Five Faces of Justin De Jacobis

by | Jul 26, 2023 | Formation, Reflections, Spirituality and Spiritual Practice

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“I am happy to make a great gift to the Congregation of the Mission in the person of this postulant, Justin De Jacobis,” wrote a Carmelite, Fr. Mariano Cacace on Oct. 17, 1818, as he presented a new candidate to our confreres of the Province of Naples. He was one of God’s great gifts to the Congregation of the Mission.

five faces justin jacobis

If I had to pick a single Daughter of Charity to present to the sisters as a model, I would pick Rosalie Rendu. If I had to pick a single missionary to present to the confreres, I would pick Justin de Jacobis.

Few missionaries have been as closely identified with their people as he was. Listen to the words with which he introduced himself to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea:

The mouth is the door to the heart. Speaking is the heart’s key. When I open my mouth I unlock the heart’s door. When I speak to you I hand you the key to [my] heart. Come in and see that the Holy Spirit has planted in my heart […] a great love for the Ethiopian Christians.

Justin was born in San Fele, Italy, at the dawn of the 19th century, on Oct. 9, 1800. He was ordained a priest in the Congregation of the Mission in 1824 and then worked in various ministries in Italy for 15 years, mostly in Puglia. He served as superior in two houses and was also director of the internal seminary. He set off for Ethiopia as Apostolic Prefect in 1839. For the next 21 years he became completely immersed in the life and culture of his people, being ordained as their bishop in 1849. By the time of his death on July 31, 1860 he was widely acclaimed for his holiness. Pope Paul VI canonized him on Oct. 26, 1975.

St. Justin is an extraordinary missionary model. His letters are filled with wisdom, deep pastoral charity, and a profound sensitivity toward the people whom he served. I hope that I can bring him alive for you by presenting these five faces.

1. An Ethiopian to the Ethiopians, an Eritrean to the Eritreans

A few years ago I was driving with two friends through the hills outside Rome near Frascati. There we discovered a pretty little church hidden among the trees. We decided to visit it. Inside, to my great surprise, I found a statue of St. Justin De Jacobis. While I was explaining to my friends who he was and what he had done, an Ethiopian Capuchin came up from behind and asked me: “Do you know our saint?” I remained struck by the words “our saint”. This would surely have been the way in which St. Justin himself would have wanted to be remembered.

In his discourse to the Christians of Adwa, Justin said of himself: “Who possesses this heart of mine? God and the Christian people of Ethiopia. You are my friends, you are my family, you are my brothers and sisters, you are my father, you are my mother… I shall always do what pleases you. Do you want me to stay in this region? I shall stay here. Do you want me to go away from here? I shall leave. Do you want me to be silent? I shall be silent… Do you want me to celebrate Mass? I shall do so. Do you not want it? I shall not celebrate. Do you want me to hear confessions? I shall do it. Do you not want me to preach? I shall not preach.”

An Ethiopian seminarian with whom I lived in the United States paid St. Justin the ultimate compliment. He told me that he had known about Justin De Jacobis for more than 15 years when he was a boy at home and when he was in the minor seminary. But it was only when he went to the university that he realized that Justin was an Italian! Justin was so inculturated and so rooted in the hearts of the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea that this young man had taken it for granted that he was “one of us”.

Justin de Jacobis

Justin de Jacobis

In his mission of evangelization, St. Justin traveled from place to place. He was very much an itinerant missionary. During his twenty years of preaching in Eritrea and Ethiopia, he covered thousands of kilometers, visiting large and small villages. After he established a mission station, he would entrust its administration to one of his priests or seminarians, and he would move on to new towns and new people to evangelize. As soon as he arrived in a new place, Justin would rent one or two small local residences for himself and for those traveling with him. Then he would invite the local people to visit him, to talk with him, and to pray with him as well.

Justin preached the gospel in such a simple way that his listeners readily understood his message. They recognized his goodness at the same time. Wherever he went, he preached by word and work, showing great concern for the sick and the poor, and encouraged the small communities he founded to lead lives of integrity and fidelity to their beliefs. By the witness of their lives, Justin and his followers earned the respect of many Orthodox believers.

