Ethiopia, a mountainous land in Eastern Africa, has an unusual ethnic mixture of Black and Semite. It is one of the oldest Christian lands in Africa and to this day the population is one half Christian. But the ancient Christian Church in Ethiopia has been separated from the bishops of Rome since the fifth century. The division was on the basis of the apparent denial by Ethiopian Christians that there were in Christ incarnate two natures, that of God and that of man. Only one nature, they said.
Attempts were made by Catholic missionaries in the 16th and 17th century to win these Ethiopian Christians back to union with Rome. They failed largely because the Portuguese Christian missionaries tried to impose upon them the liturgy and legal practices customary among Latin Rite Catholics.
A later effort, in the 19th century, was more respectful of local customs and achieved some success. In 1839 a Vincentian priest from Italy, Justin De Jacobis (now Blessed Justin), was sent to Ethiopia to head a mission. He soon met Abba Gabra Michael, an Ethiopian of Portuguese semitic and black ancestry, but a monk of the non-Catholic Ethiopian church. Gabra was not a priest, but a very learned theologian. Father Justin invited him to accompany him to Rome along with a delegation of the Ethiopians to meet the pope. The visit convinced Gabra that he should become a Catholic himself. He did so, in 1844, when aged over fifty. Gabra was a great help to Father Justin in the latter’s effort to found a seminary, and he accepted charge of it. With Father Justin, Gabra composed a catechism adapted to Ethiopian needs, and translated a work of moral theology into the local language. Fr. Justin, banished for a while, was secretly consecrated a bishop. When he returned, he ordained Gabra as his first priest. Later he received him into the Vincentian order.
Although Bishop Justin’s apostolate was now permitted to a certain extent, a reaction occurred against this European “intrusion”, especially after a man named Kassa rebelled and usurped the crown, becoming Theodore II.
Theodore launched a persecution of Roman Catholics. He arrested Gabra and four of his fellow-Ethiopians, and threatened them with torture if they would not give up their allegiance to the Pope. For nine months they were imprisoned, being brought out at intervals and urged now gently, now brutally, to renounce the Pope. When they refused, they were tortured and whipped with a giraffe’s tail – an instrument like a steel cable in its cutting effect. Abuna Salama, the head of the dissident Ethiopian church, was behind this persecution, despite the fact that Gabra had saved his life some years before.
In March, 1855, when Theodore was about to set out on a military expedition, he asked Gabra once more to give in. Gabra would not, so the Emperor condemned him to death. At this point, however, the British consul intervened, and the king commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
Gabra now sent word to his fellow Catholic Ethiopians still in prison: “Be steadfast to death for your faith. I have no hope of seeing you again on this earth. If they kill me, I shall die testifying to my faith; if they spare me, I shall go on preaching it.”
The Emperor, always on the move, continued to drag Father Gabra along as a prisoner wherever he went. Now in his mid-sixties, the priest was loaded with chains and treated with studied neglect. He caught cholera, but survived it, though weakened. The small rations he was given he shared with other prisoners. Even his guards held Gabra in esteem.
Finally, on August 28, 1855, Father Michael could walk no farther. He just lay down at the side of the road and died. The guards gently removed his chains and buried him.
In 1926 Pope Pius XI beatified this Ethiopian priest. Gabra had proved once more that faith and love are stronger than death.
–Father Robert F. McNamara