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Justin De Jacobis

(1800—1860)


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(1800–60),

missionary bishop in Ethiopia. Born at San Fele (Basilicata) of a large family which soon emigrated to Naples, he joined the congregation of the Mission in 1818. Ordained in 1824, he excelled at preaching, especially to the rural poor. After helping to set up a foundation at Monopoli he soon became superior at Lecce (Apulia). His special gift was to make religion attractive both to the scholar and to the ignorant. In 1836–7 he served the sick with heroic charity in the cholera epidemic in Naples. In 1839 he was appointed to take charge of the missions at Godar and Adua in Ethiopia.

The situation was bleak. Following Portuguese intransigence in the 16th century, all Catholic missionaries had been excluded for 200 years. Most of the population were Muslim or else Coptic Christians who had been in schism for many centuries. Justin tried to bridge the cultural gap by studying the country, its inhabitants, and languages for two years. He hoped to break down prejudice by understanding and humility, showing the dissident clergy that he wished to help and to serve. Progress however was painfully slow.

Unexpectedly in 1840 Justin was invited to take part in a deputation to the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, who appointed one of his monks to be primate of Ethiopia. Justin persuaded some of the delegation to accompany him to Rome, to seek reunion with the Holy See. The venture failed, but Justin gained credit and confidence.

At last the numbers of native Catholics increased; a college for future clergy was established at Massawa, an island in the Red Sea. In 1846 Justin asked the pope to send a bishop as vicar-apostolic. The Capuchin William Massaia was chosen, but persecution greeted his arrival, and he was obliged to withdraw to Aden. Meanwhile instructions were issued, apparently by Negus and Patriarch, to kill Abba Jacob and all his people…‘to kill one who follows their religion is to earn seven heavenly crowns hereafter’. Some believers were heroic; others were not; but by 1853 there were 20 Ethiopian Catholic priests and 5,000 laity.

Meanwhile Justin was consecrated bishop in 1849. Persecution flared up again: he was imprisoned in Gondar for several months, but then allowed to escape. He tried to return to his flock in Tigrai, but had to remain on the coast of the Red Sea. Imprisoned again, this time for giving hospitality to a French political mission, he endured forced marches, rapid changes of climate, and a fatal fever. He returned towards Halai on horseback, but could ride no further than Alghedien. Knowing that death was near, he was anointed by a companion, his head supported by a rock in the desert, and there he died. He was buried at Hebo, where his shrine has always attracted pilgrims. He was beatified in 1939 and canonized in 1975, an impressive pioneer of ecumenism as well as missionary achievement. Feast: 31 July.

D. Matthew, Ethiopia (1937);D. Attwater, Christian Churches of the East, vol. i (1947); Lives by S. Arata and J. Baeteman (1939);B.L.S., vii. 263–5;E.C., iv. 1337. Bibl. SS., iv. 536–8.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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