostolic De Jacobis and Crouzet". Other points included the adoption of "The Latin Rite with the use of the Latin liturgical books translated into Ge'ez and Amharic…" "The actual rite, in the conditions which the Vicars Apostolic have put it, which seems to be a mixture of the Latin and Ethiopian Rite" was, however, to be tolerated (26). In that same year, Fr. Michael da Carbonara, O.F.M. Cap. Wrote to Rome concerning the precedent that an Ethiopian priest, Fr. Ghebre-Christos, should change rites and become a priest of the Latin Rite. Fr. Da Carbonara justified this request on the grounds that he wished to form a congregation of priests of "The Third Order of Franciscans". He though that such priests, having been formed according to the Latin mentality (sic) would then lead a life "more dedicated to study and be more active in the ministry"(27). Cardinal Ledochowski, in his reply of 2nd December, 1895, prohibited any translation to the Latin Rite of both priests and faithful of the Ethiopian Rite. The Cardinal seems to have judged such a change of rites as a threat to his intention of preserving in Ethiopia the Latin Rite as translated into Ge'ez.


Concerning the adoption of the "pure and simple Latin Rite" as translated into Ge'ez, Fr. Da Carbonara drew the Congregation's attention to the practical problems involved; notably the susceptibilities of the Abyssinian Catholics. The Congregation, however, maintained its stand pending the translation into Ge'ez of the Latin liturgical books. In the meantime, however, within the Prefecture of Eritrea, it was the practice that in the churches of Asmara, Massawa and Assab only the Latin Rite was permitted; in Keren and Acrur, the Latin Rite and the Ethiopian Rite were to be alternated; whereas in the small villages and churches, as they were served only by indigenous clergy, the Ethiopian Rite alone was to be used. The use of the Ethiopian Rite meant that Mass was celebrated according to the missal printed by Mgr. Crouzet in 1890, and the sacraments were administered according to the practice which had been developed under the Lazarists in the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia. It should be noted, however, that in what actually remained of the original Vicariate of Abyssinia (only two small Catholic villages), there burned a vivid remembrance of Mgr. De Jacobis, and only the Ethiopian Rite was used.


The practical implementation of the decree of 1895 was proving to be extremely slow and, indeed, painful. On two occasions, 14th September, 1903 and 22nd May, 1907, Cardinal Gotti wrote to Fr. Da Carbonara asking news as to if, and when, the decree might be implemented. When replying to the latter letter Fr. da Carbonara indicated some of the practical problems; which calendar was to be followed? How could the Ethiopian chant be reconciled with a Latin liturgy? The ordinary people, he said, had a great affection for their chant and to abolish would be a cause of distress to the ordinary faithful (28). The translation of the Latin ritual into Ge'ez did not present the same difficulties, since the chant and the calendar entered less into the administration of the sacraments. Eventually, in 1910, just such a ritual was printed in Rome. But the Roman Missal, as translated into Ge'ez, was not produced. Instead, in 1913, the pres of Asmara printed the Ethiopian Missal. This was none other than the missal of Mgr. Crouzet, which had appeared in provisory form as early as 1890. Now, however, it was printed with the official approval of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. For the sake of sung Masses the priests were still allowed to use the old manuscripts as these had inserted the necessary musical notations.


6.     An Ethiopian voice in favour of retaining the Ethiopian Rite: 1913

Until Fr. Tecle-Mariam Semharay wrote to Rome from Jerusalem in 1913, the whole controversy over the Ethiopian Rite had been conducted by Europeans! Fr. Tecle-Mariam repudiated the practices which had developed in the Prefecture of Eritrea on the grounds that there was, in fact, a complete Ethiopian ritual, which had been used by some of the early Lazarists in the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia. Furthermore, he suggested that both for the Mass and the sacraments it would be better simply to adopt the "ancient Abyssinian liturgical books". "The change of rite," he wrote, "would be a matter of grave consequence…. and it would cause irreparable harm"(29). He, therefore, suggested "the complete practice of the Abyssinian rite, especially in public ceremonies, the observation of fasts and fasts and feasts, in fact, unity in all that is not contrary to Catholic faith"(30). Mgr. Carrara, O.F.M. Cap., repudiated this letter of Fr. Tecle-Mariam saying that he possessed a "very superficial knowledge"(31) of the whole matter.


Perhaps the importance of Fr. Tecle-Mariam's intervention is to be judged, no so much by what he said, as by the fact that he drew Rome's attention to the way a learned Ethiopian Catholic priest was thinking. He obviously resented certain tendencies to Latinize the Church in Ethiopia, and in this respect we may ask ourselves if he was not the mouthpiece of many, if not most, Ethiopian diocesan priests? Perhaps his intervention contributed to the abeyance of the decree of 1895, which had requested that "the pure and simple Latin Rite" should be adopted. Perhaps he contributed to stopping the swing of the Latinizing pendulum, which, after all, marks the first moment in a pendulum's reversal. In any case, with the establishment of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches (1917) and the subsequent foundation of the Ethiopian College in Rome (1919) and the preservation of the Ethiopian Rite was guaranteed.


