A series of blogs prepared by ARSI (the Archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome) in preparation for the Ignatian Year.
By Festo Mkenda, SJ - Historian
2. St. Ignatius and Emperor Claudius of Ethiopia
St. Ignatius’ letter to Emperor Claudius of Ethiopia
(c.1521-59, r.1540-59), dated 23 February 1555, is one of the last documents
the saint prepared for the first Jesuit mission to the Eastern-African country.
In this long letter, Ignatius sought to kill two birds with one stone.
First, the letter served as the Superior General’s
introduction of the mission and the missionaries he was sending out to the
Ethiopian monarch. “All the priests being sent to Your Highness, particularly
the patriarch and his two coadjutors and successors, are men very well known
and tried in our Society, practiced in works of great charity,” wrote Ignatius.
Given the diligence that was employed in putting the Ethiopian mission
together, what Ignatius says here must be taken as true. Of the three mentioned
senior prelates, only André de Oviedo (1518-77) entered Ethiopia. Oviedo, who
later became the substantive patriarch, led a missionary team that held several
meetings with Claudius between 1557 and 1559.
Second, with his letter, Ignatius also introduced
Roman Catholicism to Claudius, providing arguments that he hoped would convince
the emperor to switch allegiance from the Monophysite See of St. Mark in
Alexandria to that of St. Peter in Rome. “The Catholic Church is but one
throughout the whole world,” argued Ignatius, adding that “there cannot be one
church under the Roman pontiff and another under the Alexandrian.” Claudius was
hardly persuaded. When he met the Jesuits, he clearly told them that his
forefathers had always owned the Chair of St. Mark in Alexandria and that he
could see no occasion to disquiet his people, who were peaceable and satisfied
with their existing Orthodox patriarch. For Claudius, the matter was as much
about local politics as it was about religious tradition.
Ignatius’s letter to Claudius may not have attained
its immediate goals, but it stands out as a document with relevance beyond
Ethiopia. The letter shows what Ignatius knew about Ethiopia, including details
of diplomatic missions that Claudius’ predecessor David II (1496-1540,
r.1508-40) had sent to Rome and Lisbon. In these details Ignatius reveals an
impressive degree of diplomatic parity between Ethiopia (and by extension,
Africa) and its European counterparts, which sadly diminished and eventually
vanished in the coming decades and centuries as slave trading became
increasingly dominant in Europe-Africa relations.
the existing documents by or attributed to St. Ignatius, it is the letter to
Claudius that provides the clearest insight into the saint’s understanding of
the nature of the church - heavily centralized and with the pope sitting alone at
its apex. In the opinion of philosopher Harry R. Burns SJ (1922-90), the letter
is the best statement of what we might even call an Ignatian ecclesiology. True
to the time and to what Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley has termed “Jesuit
proclivity for stretching the extent of papal prerogatives,” that ecclesiology
was similar to that which other members of the Society defended at the Council
of Trent. Ethiopia had thus prompted Ignatius to draw the best from his theological
storehouse as he described the church in the best terms possible within the 16th