Justin de Jacobis

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Justin de Jacobis

Justin de Jacobis
Birth October 9, 1800
Death July 31, 1860
Birthplace San Fele, Italy
Beatified July 25, 1939
Canonized October 26, 1975

Justin De Jacobis (October 9, 1800 - July 31, 1860) served as Vincentian missionary to Ethiopia from 1839 until his death. Between 1839 and 1860 he worked in northern Ethiopia, mainly in Tegray. On July 25, 1939, he was beatified and canonized as a saint on October 26, 1975.

Early Life

Justin de Jacobis was born on 9 October 1800 in San Fele, a village south of Naples. His family went back 500 years and was quite wealthy. Later on, in a letter, Justin mentions that he was disappointed in his father, but does not say why. There seems to be some indication that his father did not manage the family finances very well, and the family suffered as a result. They certainly had to move from their ancestral home in the country and take up residence in the city of Naples, dropping to a lower standard of living.

When Justin was coming to the end of his secondary education he told a Carmelite priest, a friend of his mother’s, that he wanted to be a priest. The Carmelite decided that the Vincentians would be a community which would suit him, and he followed this advice. As far as is known, he had not had any previous contact with the Vincentians in Naples. He entered the Congregation on October 17, 1818, took vows on October 18, 1820 and was ordained at Brindisi on June 12, 1824.

Early Priesthood

He was ordained in 1824. Following his ordination he was sent to Oria in southern Italy to give missions and retreats. In 1829 he and some other Confreres were sent to open a new house in Monopoli, also for the purpose of giving missions and retreats. There is some evidence of conflict between him and the local superior.

In 1834 he was appointed superior in Lecce, further south. There he continued to give missions and retreats; he had become well-known as a preacher and confessor. During his assignment debt on the house in Lecce was eliminated. He arranged for maintenance on the house that had been deferred because of lack of funds to be completed.

He became director of seminarians in Naples in 1836, where he was remembered for emphasizing personal prayer. He was among the priests who ministered during the cholera epidemic in Naples in 1836-1837. He mentioned in a letter written at the time that he and the other confreres were out all day, and well into the night. He says he is writing the letter in a barber’s shop at midnight.

After two years he was appointed superior of the Provincial House in Naples, and once again resumed the ministry of missions and retreats. In the Provincial House the retreats were often for specific professional groups, such as doctors, surgeons, judges, or for the Neapolitan nobility.

At that time Italy was not yet united and Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. King Ferdinand II heard of Justin’s reputation as a preacher of missions and retreats, and of his ministry during the cholera epidemic. He came to appreciate that Justin was also a man of great personal holiness, so he thought that he would make a good bishop. Justin heard rumours that this was likely, and he was sufficiently realistic to know that it could happen; three Vincentians had already been made bishops in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He decided to take steps to prevent himself becoming the fourth. His practical sense of reality also led him to admit that he would be prepared to become a bishop in some missionary territory where there was a real need for a bishop.

Missionary Dream

He had previously thought of going on the foreign missions, so he wrote to the Vincentian Procurator at the Holy See to ask what were the chances of his going on the missions. He was told that there was a chance that Algeria, recently occupied by the French, would be assigned as missionary territory to the Vincentians. He wrote to the Superior General, Jean-Baptiste Nozo, who told him that thinking about Algeria was premature as it had not in fact been offered to the Congregation.

In the summer of 1838 Justin heard that there was to be an attempt to launch a Catholic mission in Ethiopia. He wrote once again to the Vincentian Procurator at the Holy See to offer himself, but he made it clear that he wanted to be sent by the Congregation of the Mission and not by the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda. Because of this the cardinal officially requested Jean-Baptiste Nozo, the Superior General, to authorise Justin to go to the new mission. Nozo was not too enthusiastic about this. One reason was that another Italian Vincentian, Giuseppe Sapeto, had departed, without authority, from his mission in Syria and had gone to Ethiopia and had started mission work there, without any official ecclesiastical authority from either the Holy See or the Superior General. From Nozo’s point of view it seemed as if the Holy See, by sending another Italian Vincentian to Ethiopia, was somehow endorsing the irregular conduct of Sapeto. But there was also a second reason for Nozo’s lack of enthusiasm; Justin was not French. The Vincentian authorities in Paris would have preferred that a new mission territory like Ethiopia should have been under the control of French missionaries. For all the rest of his life, during the generalship of Nozo’s successor Jean-Baptiste Etienne, Justin would be made to feel resentment from Paris at his not being French.

Missionary in Ethiopia

The Holy See appointed Justin Prefect Apostolic of Abyssinia and all the Neighbouring Territories. The purpose of this title was specifically to remove him and his mission from the jurisdiction of any Vicar Apostolic in the region. He was given another Italian confrere, Luigi Montuori, as his assistant. Montuori had been with Justin on many missions in Italy. They departed for Ethiopia in May 1839.