2. Formator of the Clergy

Pius IX, who named Justin bishop, sought to promote the missions by setting up hundreds of prefectures, vicariates and dioceses all over the world, mostly under the auspices of “Propaganda Fide.” Unfortunately, many of the missionaries who went to these new territories did not see the need for forming an indigenous clergy. Many tried to transplant a European-type church from their native countries to mission lands and to convince their hearers to become Catholics, modo europeo, but they failed to root the Catholic Church within the cultural context of the people. Justin was determined not to commit the same mistake and focused his energies on the formation of native clergy. He wrote to his superiors:

It is more fruitful and successful to deal with the native priests than with the European missionaries who are not familiar with the local and social cultures of the native people.

Quickly impressed by the intellectual capacity of the seminarians and their knowledge of the local languages and social context, Justin devoted himself energetically to their formation. The students, for their part, saw the dedication, love, and availability of their formator. Because of the mutual respect that grew up, many seminarians remained loyal to Justin throughout his life, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and even persecution. The native clergy prepared by De Jacobis became the backbone of the Catholic community. Justin valued his native priests highly. He stated: “They are my eyes, my mouth, my hands and my feet. They do what I cannot do and they do better than me what I do myself …”

From the moment that Justin set foot in his mission territory, he became aware of the great respect that Ethiopians and Eritreans had for the clergy. He reinforced that respect in all his dealings with them as well.

Justin’s main opponents were some of the Orthodox clergy themselves, yet he persistently continued to love and respect them. The door of his residence stood open to them. His interest was unity, which he believed to be largely present already. He refused to be drawn into futile theological discussions. He would not allow his confreres or his students to criticize them. When the Orthodox clergy allowed him, he joined them in their prayer and liturgical services, as well as social gatherings. From his side, Justin invited some of the Orthodox to teach his students liturgical music and prayers. Moreover, because of his deep respect and veneration for the Orthodox monks, he visited many of the monasteries in order to deepen his knowledge of their formation and their way of life. He also had a keen interest in their methods of exercising the apostolate.

St. Justin, in an attempt to resolve the shortage of Catholic priests, planned to send some of his seminarians to Egypt for further training and ordination to the priesthood. However, Guglielmo Massaia, who would later become cardinal, had just arrived as Apostolic Prefect of the southern part of Ethiopia. He visited Guala in 1846 and the following year ordained new priests and received into the Catholic Church others who had been exercising their ministry in the Orthodox Church. There were 15 altogether. This event gave tremendous momentum to De Jacobis’ apostolic efforts. The new Catholic priests were assigned to different villages and the Catholic faith began to thrive.

During Justin’s ministry 35 Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholic priests were ordained, 18 celibate and 17 married. He was concerned about the formation of these diocesan priests right to the end. On July 31, 1860, just three hours before his death, he gathered his disciples around him and told them:

Following the example of Our Lord who said good-bye to Our Lady and to his apostles, I say good-bye to you…. Drive far from your house all calumny and bickering, love one another, remain firm in the faith and above all, practice charity. Be the light of your people.

He then called the seminarians to his bedside and said:

Since God has chosen you, be careful to follow the true path. I propose to you as your models the monks. They are good and they are the light which illuminates you. Follow their example.(Kevin Mahoney, The Ebullient Phoenix, Vol. I, pp. 213-215.)

3. Fully inculturated

More than a century before the word “inculturation” became popular, Justin was a master of the art. He said to his listeners: “If you should therefore ask me who I am, I shall answer: ‘I am a Roman Christian who loves the Christians of Ethiopia.’ And if anyone should question you: ‘Who is this stranger?’, answer: ‘He is a Roman Christian who loves the Christians of Ethiopia more than his mother and more than his father; he has left his friends, his family, his brothers, his father and mother in order to come to visit us and to show his love for us.’

