The Eritrean Catholic Rite: Hybridity and Authenticity

I recently had the opportunity to give a paper on the Eritrean Catholic Church at Faith, Art, and the Politics of Belonging in Africa, the combined meeting of SERSAS and SEAN held at UNC Chapel Hill. I began studying Eritrean Christianity in 2003 by praying with and learning from Eritrean Orthodox Christians in San Diego at the beginning of my doctoral studies in cultural anthropology which subsequently lead to my fieldwork in Eritrea in 2005. Although it had been my intention to primarily gather more information about the Eritrean Orthodox liturgy while continuing my Tigrinya language studies I ended up spending most of my time with and learning from the Eritrean Catholic community.

The Orthodox (ተዋህዶ, Tewahdo) Church of highland Ethiopia and Eritrea has remained the dominant religion of this part of the Horn of Africa for nearly 1700 years.  This traditional form of Christianity continues to exercise great influence over its 1.5 million adherents in Eritrea even after a 30-year nationalist struggle for independence (1961-1991) from their colonial neighbor: the explicitly Christian empire of Ethiopia. European missionaries arriving in highland Eritrea in the mid-19th century preferred to penetrate into the more remote and non-Christian areas in the east of present-day Eritrea rather than evangelize those whom they recognized as belonging to a Christendom distinct from and previously out of contact with their own Western patterns of behavior that are often assumed to be synonymous with Christianity. Both Italian and French missionaries did, however, attempt to bring the native Christian population within the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.  Their efforts brought about neither the desired widespread unification nor the feared complete expulsion of Western missionaries (as had been the case with the Portuguese Jesuits in Christian Ethiopia two centuries earlier) but rather gave rise to the hybrid Eritrean Catholic Church.  Today numbering 140,000 the Eritrean Catholic Church maintains much of the outward appearance of the Orthodox Church while having simultaneously adopted centralized education for clergy, world-wide ecclesial connections associated with the Roman Catholic Church, a hybrid liturgical calendar, and other elements characteristic of this new form of Christianity that is distinct from both that of the traditional Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church and that of the Roman Catholic missionaries.  Though emerging as a separate church only in the 19th century the Eritrean Catholic Church is constituted as a traditional religion both by its adherents as well as by the government of Eritrea. Contrasting the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church and the Eritrean Catholic Church as two parallel forms of Christianity provides a crucial lens through which we can see the integration of an indigenous Christian tradition into a universalizing system and therefore illumine the processes of hybridization that followed reevangelization by missionaries in the highland Eritrean context.

slide 1Integration of an Indigenous Christian Tradition into a Universalizing System: the case of the Eritrean Orthodox (ተዋህዶ) Church and the hybrid Eritrean Catholic Church explores the practices of two communities whose differences, I argue, can be explained in terms of different strategies to the question of authenticity.

slide 2Looking at the exterior of these exemplar churches, La Catterdale built in the Lombard style by the Italians in Piccola Roma, the capital of their firstborn colony (now Asmara), and the typically circular monastery church built by then Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity) at Debre Bizen, Eritrea’s oldest monastery, one might assume that the Eritrean Orthodox and Eritrean Catholic Churches were radically different.

slide 3However, it is not so much the style of buildings that distinguishes these two Christian communities. In fact a great deal of hybridization can be observed in the architecture of the two Churches. Depicted above right is an Orthodox church looking very Roman and below left the Catholic seminary beneath a typically Ethiopian church dome.

slide 4Nor does their divine worship differ that greatly since the Eritrean Catholic Church began using the liturgical books of the then-Ethiopian Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church completely. In fact the Eritrean Catholic Church (right) occasionally celebrates one of several anaphora that, though conserved in the shared Ge’ez Missal, are not used in the Eritrean Orthodox Church (left).

slide 5Even some of the musical elements unique to the Ge’ez Church such as sistras and prayer sticks, drums, and the debtera (a chanter who improvises various sung responses at the conclusion of the liturgy) are found in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. It should be noted that an Orthodox debtera is still paid to teach music at the Catholic seminary.

slide 6Especially on the level of devotional practices, including art, a great deal of hybridized forms have developed. The recognizable Divine Mercy image can be found in at least one Orthodox Church (left) while the Catholic parish of Saint Anthony has depicted their patron, though clad in the familiar Capuchin habit, amid a thoroughly local scene and in an indigenous idiom (right).

Before moving on into what I find are the most structurally significant differences and why these are important for understanding the hybrid nature of the Eritrean Catholic Church, we need to outline the historical processes that gave rise to these differences beginning with an understanding of the normal path taken by Roman Catholic missions in non-Catholic territory as they proceed from

  1. a mission with a focus on evangelization,
  2. then becoming a prefecture by the development of the infrastructure needed to sustain a Catholic population,
  3. which is elevated to a vicariate with more developed Catholic infrastructure and headed by a bishop,
  4. to finally become an independent diocese, the self-sustaining Church under a local bishop.

