It is the 2nd of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.
It is good to be back with you, filling in for Dan as he recoups from a few weeks of travel speaking engagements.
Speaking of travel –– today on the Almanac, we look at the story of one man’s travels on the global church and the ever-complicated problem of colonial missions.
On the second of May in 1625, the Portuguese Jesuit Afonso Mendes set foot on the horn of Africa in modern-day Eritrea.
By 1625, the Portuguese had been the European masters at seafaring for over a century. Portuguese sailors first gained access to the east coast of Africa when Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1499.
Now that the reachable world seemed to be expanding, the range of available mission fields exploded, and the Society of Jesus was swift to take advantage.
They sought to bring new peoples into the faith, such as the Japanese and the indigenous peoples of South America. As we will see in this story, they also sought to bring unity back to the holy Catholic church – with varying degrees of success.
The central character of our story, Afonso Mendes, born in 1579, entered the Jesuit order in 1593 and became a famous Professor of Scripture at the University of Evora. This distinguished theologian, with no missionary experience, was the choice of Pope Gregory XV to succeed Pedro Paiz as the Patriarch of Ethiopia.
Once ordained in 1623, Mendes set sail for the eastern coast of Africa, arriving in the Ottoman port of Massawa on the Red Sea on May 2, 1625. Reaching the court of Emperor Susenyos later that year, Mendes found early success as Susenyos quickly submitted to Rome.
The story of the church in Ethiopia is fascinating and would be excellent for a weekend edition. Historically Christian, the Ethiopian Empire never submitted to Muslim invaders, but it had not (to this point) submitted to Rome either. Ethiopian Christians observed the rite of the Orthodox Ethiopian Church.
In full clerical regalia, Mendes's visually impressive entry into the imperial court impressed Susenyos and harvested what Paiz had spent years cultivating. Unfortunately, the reconciliation of church bodies, separated for thousands of years and by thousands of miles, was not so simple.
As Rome reeled from the Protestant Reformation, it sought to repair schism elsewhere by bringing other historically separate bodies, such as the Lebanese Maronites and the Syrian Christians of St. Thomas, into the Roman rite.
Mendes interpreted this reconciliation process strictly, opting for nothing less than the rebaptism of all Ethiopian Christians and the reordination of Ethiopian priests. Mendes’s approach was jarring, if not outright offensive, for a people with such a rich theological heritage.
Unsurprisingly the people rebelled against these earth-shattering changes. Still, the emperor put these down, only relenting in his last years by allowing the Ethiopian rite to exist alongside the Roman.
Any enthusiasm for reconciliation with Rome seems to have arisen from Susenyos and subsequently died with him in 1632. When his son, Fasilides, took the throne, he promptly exiled Mendes and restored the Ethiopian rite.
Mendes fled to Goa, a Portuguese outpost in India; his replacement Bernardo Nogueira shepherded the dwindling faithful through years of persecution. It is estimated that 45 martyrs lost their lives in that next decade.
Mendes's remaining years were spent bemoaning his exiled status, musing that "Ethiopia can only receive remedy from God through a miracle or from the Portuguese army." And therein was the Jesuits' problem. The Ethiopian people realized this, though not in such glowing terms.
The church's unity was necessary for the Ethiopian people to resist colonization. They knew this from their experiences with Muslim invaders. It was hardly different from the Portuguese, who had briefly considered a joint attack with India to incite an uprising of the remaining Catholic population.
Ethiopia remained free from European rule until Italy decided to join the imperial game in the 1930s, and Catholicism was functionally absent until the 19th century. However, it has never been a majority group, and we get a glimpse as to why that is in the story of Afonso Mendes and his arrival on this day in 1625.
The last word for today comes from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
This show was produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This show has been written and read by a woman who knows that Injera is the ultimate eating utensil – I’m Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for a man who would love to tell why Portuguese sausage is so popular in Hawaii – that’s Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.