Justin carefully recorded his impressions in his diary and also wrote lengthy accounts to his superiors in Rome and in Paris. This documentation provides us with a priceless record of mid-nineteenth-century Ethiopians customs, described with a concern for detail found only in someone who loves what he is describing. He gives information about countless matters, like dress, funerals, marriages, teaching methods, punishments, and even surgical procedures. His diary is illustrated with sketches of persons, places, and things he has seen.

Here, let me mention just three areas in which his sensitivity toward his people led him to become notably inculturated in their ways:

1. Justin studied hard and learned well the languages of his people. Three months after arriving in Ethiopia, he began to preach in Amharic, with the aid of his tutor. Gradually, he also learned Tigrinya and Ge’ez, the liturgical language. With much help from Ghebre Michael, he produced a catechism in Amharic for his people. He was a wonderful communicator, preparing his conferences very carefully. The groups to whom he spoke were often very mixed: secular priests, Coptic monks, lay scholars who were very attached to their own beliefs. At the end of one meeting in which Justin had spoken with great affection about his people, an elderly, much esteemed scholar said in a loud voice: “This priest who has spoken deserves to be our father.”

2. Without much hesitation, Justin adopted the dress of the Ethiopian priests. You have often seen images of him in that dress. He wrote to Fr. Etienne in Paris: “I believe that the principle of the Congregation, which is the principle of (St. Vincent) himself, is that missionaries will wear habits which are as near as possible to those worn by the most exemplary priests of the country in which they live. Here the priests are dressed in this way: they have a big white shirt, with wide trousers, also white, bare feet and a white turban on the head, and a big coat which is also white. I am dressed in this manner.”

3. Contrary to the practice of many other missionaries, he adopted the Ethiopian rite. Having often joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in prayer, he concluded that their prayer fit the culture well and that nothing in it was erroneous. He allowed his new disciples to continue their Orthodox devotions, even after they had accepted the Catholic faith. He did not demand that Ethiopian priests be ordained a second time in the Latin rite. He left priests free, when they celebrated Mass, to use the liturgical books they had always used.

4. Friend of Ghebre Michael

Ghebre Michael was a pilgrim in life, a relentless truth-seeker. Born a decade before Justin, he became a monophysite monk at the age of 19, but remained restless in his search for the truth. He made a long pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Cairo, to Rome and to Jerusalem and on it met Justin De Jacobis for the first time. In Rome he found himself very attracted to the Catholic Church. Arriving back in Ethiopia, he was persecuted by the orthodox because of his Catholic leanings and escaped to Adwa, where Justin De Jacobis received him with open arms.

In 1844 Ghebre Michael officially declared his allegiance to the doctrine of the two natures in Christ and became a Catholic. From then on, he accompanied Justin on many of his journeys, especially to the famous monastery of Gunda Gunde. The visit of the white Prefect and the highly respected monk Abba Ghebre Michael deeply moved the monks of the monastery. Because of the good impression Justin and Ghebre Michael made, a number of the monks decided to follow them to Guala.

One of the monks suggested that the Prefect ask permission to buy some land from the villagers of Guala, which was his hometown. De Jacobis bought a small piece of land near the Orthodox church of St. George. In 1845, in less than a year, St. Justin built the seminary and transferred both the seminarians and some of his priests from Adwa to Guala. The Prefect also built a house near the seminary for young people and adults who came from nearby villages for catechetical instructs.

Ghebre Michael helped enormously in the formation of the clergy. He composed a dictionary of the Ge’ez language used in the liturgy. He wrote a source book about the Catholic faith which was simple and clear. He produced a textbook in dogmatic theology. But he was destined to suffer much. He was imprisoned for two months shortly before Justin ordained him to the priesthood in 1851, when he was 60 years of age.

Later, when persecution broke out again, both he and Justin were imprisoned. Ironically, Justin was treated better than Ghebre Michael, for whom his former colleagues among the orthodox seemed to have a special hatred. Ghebre Michael was tortured repeatedly and urged to renounce Catholicism. He was led from place to place in chains and, bloodied by beatings, presented before crowds. He was knocked to the ground often and when again and again he rose to his feet, the people proclaimed him a second St. George, the saint who was said to have had seven lives.

