Second Thoughts of the Day – 31 July – The Mmorial of Saint Giustino de Jacobis CM (1800-1860) Apostolic Vicar of Abyssinia – Ethiopia and Eritrea
The great devotion to St Giustino but known as St Justin in Ethiopia/Eritrea
Eritrea is a recent nation in the Horn of Africa, on the shore of the Red Sea. It has an area of 127,750 sq. km. The population is calculated as 3,500,000 who live in Eritrea, with about a million scattered all over the world. It achieved its independence from Ethiopia after a long war of liberation in May 1991, later confirmed by a referendum in April 1993 with 99.8% in favour. The population is 50% Christian, the majority of whom are Orthodox Copts and 50% Moslem. Catholics are about 20% and Protestants 5%. Devotion to St Giustino (also known as Justin) is not confined to Catholics but is also found among the Orthodox and Moslems.
This devotion to St Justin, contains much of prayer and veneration and these two things which the Eritreans and Ethiopians do – they wash themselves over a period of two weeks in water which has been blessed beside St Justin’s tomb and they take a pinch of earth from the place in which he was first interred. By doing these two things his clients are convinced, that they will be healed of whatever form of illness from which they may be suffering. This may seem extremely pious — but this is what lovers of St Justin do and they feel miraculously healed. That is why at the moment his tomb in Hebo is still a place of pilgrimage. And also, in times of disaster and war, that is why it is to this tomb that many people come, trusting in his intercession. It is also where they come in times of drought to ask for rain through his intercession.
After his beatification several religious communities were established in Eritrea and also in Ethiopia. And many of them, before embarking on their ministry, had the custom of making a pilgrimage to his tomb in Hebo to ask his intercession for the success of their undertaking. Even today, his grave is one of the few pilgrimage destinations in all Eritrea and it will still be so tomorrow, at least to a large extent, in northern Ethiopia. The Vincentian Fathers and the Daughters of Charity have been there, beside his tomb, to welcome pilgrims since 1947-48. Diocesan priests usually have their annual retreats and pastoral meetings there in Hebo, in the presence of the saint. On the other hand, the place also lends itself to silence and recollection.
Many of them, because of their lack of historical knowledge combined with strong love and devotion, think and believe that St Justin was an Abyssinian, in other words one of themselves. Their devotion and admiration for and their love of, this man are so strong that they say: “He could not be a Ferengì,” which means a foreigner.
The Vincentian missionaries, who were well aware of the virtues and holy life of Justin, made several efforts to have his remains brought back to Italy. But the Hebo villagers showed very decided opposition to this, and said:
“Abuna Jacob is our Father. At present his place is among his children. Here he gave birth to our faith. We love him and he loves us. And the proof of his love is his final wish. He asked to be kept among us and no one may go against the wish of a dying man. He is ours and we are his and we will hold on to him.”
Msgr Biancheri replied to them:
“Yes, a father should rest among his children but a mother has the right to the body of her own son and the Congregation is the Mother of Abuna Jacob. We are his brothers. Is it right, then, for you to go against a mother’s wishes?”
But the villagers held on stubbornly to their point of view and did not allow the saint’s remains to be taken away by the missionaries. And Msgr Biancheri, noting the unwavering resolution of the people of Hebo, had to give in and then came the selection of those who were to keep vigil, day and night, over the remains of their father.
It remains to be said: “Yes, God sent Jesus Christ to save the human race. But this same God likewise sent, in Jesus Christ, St Justin to save the Abyssinian people. St Justin made himself Abyssinian in everything in order to win the Abyssinians for God. That is what they think and firmly believe. May St Justin again today obtain for this people, who have so loved peace, reconciliation as well.”