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A Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia and Eritea

The Bishops of Eritrea and Ethiopia form one Episcopal Conference. Together they have written the present Pastoral Letter, in the context of the African Synod and toward the year 2000.
To our beloved priests, religious, faithful, and all people of goodwill
We, the Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia and Eritrea greet you, our beloved faithful and all Persons of good will. May the grace and peace of God be with you all. Several reasons have moved us to write this letter at this particular moment of our history. First of all, the christian faith, present in Ethiopia since the apostolic times, is approaching the third millennium of the incarnation of Christ. This transition towards a new century in the year 2000 is not only a significant chronological step for humankind, but it is, at the same time, a challenge to open a new era for the world as well as for the church. Where are we christians, after two thousand years of evangelisation? How deeply has the Gospel penetrated our families and our civil societies? What are the pastoral challenges for the Catholic church in Ethiopia at the beginning of the year 2000?
Another reason that moved us is the historical event of the special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of Africa, popularly known as the African Synod. This event was not just a meeting ending up with an official document. The African Synod is an ecclesial process in which we, your pastors, together with all the faithful, are called to plan for evangelisation towards the year 2000. His holiness Pope John Paul II, in his address at the resurrection Garden in Nairobi, expressed the dynamism of this process in a very challenging formula: “The Synod is over; the Synod has just begun”.
Like the prophet Elijah on his long journey towards Mount Horeb, the Catholic Church in Ethiopia needs also to be awakened and comforted with the same words the messenger of God addressed to the prophet: “Get up and eat because there still remains for you a long journey...”. This he said to indicate the many efforts and labours he had to endure for the accomplishment of his mission.
The long christian tradition of the past centuries is indeed our glory and legitimate pride. But we are always the pilgrim people of God in this world and we are not allowed to stop our journey because we have not yet arrived. We still have to pray every day: “Thy Kingdom Come”. This is why, borrowing the words of Paul the Apostle, “forgetting what is left behind we have to tend to what is ahead”, we look towards the future with hope.
The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to provide some reflections and pastoral orientations on this on-going process of renewal of the faith of our Ethiopian Catholic people. The Bishops at the African Synod portrayed the church as a family, the spiritual family of the children of God, united not by any ethnic or tribal bond, but begotten by the same Spirit. It is precisely in the perspective of being a large family that we address this letter inviting all of you to be committed to the process of Christianising our society in the years to come.
According to the desire of Pope John Paul II, the new evangelisation must aim “at transforming humanity from within and making it new” as well as at building up the church as family, “avoiding all ethnocentrism and excessive particularism, trying instead to encourage reconciliation and true communion between different ethnic groups, favouring solidarity and the sharing of personnel among the particular churches without undue ethnic considerations”.
The intent of this letter is to guide you towards openness to dialogue inside the community as well as with other believers and with all men and women of good will. But dialogue should be practised, first of all, within the families of our churches at all levels.

Evangelisation: Individuals and Societies

A danger that evangelisation has to face is that many christians do not understand, or don’t want to understand, the duty that they have to grow in the commitment towards their faith. They think that they don’t need to be taught any more. Yet, no person or country is completely evangelised forever.
Besides the individual person, all areas of our society ought to be evangelised. This will be possible only when the people of the church as individuals as well as “the community of Christ” will have been imbued with that new spirit of evangelisation which enables them to see the “sign of the time”. This same spirit will make us also aware of the urgency to permeate of Christ any aspect of the political, social and cultural life of our countries.
The Bishops gathered at the African Synod stated that “Evangelisation must reach individual human beings and society in every aspect of their existence. It is, therefore, expressed in various activities, and particularly those which the Synod examined: proclamation, inculturation, dialogue, justice and peace and the means of social communications”. It is in the light of this statement that we have to examine the main challenges to our church in our own country.

