Bicentenary of the Birth of Cardinal Guglielmo Massaja
Egidio Picucci

A Capuchin missionary's celebrated ministry in Ethiopia

A long and interesting series of events is planned for the bicentenary of the birth of Cardinal Guglielmo Massaja (1809-2009). He was the Capuchin friar who reopened the way to Ethiopia for the Church in the mid-19th century after the failure of the Jesuit, Franciscan and Capuchin missions in the 16th and 17th centuries.

He was also one of the Church's most important missionaries. Mission historiography regards him as the greatest evangelizer of the 19th century and his example and message are still timely today. This is partly because of the environmental conditions in which he worked, the vicissitudes of his never-ending journeys, the mettle he showed and his skilful organization, which enabled him to envisage and achieve "a presence like that of the early Church and, for this very reason simplicity, essentiality and clarity in harmony with the character of the tribes he evangelized worthy of apostolic times", Fr Antonino Rosso wrote, having spent his life studying the missionary's writings.

Two congresses were held in Rome on 11 November 2008 and on 9-10 June 2009. The participants examined his spirituality, his literary opus a grammar of the Oromo language, a parallel-text catechism, (Amarah and Galla) and missionary memoirs the context in which he carried out his apostolate and his relations with the Italian authorities in the perspective of the colonialism in which he was involuntarily involved.

All this will be brought to life in a historical philatelic exhibition on 3-4 October in Madonna di Campagna Parish, Turin, organized by the Capuchins; at two other congresses, in Asti on 17 October and in Turin on 21 November; in the film: Abuna Messias, the first documentary on Massaja that won an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1939 and which has recently been restored; in the documentary: Un illustre conosciuto, made by Nova T of Turin.

His profound spirituality sustained him during the exile to which he was condemned eight times; in the years of solitude that he spent in villages unknown to even the most thorough explorers; in the difficult conditions of the epidemics that decimated his people (whom he saved from a virulent attack of smallpox); in the apostolic endeavours that required him to be Bishop, doctor, tradesman, architect, stone mason, ethnologist, teacher, writer and researcher, honoured, persecuted and humiliated, since, as he himself wrote, "a missionary must play at least two roles: that of teacher, which is the least, and that of victim, as a supplement to, and continuation of, the sacrifice of Calvary".

On the eve of his death in San Giorgio, Cremano, in the Province of Naples, he wrote on 6 August 1889: "I want it known that in the end I am no more than a poor Capuchin, a missionary of Jesus Christ; I consider any other dignity or supposed merit but greater debts to God and to humankind. If, in addition, many people wish to admire, praise and reward the poor endeavours of my apostolic life, I protest that I never intended to serve the Church and our homeland in order to please anyone, making a name for myself or obtaining honours in society, but solely to do my duty and help the souls redeemed by Jesus Christ. For me, any title would be no more than a flower, sweetly scented for a day, but useless for eternity".

It certainly proved beneficial, on the other hand, to have involved in his work clergy trained at mobile seminaries or introduced to an original Ethiopian-Catholic form of monasticism with a Franciscan Rule; to have reorganized the catechumenate to obtain convinced and determined Catholics; to have professed a vow that obliged him to be a missionary for ever, "among sons and daughters whose hearts can be improved by accepting them, sympathizing with them and praying for them, however sinful they may be"; to have built "first the Church of souls before the church of stone, that would otherwise have been empty"; to have practised rigorous fasting (on almost 200 days a year), from which, however, he dispensed others but not himself; to have chosen to go about barefoot always, even among pebbles and thorns, as did his people; to have accepted an extenuating task and inhuman periods of imprisonment, which, however, did not prevent him from loving the children received from God "as much as they require".

When they needed treatment in illness he set up small primitive hospitals and became a doctor, curing endemic pathologies with surprising success because he combined Western medicine with traditional resources and, especially, "practical and living evangelical charity, for preaching charity with words alone is one thing and preaching it by example is another".

Daily contact with the Copts led him to live for some time with the monks of the Monastery of St Anthony in the Thebaid Desert "from which come the Coptic Patriarchs and Bishops, sowing seeds of conversion", thereby anticipating by more than a century Paul VI's Post-Conciliar Decree On the Catholic Eastern Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, in which, "a common sharing in sacred functions, things and places, is permitted for a just cause between Catholics and their separated brethren" (n. 28).

Following his arrival among the Galla tribe, "with full Franciscan rigour, by begging a piece of bread from door to door", he understood that it was indispensable "to educate and instruct Africa with Africa", beginning with the education and instruction of youth; hoping for the opening of centres suited to this "in easily accessible places (the coasts) and with suitable means."

With no European "means" (books, treatises, essays) at his disposal, he himself wrote school manuals; he organized courses of scientific training and compiled a grammar of the Oromo language, earning the praise of several members of the Italian Geographic Expedition who described him as "an apostle of Christ and a scientist, an impartial author and a supreme master of things African".

It was precisely because he was an "apostle of Christ" that he categorically refused to mix politics and religion. "My sentiment and my conviction" he wrote, "were always contrary to the system of confiding in the favour of princes as an element too fragile and too emotional to serve as the basis for a religious enterprise, which by its nature must descend from on high".

One day, expressing gratitude for the honours that at a certain point were showered upon him, he declared: "The Cross to which I had some right was that of Calvary, pure and simple, of which I have not been worthy".

Yet the great missionary always remained attached to that Cross with a love that fostered his true and genuine holiness, although it was not modelled on the clichs dear to men (penance, miracles, visions); a holiness which, after the Second Vatican Council, we begin to perceive in all its greatness and which, after more than a century, we hope to see proclaimed and officially recognized.

Two saints, moreover, Daniel Comboni and Justin De Jacobis, would have canonized him on the spot because: "he was a man as simple as water, he led the holiest life, of which I know many details", and "were I Pope, one sight of him would suffice to make me canonize him". Leo XIII, learning of his death, exclaimed: "a saint has died!".

The opinion of his missionary confreres was unanimous in recommending that he deserved "noble and worthy popularity": they all reputed him to be "full of active charity and unable to rest while his brother suffered"; "a provident father with all the qualities desirable in such persons"; "a holy old man, bent rather by his efforts, struggles, deprivations and sorrows than by his years".

This fame of holiness that accompanied his life, "humanly illogical but supernaturally fruitful" (Jean-Baptiste Coulbeaux), spurred the Capuchin Order to initiate straight away the informative processes for his eventual beatification, in Harar, Frascati, Naples, Asti and Turin. In 1993, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, at that time Secretary of State and like Massaja a native of Asti, reintroduced the process that had been blocked.

The cause was resumed and everyone hopes that it will rapidly reach its conclusion with the official recognition of the virtues of a missionary who for years lived "with a handful of chick peas, like the Abyssinian hermits" and who, shortly before his death, was able to write that "the entire South of Ethiopia has heard God's word, with Christians scattered everywhere: then God will judge the rest. For us, his will suffices".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 September 2009, page 5

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