Ethiopia was not like most missionary territories. It was not a country with a pagan population who had to be converted to Christianity. It had been Christian since the 4th century, but had slipped into schism and heresy. There had been several previous attempts to establish the Catholic Church there but none of them had succeeded. At the time of Justin’s arrival there was not even one Ethiopian Catholic in the country.

Justin and Montuori quickly made contact with Giuseppe Sapeto, the confrere who had left Syria and gone to Ethiopia without any official ecclesiastical authority. The three of them discussed what their best approach to the work would be. Sapeto was already accepted by the people of the area where he had settled, even though they knew that he was a Catholic priest. In theory, Catholic priests were liable to immediate execution if discovered. For this reason the three Vincentians decided that they would not, at least for the present, let themselves be seen celebrating Mass or praying the breviary.

Right from the start they decided to adopt the Ethiopian style of dress and accommodate themselves to Ethiopian food. They set about learning three languages: Amharic, the national language, Tigrina the local language of the area where they were, and Ghe’ez the liturgical language. There is plenty of contemporary evidence that Justin acquired a very good knowledge of these languages, and later on he even wrote some books in Amharic. He did not participate in religious services in the local church, but did spend long periods in the church praying by himself. He followed the Ethiopia liturgical calendar for seasons and feastdays. He visited the sick, and when people, laity and clergy, came to him in his house of their own accord, he would discuss religious matters with them. He began catechism classes for the children. It was not long before he came to the realisation that Rome’s idea that Ethiopia could be quickly converted to Catholicism was very far from the truth.

One of Justin’s great hopes was that some of the Ethiopian clergy would become Catholics. The first one to do this was a deacon. Then gradually others followed his example, as well as a young man who wanted to be prepared for the Catholic priesthood. Justin insisted that all converted clergy, as well as those studying for the Catholic priesthood, remain in the Ethiopian Coptic Rite; they were not to be Latinised. In this way of thinking Justin was alone; none of the other missionaries agreed with him. It took a century, until Vatican II, for the Church to see and accept that Justin was correct in his understanding of the missionary apostolate.

He had one very serious problem, though, and that was where to find a bishop to ordain those whom he was forming for priesthood. The solution arrived providentially, in the following manner. An Italian Capuchin bishop, Guglielmo Massaia, was travelling through Ethiopia to take up his mission in an area of the country far from Justin’s territory. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Propaganda, in Rome ordered Massaia to make a stop in the important port city of Massawa, on an island just off the Red Sea coast of Ethiopia, and there ordain any candidates whom Justin had ready. He did this, but he realised that this was only a temporary remedy, since in a very short time Justin would have more students for ordination. Massaia’s solution was to suggest to the Holy See that Justin himself would make an excellent bishop for the region. Justin was hesitant and reluctant, but Massaia overcame his reluctance by suggesting that pride was what was behind Justin’s professed reluctance. Justin gave in and was ordained bishop in secret in Massawa in January 1849, and then returned to his own area.

For the remaining eleven years until his death in 1860 Justin’s life was a series of problems, harassment, persecution, and even a spell of imprisonment, all originating in the opposition of the Orthodox Coptic bishop. With the exception of one young confrere, Carlo Delmonte, all Justin’s fellow-Vincentians disagreed with Justin’s missionary methods, especially with regard to indigenous clergy. Even the confrere who was to be his coadjutor bishop, Lorenzo Biancheri, who had the right of succession, said openly that when he succeeded Justin he did not intend to continue Justin’s missionary methods, especially in the matter of building up a body of indigenous clergy. He had anticipated by more than a century what Vatican II and Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi would say about missiology.

In 1860, Kedaref Kassa became the Ethiopian King Thedore II with the backing of Abuna Salama, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. In gratitude, he prohibited Catholicism, and De Jacobis was imprisoned for several months. He was then force-marched to the area of Halai in southern Eritrea, spending his remaining months in missionary work along the Red Sea.

He is considered an apostle to Africa, and the founder of the Abyssinian mission. Blessed Ghebre Michael is among the estimated 12,000 converts he made in his time.

External Links

Brief presentation of his life

the First Justin de Jacobis By Biagio Falco, C.M.

Devotion to St. Justin de Jacobis in Eritrea and Ethiopia By Iyob Ghebresellasie, C.M.

St Justin de Jacobis: Founder of the New Catholic Generation and Formator of its Native Clergy in the Catholic Church of Eritrea and Ethiopia by Abba lyob Ghebresellasie, C.M.

Justin de Jacobis: The Art of Dialogue by Professor Yaqob Beyené

Edited And Unedited Writings of St. Justin De Jacobisby Giuseppe Guerra, CM

Bibliography of St. Justin De Jacobis. Biographies and Studies. By Luigi Nuovo, C.M.