In 1839 St. Justin de Diacobis, CM, an Italian Vincentian (also known as the Lazarists) arrived in the new Catholic mission at Adwa to establish the Apostolic Prefect of Abyssinia (under the auspices of the Congregation of Mission, a French Society of Apostolic Life, not the universal Congregation Propaganda Fidei) having heard that the Holy See wanted to begin a mission in Ethiopia. Catholics were subsequently persecuted, doubtless owing to the memory of the failed Jesuit mission, and Diacobis took refuge along Red Sea and in southern Eritrea though his mission was primarily to the Christian inhabitants of the Kebessa/Hamasein (highlands), in what is now the province of Tigray in Ethiopia and highland Eritrea. Diacobis is nearly unique among his missionary contemporaries for advocating that missionaries dress as Ethiopians, adopt their way of life, use the local liturgy, and so forth not unlike the path advocated by 17th century Jesuit Roberto de Nobili in his mission among non-Christians in India. Despite the difficulties seven years later the Vicaraiat Apostolique d’Abbyssinie under the direction of the French Lazarists was established in 1846. Shortly thereafter, still in refuge along the Red Sea, Diacobis was secretly ordained bishop in Massawa by the Italian Capuchin, Bishop Massaia, and permitted to celebrate sacraments in the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) Rite. This decisive event in 1848 can without a doubt be looked upon as the genesis of a distinct Ethiopian/Eritrean Catholic Church. In 1853 Diacobis reopened the Catholic college in the Ethiopian province of Gualla (having first been founded in 1841-6) before entering into his eternal rest in 1860.

Three decades after the death of Diacobis Eritrea became the ‘firstborn’ colony of Italy in 1890 following the expansion of shipping interests at the Red Sea port of Massawa. Fearing that the subsequent 1894 Bahta Hagos rebellion against Italian rule was instigated by the French, the Italian governor expelled the French Lazarists and invited the Italian Capuchin Franciscans to assume responsibility for the evangelization of the new Italian colony and dominance over its educational apparatus. The Prefettura Apostolica dell’Eritrea was then established (bypassing any mission status) which was to be elevated to a vicariate in 1911. During this same period of upheaval Ferdinando Martini was made governor of Eritrea in 1897 and, though he tolerated the Capuchins, openly opposed their superstition and established his own secular schools for the Italians in the colonies which, limited in number, resulted in many of the children of Italian colonists coming to Eritrea in increasing numbers joining the native Eritreans in the more numerous Capuchin mission schools. In 1930 an Ordinariate (Ethiopian Rite) of Eritrea was created and the Ethiopian College was founded in Rome where it remains one of only two colleges within the borders of the Vatican. Tekeste Negash has noted that during this period the Capuchin schools, while seemingly in conflict with the nationalism of the colonial government, advanced the colonial mentality of the state. Jonathan Miran records that the rise of the fascists in Italy and the subsequent Lateran Pact (reducing the Holy See to the Vatican City-State enclave within Rome) sealed at a legal level what was already emerging in Eritrea itself, namely, the almost complete dominance of education by the Catholic orders, including the Sisters of Saint Anna and the Capuchins in Eritrea. In 1951 the Ordinariate of Eritrea was elevated to an Apostolic Exarchate (the Eastern Rite equivalent of Vicariate Apostolic) and, ten years later, erected as the full Eparchy of Asmara (as the Latin Vicariate was suppressed in 1959). Following independence, in 1995, the additional Eparchies of Barentu and Keren were erected.

slide 7The Eritrean Catholic Church tends toward a historicized, classroom-based model (cathedral school at right) which stands in contrast to the monastic apprenticeships that characterize Orthodox formation (learning chants under an older monk at left), a difference which significantly shaped the development of the Eritrean Catholic Church as a hybrid tradition.

slide 8Various elements of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on the fully conscious and active participation of the faithful, have been incorporated into the worship life of the Eritrean Catholic Church despite the closer similarity of the liturgy of the Eritrean Catholic Church to its Orthodox counterpart than to its Roman Rite affiliate (Orthodox posture, left; Catholic, right).