Main Challenges

Justice, Unity and Co-operation:
In our pastoral letter of 1991 we expressed our joy that the long war was over. We said we hoped that “our peoples and our land will see a new era of peace, reconciliation and progress”. Now after a few years we want to say that there must be room for love and forgiveness as well as national co-operation lest hidden forms of revenge, under the cover of the law, may take the place of genuine justice. Without love there will be no justice, and without justice there will never be lasting peace.
The civil and administrative structures inaugurated by the new constitution open a new era and are a pioneering step in the political history of independent Africa. But political structures alone, even the best ones, have their limitations. They cannot ensure by themselves justice, peace and progress. We must be aware of this lest we shall foster tribalism, and ethnic and religious discrimination that could destroy again the peace of our nation.
The spirit of solidarity among the regions and peoples of our country and the concern for the common good must prevail. Without a change of heart, a change of constitution will not work miracles. It is not the task of the church, as a religious community, to provide concrete solutions in the social, economic and political fields. The church is, however, “an expert in humanity” and “this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts in search of the always relative happiness which is possible in this world, in line with their dignity as persons” ... “The teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the church’s evangelising mission”.
Our country is counted among the poorest in the world. This situation of widespread poverty, so visibly manifested in our cities, is a serious challenge to the mission of the church. How can the church, following the example of Jesus, “preach good news to the poor”? “Integral human development, the development of every person and of the whole person, especially the poorest and the most neglected in the communities, is at the very heart of evangelisation”. The solution to the tragic drama of poverty cannot come from outside donors giving us food in emergency situations. There should be a common concern at all levels, and especially with those who hold civil and political leadership, in giving priority to alleviate the conditions of millions of Ethiopians. The Catholic church wants to renew its commitment and its preferential option for the poor in the various social services like schools, medical centres and other places where social assistance and relief work is provided. But relief and social services are not enough if righteousness in the public administration and concern for each Ethiopian people are not prevailing.
Need for Unity and Dialogue:
In front of the immense challenge of poverty the Catholic church can not pretend to offer a solution on its own. But in dialogue and collaboration with others, we can contribute to create better social awareness. “United to Jesus Christ by their witness in Africa, Catholics are invited to develop an ecumenical dialogue. This dialogue and collaboration must include, first of all, our brothers and sisters of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox church. We cannot but express our joy for the positive steps towards a closer communion between our sister churches, as Pope John Paul II has recently expressed. “When the venerable patriarch of the Ethiopian Church, Abuna Paulos, paid me a visit in Rome on 11 June 1993, together we emphasised the deep communion existing between our churches: “we share the faith handed down from the Apostles, as also the sacraments and the same ministry, rooted in the apostolic succession...” Today, moreover, we can affirm that we have one faith in Christ, even though for a long time this was a source of division between us”.
This dialogue and collaboration must include all the baptised brothers and sisters of other christian denominations, in order that the unity for which Christ prayed may be achieved, and in order that their service to the peoples of the continent may make the Gospel more credible in the eyes of those who are searching for God.
Furthermore, our commitment to dialogue must also embrace all Muslims and people of good will. Avoiding the danger of religious intolerance or militant fundamentalism, Christians and Muslims are called to commit themselves to the service of justice and peace. In the struggle against poverty and social evils our dialogue can achieve what our divisions will never achieve.
Population Growth and Development:
The population of Ethiopia has grown considerably in the last years. This also represents a challenge to society as well as to the church. But the dignity of human life will not be automatically preserved and improved by just reducing the population. Certainly, public authorities have a responsibility to “intervene to orient the demography of the population”. But such interventions must always take into account and respect the primary and inalienable responsibility of married couples and families, and can not employ methods which fail to respect the person and fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life of every innocent human being.
The countries in the Northern hemisphere have not only a much higher demographic density than our own country, but also have less surface. Yet, their standards of life are incomparably better than ours. This clearly shows that, linked to the demographic problem, there are structures of economy and politics that have to be revised at the national and international level. “Governments and the various international agencies must above all strive to create economic, social, public health and cultural conditions which enable married couple to make their choices about procreation in full freedom and genuine responsibility”. It is the duty of public authorities at all levels to ensure “greater opportunities and a fairer distribution of wealth so that everyone can share equitably in the goods of creation”.
Family Values and the Condition of Women:
The situation of the christian families cannot go unaffected by the challenges described above. As a result of war, many families in our country have been destroyed or separated. Displacement and political exile has separated parents and in most cases left mothers alone with the burden of the children. The increasing number of the so called “street children” is a visible consequence of so many orphans or stranded children without a proper family to care for them. This is a serious social concern not only for the church but also for the state. The family is the cell of human society. When the situation of the family is so deeply deteriorated no human integral development can be expected because the whole set of moral values is affected.
Within the context of the family the condition of women is of special concern here as it is in other African countries. The African Bishops in their final message expressed this concern: “We render homage to you our mothers, our sisters! This Synod of hope reflected on the alienations that weigh upon you. They come from traditional vision of man and of the world and in this way they manifest clearly one of the major structures of sin engulfing our African societies. They also come from the unjust structures of the present world. Convinced that “to educate a woman is to educate a people” your Bishops and all those who participated in this holy Synod are determined to take every measure to see your dignity fully respected”. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope John Paul II stresses this concern: “The church deplores and concerns to the extent that they are still found in some African societies all the customs and practises that deprive women of their rights and the due respect to them”. “It is recommended that Episcopal conferences establish special commissions to study further women’s problems in co-operation with interested government agencies, wherever this is possible”.

