St. Frumentius

(Fourth Century, A.D.)

We in America have slight acquaintance with Ethiopia, that impoverished highland on Africa’s eastern spur, today suffering the double tyranny of Marxism and famine. But the Ethiopians, racially of both black and Semitic origins, have an ancient Christianity. They learned it in the fourth century from St. Frumentius.

Frumentius, a citizen of Tyre in Lebanon, “discovered” Ethiopia by a curious accident. Around 340 A.D., Marobius of Tyre, a tutor, took his Tyrian pupils Frumentius and Aedisius on a study trip through Arabia. On the return sea-trip their ship stopped at an Ethiopian port. There the ship’s crew got into a scuffle with some Ethiopians, who slew the crew and all the passengers. All, that is, except Frumentius and Aedisius, who happened to be studying under a tree some distance from the bloodied dock. Not that they escaped eventual detection, but when arrested they were not killed but presented as slaves to the king, who lived at Aksum.

This ruler was impressed by the youths. Aedisius, the younger, he appointed royal cup-bearer; Frumentius, royal secretary. Before the king died, he rewarded both with their freedom. His widowed queen, regent during the minority of the crown prince, begged both of them to stay on and help her. Frumentius, now armed with new influence, was able to induce some Christian merchants to settle in Ethiopia.

When the new king was installed, he asked the Tyrians to continue with him. Aedisius declined, left for home, and was eventually ordained a priest. Frumentius, however, hoping to bring about the Christianization of his adopted country, went to Alexandria and asked St. Athanasius, the great Coptic patriarch, to send missionaries to the Ethiopians. Athanasius agreed, ordained Frumentius himself to priesthood and episcopacy, and named him head of’ the mission.

Frumentius then went to Aksum. By preaching and, we are told, by miracles, he succeeded in making many converts. Tradition says that the royal brothers, Abreha and Asbeha, were among them. Meanwhile, the Roman Emperor Constantius, who favored the Arian heresy (that Christ is not truly divine), tried to oust Frumentius because of his association with Athanasius, the chief opponent of Arianism. The imperial plot failed.

Ethiopia’s church has always been closely connected with the Coptic Church of Egypt. Its liturgy follows Coptic practice, and until 1959 it was always the Coptic patriarch who named the patriarch-catholicos (head bishop) of the Ethiopian Christians; and he always named Copt to that post. (The patriarch of the Ethiopians is still called “Abuna” “Father” a title originally bestowed on Frumentius.)

When the Coptic Church refused to accept the decrees of the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), the Ethiopians followed suit. Since the council had condemned monophysism (the erroneous doctrine that Christ has only one nature, the divine, and not two, the divine and the human), Copts and Ethiopians were considered to be monophysites. Fortunately, as a result of recent ecumenical discussions, it has become clear that the Copts and Ethiopians have always accepted the correct teaching.

From the 17th century on there has been a small body of Ethiopian Rite Christians united with the popes. Today, they number 100,000. Their senior Catholic prelate is Cardinal Paulos Tzadua, archbishop of Addis Ababa. Since 1919 the Holy See has conducted a small Catholic Ethiopian seminary within the walls of Vatican City.

It is to be hoped, however, that as a result of ongoing ecumenical dialogue the whole Ethiopian and Coptic churches may return to union with the See of Peter, with which they were once devotedly united.

I am sure that their revered “abuna”, St. Frumentius, is praying for that happy result.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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