Blessed Ghebre Michael
|August, 28 1855
Ghebre-Michael differs in three ways from the other canonised and beatified members of our Congregation: First, he was African, not European; second, he was not a born Catholic, but an adult convert; and third, he was not actually a confrere.
He was a disciple of Justin de Jacobis for many years, and eventually decided, with Justin’s consent, to become a Vincentian. A date was fixed for him to begin his internal seminary but when the fixed day arrived he was under arrest, and he died before he could carry out his intention. In a letter to the Superior General, Jean-Baptiste Etienne, Justin explained all this but said that he called Ghebre-Michael a Vincentian “because in his heart he already belonged to the Congregation”.
In a certain sense, too, he was not, strictly speaking, a martyr. He was not actually put to death for the faith. He died as a result of the long harsh treatment he had received.
The prefix Ghebre means “the servant of” and is always followed by the name of a saint; this combination is a very common form of name in Ethiopia and Eritrea. “Ghebre” cannot be separated from “Michael” and used as if it were a first name.
Ghebre-Michael was born about 1790. At an early age he lost one eye in an accident, and in his culture that rendered him unfit for most types of work. He received some education and then entered a monastery, where he showed himself to be a gifted student. He was not, however, preparing for ordination to the priesthood as most Ethiopian monks were not priests. His great interest was the history of monasticism. He saw, from his own experience, that there had been a great lowering of standards in Ethiopian monasteries, and he wished to do further research into the reasons for this, and his superiors commissioned him to do so. This gave him the authority to travel around the country visiting various monasteries and studying their practices and doing research in the manuscripts in their libraries. In each monastery which he visited he formed a small group of monks who had the same outlook as himself and he instructed them, and when he left to continue his travels they remained as a nucleus of monastic reform. As his research progressed he gradually came to see that the real problem behind the deterioration of monastic standards was the poor theological formation of the monks.
This realisation led him to the conclusion that the answer to the theological problems would not be found in Ethiopia, and he decided that he would have to go to Jerusalem to continue his research. He intended to make this journey alone, because no one else was going for the same purpose as himself. But just at the time he was thinking about this an unexpected thing happened.
In Ethiopia in those days there was always only one Orthodox bishop, appointed by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. The position was vacant in 1840-41 and a delegation was being formed to go to Alexandria and request the Patriarch to give them a new bishop. The delegation intended to visit Jerusalem and because of that Ghebre-Michael joined the group.
A most extraordinary thing about this delegation is that Justin was invited to be part of it, which indicates the esteem in which he was held by that time. He was reluctant to accept, since the purpose of the journey was to bring back a new Orthodox bishop. He compromised by agreeing to go if the delegation agreed to visit Rome on the way back; he thought that this might lead to a lessening of the opposition which the Orthodox Ethiopians had to the Catholic Church. This condition was agreed to. The delegation arrived in Alexandria and to their annoyance and amazement they were given a most unsuitable new bishop, who had been educated by Protestants. He would cause Justin and the Catholics a huge amount of trouble and be responsible for the death of Ghebre-Michael. After Alexandria the group went to Rome, and then to Jerusalem on their way back to Ethiopia.
Some years ago, when I was doing some research in the archives of the archdiocese of Dublin on something completely different I came across a letter referring to the arrival of this delegation in Rome. The letter was written to the Archbishop of Dublin by the rector of the Irish College in Rome,
Paul Cullen, who would himself later become Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin,in a letter dated 19 August 1841 contain the following paragraph:
- Since I last wrote to Your Grace, a deputation of Abyssinians arrived in Rome for the purpose of making their submission, and that of their prince, to the Holy See. The deputation consists of twenty-three persons, all blacks, and it is accompanied by a Lazarist missionary Sig, de Jacobis, who was prefect of the missions in Abyssinia. Here in Rome they do not seem to attach much importance to the deputation, as the Abyssinians have the character of being fickle and perfidious. However, the Pope received them with his usual kindness, and four or five young men who are in the party are to remain in Rome to study at the Propaganda. The others, after receiving some presents from his Holiness are to return to their own country.
