Ethiopia - "I'm going to become a priest!"
Father Hagos Hayish, the general secretary of the Ethiopian Catholic Bishops' Conference, describes how he came to his vocation and how he followed it in difficult times.
Excitedly, five-year-old Hagos runs up to his mother: "Mummy, mummy, Our Lady is down by the river! The priests sang for her! They have such beautiful, colorful robes on! I want to be like them!" His mother laughs. "But Hagos, that's not the Mother of God! The Orthodox are celebrating the feast of Timkat today. They are celebrating the baptism of Jesus down by the river!" Nevertheless, from that day onwards Hagos Hayish is quite clear: "I'm going to become a priest!"
In his family, faith has always played an important role. "All my family and my relatives have been Catholics for years. My parents and grandparents always used to tell me exciting stories about the missionaries. In the evening, when darkness fell, my father would call us eleven children together. We would gather around him and listen.”
“First of all he would play something on the flute, then he would tell us stories – about people, animals, about God and also about priests. And then finally he would teach us the Catechism, with questions and answers. In this way he prepared us for our First Holy Communion. If I had quarreled with a friend and told my father about it, he would insist that I go and settle the quarrel and clear up the matter completely."
On Sundays, Hagos goes with his family to church. The journey is too far for them to be able to go to Holy Mass in the week as well. It is over seven and a half miles each way – in all a journey of over 15 miles. But Hagos is happy to go to church. "I did not understand everything, but I loved the pictures especially. The picture of St. George always impressed me particularly," he recalls today.
At the age of six, he goes to school. He is able to skip a full year because he is so quick to learn. But when he comes to the end of primary school, his father tells him: "Now you have learnt enough. You can now read and write like I can. That's enough! I need someone to herd the goats."
Hagos cries and cries. After all he wants to become a priest! He appeals to his uncle to mediate between him and his father. And the parish priest is also called in. He is able to send two boys from the village to the minor seminary, where the younger boys prepare to enter the seminary proper, the "major seminary."
Three boys from the village have already applied. "What am I going to do if I can't find a place?" asks young Hagos tearfully, who is by now 13. The priest draws lots, and Hagos is one of the two lucky ones who will have the chance to go to the minor seminary. At the beginning he is homesick, but nonetheless he is happy to be able to follow his vocation.
The times are difficult ones. There is a civil war going on in Ethiopia. The communist regime under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam is calling up schoolboys and students for military service. It is a fate with which the seminarians are also threatened. In the holidays it is hard for them to get home, because a special permit is needed in order to travel from one place to another.
In 1985, after his A-levels, Hagos Hayish enters the major seminary. This is the time of the devastating famine, the horrifying pictures of which go all around the world. Again, the seminarians are threatened with being called up for military service, this time for the war against Eritrea. The young men have to hide.
When Mother Teresa visits Ethiopia in order to form a picture of the famine, she also visits the young seminarians. Hagos is the youngest and also, physically, the smallest of them. Because of this, he is standing in the front row to welcome the famous "angel of the poor."
"Do you want to be a priest?" Mother Teresa asks him. "Yes!" he replies. "Do you want to be a GOOD priest? If so, carry on. If not, leave the seminary today!" But Hagos has no doubt: "I want to be a good priest!"
The times become ever harder. "I have seen many people die," he recalls. At that time the government had decided to forcibly resettle hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them died as a result. Hagos' own father is also due for deportation, but at the last moment he is rescued.
During his second year in the seminary, Hagos is called to undergo a medical examination. Now he is really in danger of being called up for military service. After the examination he has to collect his health certificate. The man who is handing out the documents cannot find his name on the list, however.
Instead of Hagos, someone has written "Hagosa." This is the female form of his name. "Women do not serve in the army. You're in luck. You do not exist here! Go quickly," the man tells him. "God had guided the hand of a man so that he wrote down my name wrongly," Hagos Hayish explains, still full of wonder today. When he gets back to the seminary, the rector embraces him.
He enters the Vincentian order and on November 11, 1990, he is ordained to the priesthood. But then in 1998 war breaks out between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, which in 1993 gains independence from Ethiopia.
Actually Abba (Father) Hagos is due to write his doctoral thesis, but for him the decision is clear: in 1999 he volunteers to go to the North of the country, where the people are suffering the most from the war. His own family is also expelled. His father has been abducted by the Eritrean forces, and there is no trace of him.
Given this situation, Abba Hagos chooses not to return to university. Instead he takes over the Parish of Nkala. For one week he is in the parish, for the next in the mountains, where the many refugees and expelled people have sought refuge.
"Every day there was shooting; death was constantly present. The whole time I did nothing but hear confessions, because the people did not know if they would even survive that day. All of them were preparing themselves for death."
One day the Archbishop of Addis Ababa himself comes to comfort the refugees. He promises the people: "You will return to your parishes!" Abba Hagos recalls the incident precisely. "The people were happy, but some of them asked, 'Where is the Blessed Virgin? We can no longer hear the bells from Our Lady's church. What has happened?' And the children sang: 'Where is the Blessed Virgin? Where is the Blessed Virgin?' Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel answered them: ‘the Mother of God is here among you!'"
One month after the Archbishop's visit, the refugees are able to return to their ruined villages. "Everything was smashed, the houses destroyed, the trees felled; everywhere was full of landmines. Some 70,000 people had lost their lives," Abba Hagos tells us. Yet his own family had once more been protected, for his brother returned safely from the war, and his father was released from prison after two years.
Today Father Hagos can look back on almost a quarter of a century of priestly ministry. "A vocation is a gift of God, but I received it through my family," he says, deeply moved.
The Catholic Church in Ethiopia has around 700,000 faithful. That means that Catholics make up barely 1% of the population. Yet despite these small numbers, the Catholic Church is extremely active. She maintains 203 kindergartens and 222 schools, which are open to children and young people of all faiths and religions. They are attended by almost 180,000 children. Through this school is the Church hopes to be able to build bridges between the different ethnic groups and cultures. The Catholic Church also runs four universities, with over 7000 students.
During the past year the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) helped the Catholic Church in Ethiopia with a total of over $1.5 million.
With picture of Holy Mass in Catholic Ethiopian rite at St. Gabriel Parish, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (© ACN)