Experiencing The Beautiful Eritrean Catholic Church



The Diversity Within The Catholic Church

One of the most wonderful things about the Catholic Church is the diversity one can find within it. Notice I’m not using “diversity” in the same sense that most of our secular culture uses the word. I’m not talking about a relativization in which we try to harmonize dissimilar traditions into some kind of disjointed whole. Instead, what I am referring to are the various, beautiful liturgical traditions one can find within the Catholic Church; liturgical traditions which do not contradict each other but which illuminate the “oneness” of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council put it in Orientalium Ecclesiarum,

Between these [separate Churches or Rites] there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire…

Pope St. John Paul II often noted that the Catholic Church must always “breathe with both lungs”, the East and the West. Not too long ago I had an opportunity to do just that with members of the newest sui iuris (or particular) Church within Catholicism. It’s important to note there are no less than six different ways of expressing the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith, and we call each of these expressions “Rites”, which are further subdivided into the 24 sui iuris, particular, Churches. All 24 of these particular Churches are in communion with the Pope in Rome and recognize him as the Vicar of Christ. One of these six rites, and by far the largest throughout the world, is the Latin Rite of the West, which contains the Roman Catholic Church. 

However, we’d be remiss if we forgot about the other five rites of the East. More and more Roman Catholics today are aware of their Byzantine Catholic brethren, but this still leaves four other liturgical rites which are largely unknown to the average Western Catholic in the pew. It’s one of these four rites, and one sui iuris Church in particular, which I’d like to delve into today as I was recently given an opportunity to see first-hand the beauty which remains all but hidden to many Catholics in the Western world today.

The Eritrean Catholic Church

I found myself in the city of Chicago after I heard about a small community of Catholics which met at a Roman Catholic parish once a month. What piqued my interest about this small community was that they were not Roman Catholic, but Eritrean Catholic. I had become familiar with some of the other liturgical traditions of the Church, but not this one. The Eritrean Catholic Church is one of three sui iuris Churches which worship according to the Alexandrian Rite. The Alexandrian Rite can actually be further divided into two subgroups. This division is mainly based on language. The first subgroup, sometimes called the Coptic Rite, is used by the Coptic Catholic Church. The liturgical language most often used is Coptic, as well as Arabic. The second subgroup, used by both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholic Churches, is called the Ge’ez Rite. The Ge’ez language, like Latin and Church Slavonic, is basically a dead language. However, just as Latin and Church Slavonic are the proper liturgical languages of the Latin and Byzantine Rites, Ge’ez is still used during Divine Liturgy in the Ge’ez Rite. But also like the Latin and Byzantine Rites, the vernacular can be used in Divine Liturgy, with the Ethiopians using Amharic and the Eritreans using Tigrigna.  

As they both share the same liturgical language, the Ethiopian Catholic Church and the Eritrean Catholic Church share a close relationship. That relationship is so close, the two actually made up one particular Church until recently. In January of 2015, Pope Francis separated the Eritrean Catholic Church from the Ethiopian Catholic Church. This is a direct result of the Eritrean War of Independence which ended in 1991. In 1993, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was established, and it was only a matter of time until the same happened in the Catholic Church. The current head of the Eritrean Catholic Church is Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam, who had been bishop of Asmara since 2001. There are a total of three eparchies (or dioceses) in addition to the Archeparchy of Asmara throughout Eritrea with nearly 160,000 people under his jurisdiction. There are also several small communities that follow the Alexandrian liturgical tradition throughout the United States and Canada, and it was one of these communities I had visited.

The Eritrean Holy Family Ge’ez Rite Catholic Community of Chicago

The community I visited is called the Eritrean Holy Family Ge’ez Rite Catholic Community of Chicago. I was able to talk to one of the priests residing here in the United States, Fr. Awte Weldu, who explained to me that while there are no Eritrean Catholic parishes within the United States, there are many small communities throughout the country that meet at larger Catholic parishes of the Latin or Byzantine Rite. But if there are no proper Eritrean Catholic parishes in the United States, then under which bishop’s pastoral care to these people fall under? According to Fr. Weldu, “Every Catholic who is living within the territorial boundaries of another Church sui iuris… is subject to the local authority. The diocesan bishop has the obligation of providing them with pastoral care, either with their own rite’s presbyters, or, when this is not possible by assigning one from among his own priests. In the case of Oriental Catholics, we should, first of all, remember the juridical obligation of the faithful to observe their own rite everywhere insofar as possible, with ‘rite’ being understood as their liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage.”

This means the Holy Family Catholic Community is under the spiritual care of Cardinal Blaise Cupich, with Ge’ez Rite priests from Eritrea ministering to this flock. Once a month the people of Holy Family flock to Chicago from neighboring cities to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in their own rite and in accord with their own spiritual heritage, while attending Mass at other parishes during the other Sundays of the month. I was excited to be able to worship with my fellow Catholic brothers and sisters during one of these Sundays. As I pulled into the parking lot I was a bit confused as I saw no other cars around me. Then I saw a few men walking up to the church, one of them a local Franciscan, who opened up the church. It turned out that the priest who typically said Divine Liturgy for the community was not present, and another Eritrean Catholic priest who was living in community with the Franciscans would be celebrating the Holy Sacrifice. I was also told that Divine Liturgy would not start at a set time and would only begin once everyone had arrived. This was a very close-knit community indeed! I welcomed the opportunity to talk to members of the community before Divine Liturgy started.