The reference to four or five young men staying on in Rome to study for the priesthood is interesting, and is not in Salvatore Pane’s thousand page biography of Justin when he deals with the delegation’s stay in Rome. It would seem to have happened because the young men had been impressed with what they saw of Justin during the long journey. I do not think that he had planned things to turn out in this way. Also, Cullen is not correct in thinking that the purpose of the delegation was to make their submission, and that of their prince, to the Holy See. Obviously some breakdown in communication had occurred if the Roman authorities thought that that was the purpose of the visit.
It was on this journey that Ghebre-Michael first came into contact with Justin. His initial reaction was the typical Orthodox one of suspicion and mistrust, simply because he was a Catholic priest. However, as he lived in his company day after day on the journey he gradually came to admire Justin for his obvious holiness, his prayer and his way of dealing with people and situations.
In his search for theological truth Ghebre-Michael had found that many Orthodox monks and priests became his opponents or even enemies. Because of this Justin advised him to separate himself from the main group for the return journey, and to travel home by a different route, alone. He took this advice. This was in mid-1843. His great dream had been to convert the new bishop to his own way of thinking about theological truth, and in that way lead the whole country back to the truth. After a meeting with the new bishop he saw clearly that this vision was not going to be realised. The bishop did not share his desire for theological truth, and as well as this he had a personal political agenda. The bishop saw that this monk was going to be a very dangerous opponent of his plans, and on one occasion some of the bishop’s followers tried to poison Ghebre-Michael. This plan failed because the monk had known that this would be a possibility and so he always had the antidote to the usual poison used on such occasions.
Since his meeting with the bishop was a total failure, as regards his vision of a wholesale return of the country to theological truth, Ghebre-Michael decided to seek another interview with Justin. Remember, the monk’s vision of truth was the original truth of the Orthodox Church, not that of the Catholic Church. The two men met in September 1843. The delegation had returned to the Red Sea port of Massawa in April 1842, and Justin was back in his own area in May. This means that it was more than a year after their return that Ghebre-Michael sought out Justin for a meeting. The main point of the meeting was that the monk told Justin that he had made up his mind to become a Catholic. At this time, September 1843, thirty-seven Ethiopians had been received into the Catholic Church, with ten more under instruction.
Justin and the monk had many discussions over a period of about six months, and they visited many monasteries together to study ancient manuscripts. Eventually, in February 1844 Justin received Ghebre-Michael into the Catholic Church. This led to about six other monks asking to be received as well.
At this time, 1844, five years after his arrival, Justin did not have any permanent central residence, and he decided to establish one. He selected the village of Guala, and sent Ghebre-Michael and two other converts there to assess its suitability as a Catholic headquarters. The local people gave them a good welcome and in December 1844 they were able to acquire some land and build a residence. They arranged religion classes for the local people, with Ghebre-Michael being the contact man for monks and priests who wished to discuss religious matters or to become Catholics. The people also handed over the village church to them.
In the following years there was some persecution of Catholics, instigated by the new Orthodox bishop, and at one stage Ghebre-Michael was imprisoned for a few months.
In 1850, six years after Ghebre-Michael’s reception into the Church, Justin raised with him something he had been considering for quite a while, namely that the monk give some thought to the question of his becoming a priest. As I mentioned earlier, most Ethiopian monks were not priests. As the suggestion came from Justin, Ghebre-Michael agreed with it. He was ordained a Catholic priest by Justin on 1 January 1851.
Almost since his arrival in Ethiopia Justin had had doubts about the validity of sacraments administered by Ethiopian Orthodox priests. In fact, he was even doubtful about the validity of the ordination rite for diaconate and priesthood. He gave this matter a lot of thought and prayer, and also studied as much as he could the sources of Ethiopian sacramental theology. Later still he began to have doubts about the validity of Ethiopian baptism. In the specific case of Ghebre-Michael he had doubts about the validity of his baptism. If his baptism had not been valid, then neither had his ordination as it would have been conferred on an unbaptised man. He explained his doubts to Ghebre-Michael, who saw their significance. As a result of these reflections, Justin baptised and ordained Ghebre-Michael conditionally. “Conditionally” when referring to the administration of sacraments means they are administered with the condition “If you are not already baptised…, etc”. This conditional baptism and ordination took place early in 1854.