New Evangelisation: New Wine in New Skins

The Value of Witness:
The main theme of the African Synod was formulated in these words: “The church in Africa and her Evangelising Mission towards the year 2000: “you shall be my witness” (Acts 1:8)”. How to be a witness of Christ in Ethiopia today and in the days to come? How to describe the Evangelising Mission of the Catholic church in our Ethiopian context? How to implement the main pastoral guidelines given by Pope John Paul II in this Post-synodal Apostolic exhortation “the church in Africa”? All these are concrete and practical questions that we, your pastors, want to share with you, our beloved brothers and sisters in the church.
It is not therefore, our intention to offer immediate solutions to all the challenges to the church and to our society in our times. Instead, we hope to provide some guidelines that may inspire our church as Family, in close dialogue and collaboration between the pastors and all people of God, in order to find what the Spirit is telling to our Church today.
At this point we want to underline the fact that the challenge of a new evangelisation calls for a change in methods. If we are not ready for such a change and for a revision of some of our traditional points of view, evangelisation will be like new wine put in old wine skins with the consequences described by Jesus in his parable.
We must accept that if the church “exists in order to evangelise” then the church must begin by being evangelised herself. This implies that all of us accept to enter in a process of constant conversion and renewal in order to evangelise our society with credibility. The church proclaims the Good News of Christ, not only by the proclamation of the word which she has received from the Lord, but also by the witness to the faith, hope and love which dwell in them (Cf. 1 Pet. 2:15).
Organic Pastoral Solidarity and Communion:
Thanks to the fast development in the technology of communications the national borders are no longer considered to be barriers. There is a growing sense of world solidarity that the church sees as a positive contribution towards the common task of evangelisation.
We are far from the old times when Ethiopia was isolated from the rest of the world and particularly from the rest of Africa. Other countries in Africa regard with respect and admiration our ancient history and our ancient christian heritage. We are an example of many of the inculturation of the christian faith in the African soil. On our side, we have to recognise no local church is an island. We have to be ready to learn from other African local churches new experiences and pastoral initiatives that seem to respond in a successful way to the needs and expectations of the new generations.
The need for such an openness and co-operation among dioceses and churches flows from the fact that the church is a universal combination, as the second Vatican council has taught: “finally between all the various parts of the church there is a bond of close communion whereby Spiritual riches, apostolic workers and temporal resources are shared”.
This Spirit of universal communion is expressed, among other things, through the local and regional Episcopal conferences. The Catholic church in Ethiopia belongs to the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA), which is a pioneer among all the inter-territorial Episcopal conferences in Africa.
Whatever the pastoral strategies towards a new evangelisation in Ethiopia may be, they cannot ignore the pastoral priorities of AMECEA and the mutual collaboration among its members. The African Synod Assembly was, in this respect, a deep experience for all of us, making us feel that we are walking together with other sister churches in Africa, as the title of our final message, Our Journey Together, expressed it.
Small Christian Communities: the Church in Daily Life:
The most significant pastoral priority of AMECEA since 1973 is the development of small christian communities. This structuring of the parishes in human-size group of christians belonging to the same neighbourhood and of sharing their christian faith beyond any ethnic or tribal boundaries brings the life of the church into the homes of people, touching their daily lives, their joys and sorrows. They were described as “an excellent way of implementing the outcome of this Synod” in all the five pastoral fields of proclamation, dialogue, inculturation, justice and peace and communication.
The Mehaber:
While we view with admiration this means of evangelisation in small christain communities, we would like to invite our beloved brothers in the priesthood to rediscover the value and the dynamism of our traditional christian associations called the “Mehaber”.
Historical Background:
Although a serious research on the Ethiopian Mehaber is lacking, we can retrace the existence of special religious groups to Judaism. They were called “Heburot”. “They were gathering to share” religious meals. Jesus and the primitive church made of this the centre and motor of christian gathering.
Influence in Church Life of the Mehaber:
This institution based on the three ancient pillars of christianity and christian communities (the monthly celebration of the Eucharist, the meal and the word of God proclaimed by the spiritual by the spiritual father), can have a very strong positive influence on the evangelisation of our families, villages and parish communities. From the pastoral point of view, this institution, still very much alive among Orthodox and Catholics, offers a splendid frame and opportunity for serious apostolic work.


Evangelisation can not be achieved without messengers of the “Good news”, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “How are people to call upon the Lord in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”
Although the responsibility of co-ordinating and animating the whole work for evangelisation is entrusted to the Bishop, evangelisation is the duty and the right of every christian by his or her own consecration in baptism and confirmation. It is not only the priests and religious but the whole church as family that is sent to evangelise, each according to his or her own gifts from the spirit. In a special way we invite lay Christians to join in this common mission.
Acknowledging one of the propositions presented to him by the Bishops at the end of the African Synod, Pope John Paul II recommended that “Lay people are to be trained for their mission through suitable centres and schools of biblical and pastoral formation. Similarly, christians who occupy positions of responsibility are to be carefully prepared for political, economic and social tasks by means of a solid formation. In their places of work they will be faithful witnesses to the gospel”.
We want to conclude this pastoral letter with the prayer that the Bishops composed at the end of the working session of the African Synod in Rome.
O Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, thanks to you, on the day of the Annunciation at the dawn of the new era, the whole human race with its cultures rejoiced in recognising itself ready for the Gospel. On the eve of a new Pentecost for the Church in Africa and Madagascar and the adjacent islands, the people of God with its pastors turns to you and with you fervently prays. May the outpouring of the Holy Spirit make the cultures of Africa place of communion in diversity, fashioning the peoples of this great continent into generous sons and daughters of the church which is the family of the Father, the Brotherhood of the Son, the image of the Trinity, the seed and beginning on earth of the eternal Kingdom which will come to its perfection in the city that has God as its Builder, the city of Justice, love and peace.