That the liturgy can be studied developmentally, analyzed, and subsequently adapted within the Eritrean Catholic Church is markedly different than the treatment of the liturgy within the Orthodox context and derives precisely from the differences in the methods of formation outlined above. In the Orthodox tradition a man seeking ordination to the priesthood would ascend a particular monastery and be trained for some years under a single master before, in some cases, returning to the city to be ordained a priest. In this schema all of the learning of the liturgy, the chants, doctrinal formulations, and so forth are personalized to the master and localized to a given monastery. The authenticity of such practices rest unproblematically on their having been faithfully transmitted from one master to another. This is quite different from the critical and historicized treatment such subjects receive in the abstract, classroom-centered model of formation that typifies the formation of seminarians in the Eritrean Catholic context. In this latter model many different voices, each conveying something of the universal tradition, can be dissected and reassembled without being perceived as threatening its authenticity which comes to rest less on the personal and local transmission but more on the universal and abstracted truth being conveyed.

slide 9A caricature of this can be set up by juxtaposing the Ethiopian College within the walls of the Vatican (left) and the world-wide associations symbolized and His Holiness the Abune (right), appointed by the (Coptic) Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria through whom the Eritrean Orthodox Church maintains an apostolic pedigree to one of the four ancient sees.

slide 10Most of the priests of the Eritrean Catholic Church are biritual, that is, belonging to both the Roman Rite by virtue of being members of religious orders as well as to the Ge’ez Rite. The Franciscan Capuchins of San Antonio, all of whom are Eritrean nationals, celebrate the Latin Rite in their private chapel (right) while still using the Ge’ez Rite as celebrated by both the Eritrean Catholic and Eritrean Orthodox faithful (left).

The present situation of the Eritrean Catholic Church, then, is one that maintains much of the outward appearance of the Orthodox Church while having simultaneously adopted centralized education for clergy that goes hand-in-hand with universal (catholic) ecclesial connections. One of my Eritrean Orthodox informants regarded the fact that the Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church never had a theological academy and that the monasteries are more akin to convents and are not seminaries in any sense as the reason there is a lacuna in the literature concerning Eritrean Christianity which is indeed supported by the fact that nearly all the published literature is from the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the work of Eritrean Catholic clergy. One of my informants in Asmara, the son of an Orthodox priest, was a former Capuchin priest who had studied at the PIO and subsequently taught liturgy in several European universities before returning to Eritrea. Such world-wide ecclesial connections associated with the Roman Catholic Church are not uncommon among the Eritrean Catholic clergy and stand in stark contrast to the Eritrean Orthodox Church that has, especially in the last two decades, become ever more insular. While numerous Capuchins, a small community of Cistercians affiliated with Casamari, and a hand-full of Comboni missionaries (including the present Eritrean bishop) themselves embody this double identity of being simultaneously Roman and Eritrean their experience is paradigmatic of the Eritrean Catholic Church taken as a whole. While the question of hybridity is one that comes up frequently in anthropological studies in a way that seems to assume that persons cannot fully possess two identities at once I prefer to cast the two-naturedness of the Eritrean Catholic Church in theological terms, echoing the full humanity and full divinity of Christ as explicated at the Council of Chalcedon that was never embraced by the Alexandrian Church and, by extension, the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church as well (Tewahdo in fact means something like the Greek miaphysis).

The question of authenticity is then doubly poignant and few clergy with whom I spoke about being Eritrean Catholic did not explicitly mention some way in which they viewed themselves as fully or authentically Eritrean as well as fully or authentically Catholic. One Capuchin friar was in the midst of working out a hybrid liturgical calendar which, despite otherwise sharing liturgical books with the Eritrean Orthodox Church, he saw as necessary in order to include the annual Roman sanctoral as well the monthly calendar used by the Ge’ez Rite. Throughout Eritrea all Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Christians follow the Ethiopian calendar derived of the Julian calendar while the state of Eritrea uses the Gregorian calendar ironically itself a product of the Roman Catholic Church brought by the secular Italian colonial government. Through such a calendar and other hybridizations the Eritrean Catholic Church has been constituted as a traditional religion both by its adherents as well as by the government of Eritrea. While a simple genetic theory for making sense of this hybrid nature of the Eritrean Catholic Church does not seem to account for the variety of adaptations, taking seriously the concern for authenticity expressed by agents who experience themselves to be simultaneously fully Catholic while also fully Eritrean leads to an understanding of hybridity as itself an authenticating discourse. What is articulated by Eritrean Catholics (and, I would argue, visible in an objectively verifiable way) is not some effaced version of the authentic (pure liturgy that the earliest Roman Catholic missionaries looked for in the Tewahdo liturgy but, of course, didn’t find there any more than in their own Roman Rite) nor some idea of an unchanged substrate glossed by an imposed colonial regime, but rather the experience of persons constituted as subjects with both a national identity that encompasses Ge’ez Christianity in all its richness as well as an additional, universal, meta-discourse that does not efface the local but rather preserves it as it simultaneously brings it into a world-wide scope that is in itself authentic heir to both. This is an incarnate, local, and grounded identity that is taken up into the universal and global tradition that is itself constituent of such a local identity without erasing it. In this I find a rich ground for reflection on the theological truth by means of which my model attempts to account for the hybrid nature of the Eritrean Catholic Church.

