Addressing the bishops of the northeast African nations Ethiopia and Eritrea at their ad limina visit to Rome on May 9, Pope Francis thanked them for their witness to Christian unity.
“Though you are from different countries and belong to different rites, each with its own particular richness, your mission in service of Christ and his Church is the same: to proclaim the Gospel and to build up the faithful in holiness, unity and charity,” the Bishop of Rome said.
“When that mission is exercised in collaboration and mutual support, the Church, united in the Spirit, breathes with the two lungs of East and West and burns with love for Christ. I am grateful for all that you do to demonstrate this collegial communion which is itself a witness to the unity of the People of God born of faith in Jesus Christ.”
The two nations are located in the Horn of Africa, with Eritrea located on Ethiopia’s northern border. They also border Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan. Christians are the majority in both countries, though members of Oriental Orthodox Churches far outnumber Catholics.
Most of the bishops present at the ad limina were of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church of the Alexandrian tradition, and thus closely related to Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Church.
All five Eritrean dioceses are Ethiopian Catholic eparchies, and there are seven eparchies in Ethiopia, eight Latin vicariates, and one Latin prefecture.
Despite these seeming divisions, Pope Francis affirmed the bishops for their union in the faith, “present in your lands from the earliest days of the Church,” which “has been nourished and renewed throughout the years by devoted missionaries who, compelled by their love of Christ, proclaimed the Gospel.”
He exhorted that following in the footsteps of these missionaries, “in our own day, we require again this missionary spirit to announce the saving message of new life in Christ to all of society, not only to those who do not know him, but also to the faithful, so they may hear once more the freshness of the Gospel.”
First among these evangelizers, Pope Francis said, are the priests, who must “themselves be constantly evangelized anew … if they are to be holy and effective heralds of the Gospel.”
This evangelization of priests is, in the first place, a task for seminaries, he said, and should instill “a lifelong love of prayer, learning and self-sacrifice”; but he also exhorted the bishops to take an “active interest” in their priests’ lives and ministries.
“I urge you to be good and generous fathers to your priests, present to them and attentive to their human and spiritual needs, and their ongoing formation in the priesthood.”
“In addition, it is important that a true fraternity among the priests be fostered so that they may accompany one another in their ministry and bear one another’s burdens. In such a way, they will be able to respond more generously to the grace of God in their lives and give witness to the joy of Christian discipleship.”
Pope Francis also acknowledged the work of religious brothers and sisters in the nations, especially those who are missionaries; and thanked the bishops for their catechesis of youth, “who are at that pivotal time of their lives when they are challenged to deepen their relationship with Christ and his Church, and looking to start families of their own.”
“Confronted by so many challenges in contemporary society, including an increasingly secularized culture and fewer opportunities for dignified work, it is essential that wise and committed lay men and women guide young people in discerning the direction of their lives and in securing their future.”
He told the bishops that “together with the priests, men and women religious, and lay faithful of your local Churches, you are called to diffuse (the) fragrance of Christ in the midst of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
He referred to their peoples’ great suffering from conflict, poverty, and drought.
Eritrea fought a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, from 1961 to 1991, during which Ethiopia was also immersed in civil war. The two countries also fought a war from 1998 to 2000 over a border dispute.
A severe drought in 2011 brought millions to food insecurity throughout East Africa, and in 2012, Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s adjusted per capita GDP were $1,300 and $780, respectively.
“I thank you for the generous social programmes which, inspired by the Gospel, you provide in collaboration with various religious, charitable and governmental agencies, aimed at alleviating this suffering,” Pope Francis told the bishops. “I think especially of the many children you serve who experience hunger and who have been orphaned because of violence and poverty.”
“In your loving concern for the poor and downtrodden, may you continue to seek new opportunities to cooperate with civil authorities in advancing the common good.”
Concluding his address, Pope Francis said that “conscious of the difficulties you face and the blessings you have received, I join all of you in praying for a renewed outpouring of grace upon the beloved Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea.”