By Daniel Rice, Seminarian
On Saturday, I attended Mass in honor of St. Michael with the Medhanie Alem Ge’ez Rite Eritrean Catholic Community of the Diocese of Arlington, which meets at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale. This group was smaller than the usual community that attends weekly Mass on Sundays, since these Eritrean Catholics were only those from a specific village in Eritrea.
I arrived at the Church early, and the first thing that struck me was the way the Eritrean people greeted one another. Their faces and smiles radiant with joy, they greeted one another as if the best of friends not seen in a long time. Each one said to the other, “Selam” (which literally means, “Peace”), and kissed him, rhythmically placing his own head next to his friend’s as if in a reverent bow. I recalled the words of St. Paul, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 2 Cor 13:12; cf. 1 Pet 5:14). As the time for the liturgy approached, more people came and all conversed in Tigrinya, the native Eritrean language, enjoying the reunion so much that the liturgy began almost half an hour late. I introduced myself to a few people, but felt like I had come to a foreign country on my own, not looking like or speaking like these people who know each other so well, many of them being relatives of one kind or another. A few men of the community kindly welcomed me and conversed with me in English. Nevertheless, Tigrinya made me a complete stranger; but later on, when I learned the name of the liturgy, it became a great source of encounter with Eritrean Catholic Culture.
I knew that most Eastern Catholic Rites, although they celebrate the same Holy Sacrifice as Roman Catholics, do not call their liturgy the “Mass” (after all, the name “Mass” comes from the concluding words of the Mass in Latin: “Ite, misa est,” “Go, it is sent”). A man named Shum, who graciously guided me through the entire liturgy, explained to me that in Tigrinya there is a word used for God that means, “Holy One.” The name of their liturgy is the verb form of this noun, which—although it has no direct translation—basically means, “making us holy.” Thus, the very name of their liturgy communicates the reality that we ourselves are not holy without God and that we cannot make ourselves holy; rather, He Who is all Holy and the source of all holiness makes us holy.
The whole liturgy had an aura of sacredness. Most of the women, dressed in traditional Eritrean garb, had their heads veiled. Even more important and significant than the elegant beauty of these clothes was their highest purpose: reverence for Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist. The whole liturgy was sung in Eastern Chant, which, because of its style, was evidence to me of Eritrea’s geographical and linguistic proximity to the Middle East. Thus, the sacred words were communicated a way that was fitting for the mystery being celebrated and that urged the heart to cry out with Christ, “Abba, Father.” At a few points in the liturgy, the women uttered high-pitched ululations, trilling with their tongues in highest praise of God. Most of the liturgy was in Ge’ez, which, like Latin, is an ancient language that used to be common, but is now only spoken within the Church. Since the second Vatican Council, the vernacular (Tigrinya) has also been inserted for a few parts of the liturgy.
The liturgy lasted a few minutes less than two hours. Father Hagos had to chant less elaborately and rush the liturgy this much because the church needed to be used for another liturgy scheduled to be after their own. (Hearing how and why they were “rushing” their liturgy made me wonder about how and why some English Masses are rushed.) The gathering afterward, however, was not rushed: four hours of eating Eritrean food (delicious!), talking, speeches, singing, and dancing, clapping and stepping with the music. In this way, these people, many of whom came to American to flee from war with Ethiopia, have preserved their Catholic culture and traditions. Hopefully, these traditions will continue to be passed down to their children, most of whom speak Tigrinya and English.
Many thanks to Fr. Hagos and the Eritrean Catholic Community of the Diocese of Arlington, and may God continue to bless you!