By Christopher Wells
Pope Francis summed up “the Ethiopian presence within the Vatican Walls” in a single word: “Welcome”. “At the tomb of the Apostle Peter”, he said, “the children of peoples geographically distant from Rome, but close to the Faith of the Apostles in professing Jesus Christ the Saviour, have found home and hospitality throughout the centuries”.
Ethiopians in Rome
The story of Ethiopians in the Vatican goes back to the 15th century, when Pope Sixtus IV granted Ethiopian pilgrims the use of the Church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini (St Stephen of the Abyssinians) in the Vatican Gardens. In the 20th century, Pope Benedict XV established the Pontifical Ethiopian College, which was enlarged by Pope Pius XI.
In his address to the College community on Saturday, Pope Francis recalled the words of one of the early pilgrims, Tesfa Sion, known as Peter the Ethiopian: “I myself am Ethiopian, a pilgrim from place to place… but nowhere, except in Rome, have I found peace of mind and body: peace of mind because here is the true faith; peace of body, because here I have found the Successor of Peter, who favours us in our needs”.
Two churches, one tradition
The Pope noted that the priests who come to study at the college come from both Ethiopia and Eritrea, “two Churches united by the same tradition”, and praised them for richness of their “precious ecclesial tradition”, which he encouraged to preserve. The Holy Father also expressed his appreciation of the tradition of coexistence, not only with Jews and Muslims, but also with the “brothers and sisters” of the Tewahedo Orthodox Church.
At the same time, Pope Francis recalled with sorrow the many people in their countries “whose lives are marked by poverty” and who have, for a long time suffered from a “fratricidal war” which has only recently come to end. The Pope prayed for an end to divisions between “ethnic groups and countries with common roots”, and encouraged priests to always be “artisans of good relations, and builders of peace”.
Pope Francis also called to mind the many people in both countries who have “left their homelands at great cost”, many of whom have experienced “tragedies on land and at sea”. While thanking the priests for their commitment to the pastoral care of migrants, he said that much more can and must be done, “at home and abroad”, in humble and generous service, and “always on the basis of union with the Lord”.
Finally, the Pope expressed his hope that the Church in both Ethiopia and Eritrea “might be guaranteed the freedom to serve the common good… in the certainty that pastors and faithful alike want to contribute to the good and prosperity of your nations”.
Recalling their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis asked the community to entrust all their needs to her, and asked for their prayers, before imparting the Apostolic blessing to them, their families, and their communities.