7.     The contemporary ecumenical significance of the Ethiopian Rite


Vatican II in its "Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches" expressed its desire that these rites should "flourish" and stressed the point that "Those who, by … reason of an apostolic assignment, are in frequent communication with the Eastern Churches or their faithful should … be carefully trained to know and respect the rites, disciplines, doctrine, history and characteristics of Easterners"(32). Apart from the authoritative nature of such a pronouncement, even practically speaking, expatriate Sisters, Brothers and Priests working in Ethiopia would only be repeating historical follies if they were to ignore or be indifferent to a rite whose theological and spiritual content has exercised a formative influence on most of Ethiopian culture for almost 1,500 years.


The fact, moreover, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and substantial proportion of the Catholic Church follow the same rite provides a natural bridge for the development of ecumenical dialogue. Their common anaphora, for instance, includes the beautiful act to of faith, which is recited after the consecration, affirming both the human and divine reality of Christ (33). This ecumenical dimension of the common rite was forcefully stressed by an Ethiopian Capuchin, Fr. Ayele Teklehaymanot, O.F.M. Cap., in his conference to the Religious of Southern Ethiopia on 2nd March, 1979 when he said: "(A) kind of … non institutionalized ecumenism is increasingly in use and particularly fruitful among the Christians, Catholic and Orthodox of Ethiopia. It is manifested especially, on the occasion of some festivities and celebrations, characteristic of Ethiopian social life. These include (for instance) the patronal festivities of the Churches in the towns and villages… These Ethiopian social occasions, besides having a highly solemn tone and public character, are of special religious significance…and they offer a wonderful atmosphere and occasion for the much longed-for ecumenism." Obviously, such celebrations and social occasions take place within the content of the Ethiopian Rite, which has played such a significance role in forming the Ethiopian culture.





(1)    Vie de Mgr. De Jacobis (unsigned) Paris, 1866, p. 263.

(2)    Storia della Vita del Venerabile G. De Jacobis; by Mgr. D'Agostino; Napoli, 1910, p. 154.

(3)    La Missione dei Minore Capuccini in Eritrea; by P. Metodio Da Nembro, O.F.M. Cap., Romae, 1953, p. 10, note 36.

(4)    Op.Cit., p. 365.

(5)    Op.Cit.; p. 385, note 79.

(6)    Op. Cit.; p. 264.

(7)    Op. Cit.; p. 203.

(8)    Op. Cit.; p. 166.

(9)    Op. Cit.; 166.

(10)Op. Cit.; p. 169 & p. 373.

(11)Op. Cit.; p. 369-370.

(12)Op. Cit.; p. 346.

(13)Order du Bapteme et de la Confirmation dans L'Eglise Ethiopienne; by Sylvain Grabaut; Paris, 1928, p. 1.

(14)Op. Cit.; by P. Metodio da Nembro, Romae, 1953, p. 363, not 7 bis.

(15)Notizia e Saggi di Opere e Documenti Inediti Riguardanti la Storia d'Etiopia; ed. C. Beccari, S.J.; Roma, 1903, p. 242.

(16)Op. Cit.; by P. Metodio Da Nembro, Romae, 1953, p. 363.

(17)Op. Cit.; p. 346, note 11.

(18)Op. Cit.; by P. Metodio Da Nembro. Romae, 1953, p. 363, p. note 9.

(19)Le Vicariat Apostolique d'Abyssinie; by P. Gimalac, C.M.; 1932, p. 10.

(20)Op. Cit.; by P. Gimalac, C.M.; 1932, p. 30.

(21)"The Fetha Nagast": "The Law of the Kings". Translated by Abba Paulos; Addis Ababa, 1968, no. 44, p. 19 "… so also the titular of Rome has power over all other patriarchs…in his capacity as the Vicar of Christ."

(22)Op. Cit.; by P. Gimalac, C.M.; 1932. p. 13.

(23)Op. Cit.; p. 32.

(24)Op. Cit.; by P. Metodio Da Nembro, Romae, 1953, p. 368.

(25)Op. Cit.; p. 371.

(26)Op. Cit.; p. 373-374.

(27)Op. Cit.; p. 376.

(28)Op. Cit.; p. 380.

(29)Op. Cit.; p. 386.

(30)Op. Cit.; p. 386.

(31)Op. Cit.; p. 388.

(32)"The Documents of Vatican II": Ed. W. Abbott, S.J.: The Decree of the Eastern Churches no. 1 & 6.

(33)The Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church; Addis Ababa, 1954, p. 66-67.


(This Article is taken from the AFER, African Ecclesial Review, written by Fr. Kevin O'Mahoney, a lecturer in the Major Seminary of Adigrat (Ethiopia), and published by the AMECEA Pastoral Institute (Gaba), February 1980).