The king, because of political pressure from the British and perhaps also because of the esteem Ghebre Michael had among the people, decided not to execute him but decreed that he must carry his chains to the end of his life. He trudged in procession from town to town behind marching soldiers, resisting appeals to renounce his faith. Finally, exhausted by an ordeal that lasted 13 months, he died at the roadside and was buried nearby at the end of August, 1855. Many have tried to locate his grave, but without success. Justin often called him “the generous athlete of Christ”.

V. Deeply human, deeply holy

Many have noted Justin’s human gifts; many too have written about his holiness. Here, let me just note a few of the qualities that impressed his contemporaries.

His Human Warmth

There was a tenderness in Justin that struck others forcefully. He felt things deeply. His sermons are filled with warmth and compassion. He often spoke of his love for his people. In his Diary he writes about his mother who, he was certain, was interceding for him in heaven.. He tells of his loneliness as he celebrated Christmas almost alone in 1839. He describes the pain he felt at being separated from his fellow missionaries, Sapeto e Montuori, who left Adwa to go to Scioa and to Gondar: « See how Providence makes us experience today all the torments of mortal separation. … Our hearts are made for loving each other.” He longs to have a community of Daughters of Charity to help him (IV, 23).

Justin had the gift of friendship. He befriended not only his confreres and the Catholics of the mission, but many of the Orthodox. He created close bonds with a number of Protestant missionaries laboring in Ethiopia. Their relationship was so warm that Justin speculated in his Diary: “…we are not very far from the happy moment when reconciliation with our (separated) brothers could take place.”

His Works of Charity

While still in Italy, Justin focused on the sick and poor in his ministry. In 1836 and 1837 a cholera epidemic raged in Naples. Justin labored day and night to assist the victims. He forgot himself to such an extent that he often neglected to eat and sleep. One morning he was found asleep, worn out by fatigue, lying at the side of a victim whom he had assisted until death, having given little thought to contagion. In Ethiopia too, he recounts in his Diary (I, 147) visits to the homes of sick people whom others refused to approach because of fear of contagion.

On the mission, St. Justin made his residence a place of welcome. There the sick, the hungry and the poor often sought him, and he ministered to them with great tenderness. From there, he also went out to visit the homebound and the aged. Those whom he visited were people of very varied social standing, but they were consistently impressed by warmth, the humility and the charity of the Apostolic Prefect. As a Vincentian he convinced of the importance of preaching by “word and work”. He formed his native clergy to do so too.

His Devotion to Mary the Mother of God

During his first year in Adwa, Justin gave out Miraculous Medals to everyone he met, telling them how Mary was the Mother of God and the Mother of all who believed in Christ. He engaged in much charitable ministry in the name of Mary. His listeners not only noted what Justin told them about Mary, they also observed how he honored her and prayed to her. Because of this, they called him Abba Yakob Zemariam, which means Mary’s Jacob.

His followers addressed him in a letter from Gondar on 27 July 1848, in this way:

Greetings to our Father Justin, from his children who through divine mercy were dragged out of the darkness of schism and apostasy. May the love of Mary, Mother of Jesus, increase in you and us! Amen.

Long after Justin’s death, Cardinal Massaia, who had ordained him, stated:

After 35 years I can still, to a large extent, recall the sermons which I listened to in those days, so great was the impression which he made on me, and also on others … To see this man, serious and pleasant at the same time, frugal in the matter of food, simple, modest and unobtrusive in his way of dressing, courteous and charitable in behavior, always ready to say a comforting word, never separated from his disciples whom he treated with the gentle authority of a father and the affectionate familiarity of a brother, always with them in whatever they were doing, at work, at meals, at prayer; to watch him as he celebrated Mass like someone in ecstasy, to see him present at prayer in common, recollected and angel-like, in a word, to see him living a life which combined the isolation of a hermit and the zeal of an apostle, all this was, for us, a living sermon.(Ibid., pp. 585-586.)

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