Né à Dibo (Godjam, au nord de l'Ethiopie), en 1791 (ou en 1788 ?). C'est dans le monastère de Mertule Maryam, en 1816, qu'il fit sa profession, comme moine orthodoxe.
Après avoir longuement réfléchi et prié, Ghébré Michaël prit, en 1844, la décision de se convertir au catholicisme et de s'unir à la petite communauté de Mgr Justin de Jacobis. Il enseigna dans les séminaires de Guala et d'Alitena.
Lorsqu'éclata la persécution contre les catholiques, Ghébré Michaël refusa de se cacher ou de fuir. Il fut arrêté, emprisonné à Gondar, en mai 1854, et soumis à de grands tourments: jeûne, flagellations, guend (tronc d'olivier plein d'aiguilles) et humiliations de toutes sortes. Déçu dans son espoir de le voir abjurer, l'empereur décida d'en finir avec lui.
C'était à Liguama, dans la province de Wollo, le 28 août 1855, fête de Saint Georges pour l'Église Éthiopique. Il est mort en martyr in odium fidei. On croit qu'il a été enterré à Were Ilu, à 80 km sud-ouest de Desie.
Il a été béatifié le 3 octobre 1926 et sa fête est célébrée le 30 août. Il est le Patron des prêtres diocésains.
Thomas Davitt CM
"Vincent de Paul was canonised as a confessor, that is, someone who was not a martyr but who lived a life of heroic holiness. The only other confrere who has been canonised as a confessor is Justin De Jacobis.
If we are to understand and appreciate what he did we need to know at least a minimum about the political and religious context in which he worked, as well as the differences between his own culture and that of the people among whom he ministered. Justin spent the final twenty years of his life in what was then referred to as Abyssinia, and which today is split between the separate nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The local politics of the time affected his ministry. Also, this was territory of the schismatic Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Church, which, in its leaders especially, was fiercely opposed to Latin Rite Catholicism.
In the first place, then, we can say that for a confrere who is ministering in a place where the language and culture are different from his own, Justin can be a significant example. Secondly, the same is true for a confrere working in an area where the Orthodox Church exists.
Justin was born on 9 October 1800 in a little village called San Fele 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 was ordained in 1824 and sent to Oria, in southern Italy, to give missions and retreats. Five years later he was sent as one of a group of confreres to open a new house in Monopoli for the same ministry. Here he had problems with the superior, who hassled him and interfered with his work. After another five year period he was changed to Lecce, further south, as superior, but he continued to give missions and retreats. By this time, ten years after ordination, he had built up quite a reputation as a preacher and confessor. As superior in Lecce he showed that he was also an able administrator, and he quickly cleared the debt on the house and had repairs to the house undertaken which had been postponed because of lack of funds.
Two years later he was appointed director of the seminarists in Naples. Those who had been seminarists during his time as director remembered later his emphasis on personal prayer. In late 1836 and into 1837 there was a cholera epidemic in the city and, like other priests, Justin was deeply involved in ministry to the sick and dying. 30,000 people died in the epidemic, sometimes seven or eight hundred in one day. 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.
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.
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 4thcentury, 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. However, as I mentioned a moment ago, Justin was proved right. He had anticipated by more than a century what Vatican II and Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi would say about missiology.
You have probably wondered why I have not so far made any mention of Ghebre-Michael. My reason for this was to give an outline picture of Justin and his ideas and then insert Ghebre-Michael into it. That is what I start doing now.
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 for many years, and eventually decided, with Justin’s consent, to become a Vincentian. A date was fixed for him to begin his intern 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. The letter is dated 19 August 1841 and contains 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.
He returned to his own territory after a little over a year on the coast. The political situation in Ethiopia was deteriorating and complicated and Justin found himself in more trouble because he had met with French diplomats. He was not politically minded, and his only interest was the safeguarding of his Catholics. His main worry was that after his death, which he knew could not be far off, his confrere coadjutor bishop, Lorenzo Biancheri, had stated openly that after Justin’s death he would discontinue the policy of building up an indigenous Ethiopian clergy. Justin knew that this would be disastrous and he tried to save something from the situation by asking Rome to divide the territory between himself and Biancheri, so that at least in some area his own policy would be continued. He did not succeed in getting Rome to do this. The only confrere who agreed with him was a recently arrived young Italian Carlo Delmonte. As Vincentian superior Justin appointed Delmonte as assistant superior and procurator, and as bishop he appointed him as his Vicar General. Unfortunately, Delmonte died quite soon after Justin, so these plans did not work out as he had hoped.
In January 1860 Justin was arrested and imprisoned for three weeks. Because of the worsening political situation it was decided that he should go down to the coast again, and stay in Moncullo. His health was deteriorating all the time and when the summer heat was at its fiercest on the Red Sea coast it was decided that he should make the attempt to get up into a cooler area. He left on 29 July with an escort of Turkish troops procured by the French Consul. On the 31st his condition was so bad that he had to stop at the side of the road. He received the last anointing and died there in the afternoon."