Fascination Cultural Differences

People kept trickling into the church for about an hour, and by the time Divine Liturgy started, the visiting priest was joined by a deacon and another server, and a small choir with one man playing keyboard and another on a long drum that sat across his lap. I was curious to see what sort of differences I would see in the Ge’ez Rite from the Latin Rite. I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. In the Ge’ez Rite, the Divine Liturgy begins with the Offertory. The anaphora, or Eucharistic prayer, still does not occur until much later, but the priest blesses the bread and wine which will be offered, using prayers similar to that of the anaphora, while the people then sing the Kyrie. The sacred gifts are then veiled with the priest saying this beautiful prayer:

What we have placed upon this blessed plate is in the likeness of your staying three days and three nights in the tomb. Make my hand like the hands of Joseph and Nicodemus who wrapped your body, and gained peace, consolation and honor from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

After the prayer of the veil, intercessions are said followed by the prayer of incense where the gifts are then incensed and left on the altar until the consecration. Like the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite and the Byzantine Rite, one reading from the New Testament is read, followed by the Gospel reading. What was really great to see (and smell!) was a healthy use of incense in the Ge’ez Rite. The sense of hearing was also stimulated quite often with the soft rumble of the drums as well as the ringing of bells by the deacons at several points throughout. Before the Gospel was read by the priest, the Book of the Gospels was processed around the altar. This reminded me of the procession that the Byzantines do. The priest, while in the sanctuary, also blessed the four cardinal points with incense before reading the Gospel. The priest and deacon also came forward out of the sanctuary to read the Gospel, just like in the Byzantine Rite, although it was the priest that read and not the deacon. The priest held a crucifix in his left hand as he read the Gospel. As the Divine Liturgy continued, I noticed that what was happening here, in the Divine Liturgy of the Ge’ez Rite, was very similar to what took place in the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite. I was in awe of how so many different cultures were all unified in their Catholic worship, despite local liturgical customs.

The Eritrean Catholics also made use of intinction for the Eucharist, much in the same way that Maronite Catholics do, with a deacon holding the chalice so the priest could dip the Sacred Host before giving It to the communicant on the tongue. The server stood on the other side of the priest with a paten underneath each communicants chin. After Communion, the priest blessed the congregation with the Sacred Species, just as is done in the Byzantine Rite. Throughout the Divine Liturgy, the congregation would often clap in time with the single drum which was accompanied by the piano, and a tambourine which was also used at various times. However, the music was very appropriate and reserved. It was completely reverent and fit in with their liturgical traditions that have been passed down for centuries. A few of the women also began ululating as we prepared to receive the Eucharist. This is one of the traditions particular to the Ge’ez Rite, as an act of praise.

Our Catholic Brethern

After Divine Liturgy, I was welcomed warmly by the members of Holy Family Catholic Community. Despite being an “outsider” to their community, they welcomed me as a brother in Christ and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to worship alongside them in this ancient rite of the Catholic Church. When we profess that the Church is “one” in the Creed, I believe this is what we have in mind. Despite being of a different rite and culture, and despite the entire Divine Liturgy being prayed in Ge’ez and Tigrigna, I was able to follow along and worship our Lord Jesus Christ with my Catholic brethren. What an exhilarating feeling it was to breathe with both lungs of the Church! I truly felt at home here, as the Sacrifice of the Mass that was offered there, and the Sacrifice of the Mass that was offered at my regular parish, both provided me a foretaste of my heavenly home, where all of our true citizenship lies. Fr. Weldu noted that despite the differences between the Latin and Ge’ez Rites, “We have the same faith and the same sacraments.” It’s unity which is our strength. If you ever have the opportunity to worship with our Eastern Catholic brethren, I encourage you to not pass up the opportunity. You will find yourself greatly enriched!

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5 thoughts on “Experiencing The Beautiful Eritrean Catholic Church”

  1. Pingback: The Eastern Catholic Churches: Part 3, the Alexandrian Rite - Ascension Press Media

  2. Pingback: MONDAY LATE EDITION – Big Pulpit

  3. I very happy to see this article. Every Latin Rite Catholic should make an effort to experience the whole Catholic Church. Since 2006, I have attended most of the Eastern Rites. Only missing the Ethiopian and the Syro-Malankara along with the Byzantine Rites that are not available in the USA. Last Sunday it was St. Thomas, the Apostle Syro-Malabar Parish in Santa Ana, California. I would also recommend the “Divine Worship” of the Roman Rite, the Mass of the Personal Ordinariate, of the Chair of St. Peter. AKA the Anglican Use Mass.

    Attending these Rites does not make me a better Catholic, just more Liturgically informed.

    All Rites of the Catholic Church are EQUAL!

  4. Good to see this as we approach Pentecost which brings us to the richness and diversity , in The Church .

    Ge’ez Rite said to be from Hebrew and possibly related to the cryptic mention of the incalculable
    ‘ gift ‘ that Queen Sheba receives from King Solomon .

    Hebrew , close to Sanskrit , said to be language of Adam and Eve as per visions of Bl.Emmerich .

    Some of the very good music from the same rite that one can feel speaking to the heart even
    if words are not recognized –


    and hope one day , more in The Church, esp. of the East would have more Hebrew based
    Liturgies , which is the Lord’ s own tongue that He would have taught His disciples to offer the Holy Mass , after the Resurrection

    Hope that more exposure to such as above also would help those who tend to see
    The Church as of the West , to have more affinity and touch with own roots .

    God bless .

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