In July of that year Justin, Ghebre-Michael and four other converts were arrested and imprisoned, Justin being kept separate from the others. The Ethiopians had their legs thrust through a hole in a log and kept there with wooden wedges. The prisoners were able to communicate with each other by writing. The purpose of this imprisonment and torture was to persuade the converts to renounce Catholicism. The Orthodox bishop was particularly anxious to get rid of Justin, and he had him sent into exile. On the last stage of the journey to the coast there was a change of soldiers guarding Justin. The new guards were Moslems and, unlike the previous guards, were able to read the letter which the bishop had written in Arabic. In the letter the bishop asked that Justin be killed. When the guards read this they released him. Justin went back, and resumed contact by letter with the other prisoners. Towards the end of 1854 the bishop made another fierce effort by torture to get the prisoners to apostatise, but was not successful.
A new emperor of Ethiopia was crowned in February 1855, and part of his policy was religious uniformity all over Ethiopia. This new ruler also tortured Ghebre-Michael in an attempt to get him to apostatise, but without success. The emperor kept him in chains and brought him along wherever he went. In May 1855 the British Consul visited the new emperor, and the emperor decided to put the monk on trial in the presence of the consul. Once again he refused to apostatise, and the court decided that he should be executed by being shot. The British Consul asked for his life to be spared, and the emperor agreed. However, he was still kept in chains and brought along with the emperor’s army. As a result of all the harsh treatment he died on 28 August 1855. He was buried where he died, at the side of the road under a cedar tree, but the exact spot has never been identified since
Some years later Justin sent a drawing of Ghebre-Michael to Jean-Baptiste Etienne, the Superior General. In the accompanying letter he wrote:
I beg you to accept the picture which I have the honour to send you. It catches the likeness of the subject so exactly that when you take into account the lack of skill in the matter of drawing on the part of the Abyssinian priest who did it you have to admit that it is really an extraordinary picture. To this picture of the Abyssinian martyr Ghebre-Michael I have added an inscription in Latin in which I refer to him as a Vincentian seminarist. In fact he was only a postulant because the time of his vocation could be counted only from the moment when he would have begun his intern seminary; by the date which had been arranged he was already in prison; however, in his heart he already belonged to the Congregation.
Ghebre-Michael was beatified as a martyr in 1926.
Justin himself had five more years to live after Ghebre-Michael’s death. In May 1855, some months before that event, he had had to go into enforced exile at Moncullo on the Red Sea coast. This town was on the mainland, opposite the island of Massawa which was the main point of entry to Ethiopia and a stopping place for many ships trading in that area. Justin had had the idea of building a Catholic church in Moncullo to cater for Christians who might come to the port. The area was under Turkish rule and a French Vincentian was negotiator with the government. Permission was given to build the church.
The following information in Italian is found on the the site of the Postulator General of the Congregation of the Mission http://www.vincenziani.com/santi.htm We would welcome a translation. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Nato in un villaggio del Goggiam, in Etiopia, e dotato di acuta intelligenza, si adoperò nella ricerca della verità e la trovò in tutta la sua pienezza con l'aiuto di S. Giustino de Jacobis, il quale lo accolse nella comunione della Chiesa Cattolica. Perseguitato, resistette con fede salda e dallo stesso De Jacobis fu ordinato sacerdote il 1° gennaio 1851. Soggetto a nuove persecuzioni, morì il 13 luglio 1855, a circa settant'anni di età. Fu beatificato il 3 ottobre 1926. La sua memoria liturgica si celebra il 30 agosto. Leggi qui un suo più articolato profilo biografico.
Deep Down Things Fr. Richard McCullen, C.M.