I wish to thank the Reverend Gary Anderson and the Wesley Foundation of the University of California, San Diego for awarding the Ed Hoffman Fellowship in support of the aforementioned fieldwork in religion and public life.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to the Eritrean rites. Could you recommend any resources with discussion of the overall structure of the rites? Perhaps even video?

    1. +JMJ+

      Slide 4 (“the Eritrean Catholic Church (right) occasionally celebrates one of several anaphora that, though conserved in the shared Ge’ez ‘Missal,’ are not used in the Eritrean Orthodox Church (left)”) seems to demonstrate an “ad orientem” posture, although slide 8 appears to depict the elements being shown to the congregation (thus, “versus populum”).

      It’s a bit hard to determine what’s going on in slide 4.

      1. Slide 4 (right) may be during the epiclesis or consecration or possibly at the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament (the tabot). I don’t recall though I could probably figure it out from the sequence of photos if need be.

  2. “…taking seriously the concern for authenticity expressed by agents who experience themselves to be simultaneously fully Catholic while also fully Eritrean leads to an understanding of hybridity as itself an authenticating discourse.”

    Exactly! This is what fascinated me about the Syro-Malabar rite church as well. We (Latins? Americans? Westerners?) tend to see hybrid identity as divisive and fracturing (“I’m wearing too many hats”, “competing roles”, “conflicting responsibilities”) but the Christians at St Thomas always saw themselves as more American, Indian, Catholic, Christian, and fulfilled because of their hybrid identity.

    Also, I second the request for more media. I know you too well: you must have recorded a debtera chant while you were there….

  3. “The Eritrean Catholic Church tends toward a historicized, classroom-based model (cathedral school at right) which stands in contrast to the monastic apprenticeships that characterize Orthodox formation (learning chants under an older monk).”

    This is interesting in the context of an article over on the Chant Café
    featuring an article by László Dobszay who argues that papal choir of the 7th Century which sang the more elaborate chant of the Propers served as a model for the development of monastic and cathedral choirs (which he admits were very clerical institutions). Before the advent of the later university, humanistic and seminary educational systems, the monastic and cathedral schools were the basic educational systems.

    Dobszay mentions the precenters who led the parishes in 7th Century Rome, and that the choirs at the parish level later on likely consisted of a couple of cantors. Wonder if these people might have been formed by apprenticeships similar to those in the Orthodox formation system in Eritrea?

    Dobszay admits that the papal, monastic, and cathedral choirs were expensive institutions far beyond the capacities of parishes. Nevertheless he has visions that modern well educated lay people might replace them. This ignores the huge changes in our educational systems. The Catholic system in Eriterea still depends upon an Orthodox debtera to teach music at the Catholic seminary.

  4. Andrew,

    I don’t think we’ve chatted since we discussed the paper you did on the Chaldean Liturgy – back before you left for your first visit to Eritrea, as I recollect.

    Wonderful to find your posts here and on this topic in particular. I chanced on it while looking for some info to flesh out entries on the Eritrean Ge’ez Catholics in the on-line Directory of Eastern & Oriental Catholic Parishes. Very nicely done piece.

    Many years,

    Neil Foley/Irish Melkite

  5. Joshua asked ‘Could you recommend any resources with discussion of the overall structure of the rites? Perhaps even video?’

    Josh, Take a look at There’s a lot of material there, in the site resources, as well as on the forum.

    Many years,


  6. I appreciate for your wonderfull article. You have uncover good historical events and the similarities between Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo church and Eritrean Catholic church. However, I want comment you in three points: We Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Believe in Christ as Perfect GOD and Perfect Man in One through incarnation. As the Bible say the Word Became Flesh. With out confusion and Separation as One man is both in Flesh and Soul. That is the reason we call ourselves Tewahdo to separate ourselves from those who believe in separation and Confusion or transfiguration. The second Point is Debre bizen is not the Oldest Monastry of Eritrea. it is among the newest Monastery founded in late 14th centure by Father Filipos. Debre Sina is the Oldest not in Eritrea but in the region. It founded around 380-400Ad by Father Yowhanni Syrian Monk. The third point is I want you by chance to visit Halay the first followers of Catholic in Eritrea and Hebo villages to get more information how Catholic expand. the Fourth Poin is Instead of Debtera It is better to Use Mergeta as the name represent for the Teachers of Orthodox. Debtera represent for the writers in the Church. Mergeta is the most known teachers who learn from6 to 8 years to get it which is the same as MA in the modern Education. To see some of the dance and praise of Mergatas and Priest watch this video and with the name werbbbb1

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