A Personal Reflection on Patriarch Abune Paulos

21/08/2012 1:40 pm

Patriarch Abune Paulos of Ethiopia and journalist Peter Jennings

By Peter Jennnings

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, His Holiness Abune Paulos died suddenly on the morning of Thursday 16 August 2012, aged 76.

A great religious leader, Patriarch Paulos was much-loved by ordinary people throughout Ethiopia and will be sorely missed.

According to news reports, Dr Paulos was rushed to hospital in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia after suffering a heart attack on Tuesday, 15 August.

The State Funeral of the Patriarch will be held on Thursday, 23 August, at St. Trinity Cathedral, in the in the presence of church leaders, foreign dignitaries as well as high-ranking government officials, a church source said.

Nearly half the population of Ethiopia, a country of more than 83 million people, are Christian, and some two-thirds of these follow the Orthodox faith. Dr Paulos, the fifth patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, was the most influential and best-known spiritual leader in Ethiopia since 1992.

During my first visit to Addis Ababa in January this year, I had the privilege and honour of meeting His Holiness the Patriarch at the Patriarchy during the afternoon of Wednesday 18 January 2012.

The meeting had been arranged at short notice by my friend Mulugeta Asrate Kassa, Public Diplomacy Advisor at the Ethiopian Embassy in London. A second cousin of Emperor Haile Selassie, Mr Mulugeta spent nine years in prison during the Derg (The Derg - or Dergue - was a Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987). His father was President of the Imperial Crown Council of the Emperor.

I had prepared a number of questions about the role the Patriarch played in society in Ethiopia, a Democratic Federal Republic, at the start 2012. As soon as I entered his room I felt I just wanted to talk to him rather than interview him.

Despite an extremely busy schedule the Patriarch received me with great kindness and warmth. He was sitting on a simple white cloth-covered throne, and he was wearing his characteristic white robes, striking silver cross and tall white hat.

Before becoming patriarch, Dr Paulos – whose father was a priest – also served as a monk and a bishop. A wise, learned and most interesting man, he told me in his softly spoken voice, how he had been arrested and imprisoned shortly after the revolution that seized power and toppled Emperor Haile Selassie during September 1974. This was because he had been named a bishop without the permission of the utterly ruthless Derg communist junta. Dr Paulos was not released from prison until 1983. He then remained in exile in the United States of America until the fall of the Soviet-backed Derg in 1991.

The following year, 1992, Dr Abune Paulos was elected and enthroned as Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – which used to be part of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church, but received its own patriarch during 1959.

I presented the Patriarch with a copy of Benedict XVI And Blessed John Henry Newman, the State Visit, September 2010 which I had written. He looked at the book and thanked me warmly for the gift. I felt compelled to kneel down and ask for his blessing which he graciously gave to me. I am profoundly grateful that he did so in a true spirit of Christian unity knowing that I was a Catholic journalist, writer and broadcaster.

Dr Paulos then pressed a bell beside him and summoned the photographer, a member of his staff. The Patriarch and I stood together and the photographer took a series of pictures, some on his camera and some on mine, as a record of a truly memorable visit. I left him knowing that I had been in the presence of a deeply spiritual and holy man of God.

Two days later, on Friday 20 January 2012, I was a special guest of His Holiness the Patriarch for Timket – a very special feast day and a public holiday in Ethiopia. Timket meaning ‘baptism’ in Amharic is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany.

I attended the first part of the spectacular and colourful Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Timket celebrations, attended by huge crowds – it was impossible to estimate the numbers – held in a large field situated near to Addis Abba University. Dr Paulos, who studied at Princetown’s Theological Seminary in the USA received a degree in theology from Addis University.

The three-hour ceremony was attended by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who was on an official visit to Ethiopia, and leading members of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church and other ecumenical guests including the Most Reverend Abba Berhaneyesus D Souraphiel, CM, Metropolitan Archbishop of Addis Ababa, and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Ethiopia, ambassadors and special guests.

During a short break towards the end of the celebration Dr Abune Paulos willingly autographed the special booklet that had been prepared in English by the Patriarchate for the 2012 Timket Celebration. It is a wonderful memento of Timket, a memorable and joyful spiritual occasion held under the hot early morning African sun.

The singing continued as I made my way slowly back through the vast throng of the faithful to my waiting car and driver. The Patriarchate had thoughtfully provided me with one of the much sort-after car passes.

I noticed that our man in Addis, the newly appointed British Ambassador to Ethiopia, Mr Greg Dorey, who I first met earlier in the week at his Residence, situated in the huge British Embassy compound, a few days previously and again during the ceremony, had also done the same to avoid the crowds at the exits. We said our goodbyes.

Born in Tigray in northern Ethiopia, His Holiness the Patriarch, Dr Abune Paulos also served as a President of the World Council of Churches. He played an important role in brokering peace in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war that ended in 2007.

In 2007, Dr Paulos was able to heal a 40-year-old rift with the Coptic Orthodox Church Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa.

During 2009 the Patriarch Paulos participated in and addressed the Fathers of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome during October 2009.

Patriarch Paulos has left an indelible mark on the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. Ethiopia, a fascinating country, is home to some of Africa’s oldest Orthodox churches, including a cluster of 11 ancient rock-hewn churches in Lalibella, which are designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

His Holiness Patriarch Abune Paulos, and all the people of Ethiopia, are very much in my thoughts and prayers at this time. May he rest in peace.


Patriarch Abune Paulos with journalist Peter Jennings - the author of this reflection.