Ethiopian Orthodoxy at a Crossroads
Modernization challenges tradition
by Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C. with photographs by Cody Christopulos and Sean Sprague
In any church, two questions present themselves when the subject of the formation of clergy is broached. Unfortunately the first — “What kind of ministers do superiors want for their faithful?” — overshadows the second — “What do the laity expect from their clergy?”
The Catholic and Orthodox churches share a common problem. In an increasingly industrialized, urbanized and secularized world, the traditional bonds between priest and people — once formed in rural or village communities — have eroded, perhaps irrevocably.
For the most part, Christians in Europe, North America and Oceania no longer look to the parish priest as sole arbiter or intermediary between God and humankind. More frequently than not, the priest (if one is available, as priestly vocations continue to decline) is brought down from the shelf and dusted off only in times of family need, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
In Ethiopia, one can now discern tension developing between priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — the historic church of the Ethiopian people — and the faithful. This tension reflects the evolution of Ethiopia from an agricultural society of subsistent farmers to an urbanized and industrial modern state.
In the past, the priest was the natural reference point and adviser. Today, however, Ethiopia’s young, urban Orthodox Christians no longer perceive the priest as the only source of wisdom; they turn increasingly to their own experiences to find answers to life’s complexities.
Ethiopia is celebrated for its many monasteries, ancient foundations peopled with men who, in the footsteps of the early desert fathers, have fled the world to fast, pray and participate in the weekly celebration of the Qeddase, the eucharistic liturgy of the church.
Academics describe Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality, with its focus on interior prayer and the communal celebration of the Qeddase, as introspective and monastic. They contrast this with the more extroverted spirituality pervading Christian life in the West, where ministry exercises a more “apostolic” dimension.
Though Ethiopia’s monks have retreated from the world, they have not forsaken it. Historically, monasteries have played a significant role in the development of the Ethiopian nation, its culture and its identity, even participating in its often volatile political life.
Despite such power and influence, however, the laity understands that the role of a monk is contemplative. This traditional role is not reserved to those in monastic life alone, but extended to parish priests as well.
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.
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