Saint Justino Jacobis
Born at San Fele, Lucania, Italy, on October 9, 1800; died in the Valley of Alghedien, Ethiopia, on July 31, 1860; beatified in 1939; canonized on October 26, 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
He grew up a pious youth in the city of Naples, and joined the Vincentians at age 18. He was ordained in 1824 and excelled at preaching, especially to the rural poor because he had a special gift of making the faith attractive to both the scholar and the ignorant. After he helped to found a Vincentian house at Monopoli, he served as superior at Lecce (Apulia). In 1836-1837, Father Justin served the sick with heroic charity in the cholera epidemic in Naples. In 1839 he was chosen by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith as Prefect; Vicar Apostolic and missionary to Adua, Ethiopia. This was the beginning of the African missionary work that would consume the rest of his life. The people were primarly a combination of pagan, Islamic, and Coptic Christian, and foreigners were not welcomed by authorities, civil or religious. Justin learned the language, lived with the people, and worked to improve relations at the local level. He tried to have one of his monks appointed Patriach of the Ethiopian church, but failed.
Justin returned to Rome for consultations with the Pope, trying (and failing) to get some of the Ethiopian religious leaders to come with him. In 1846 he returned to Ethiopia to found a college and seminary at Guala. This work, and other Catholic missionary efforts, caused a backlash in the Ethiopian Church; Catholicism was banned, and Bishop Massaia was forced to flee to Rome. Despite exhortations for his death, Justin remained, and became an underground missionary, caring for converts.
He was consecrated fugitive bishop of Massawa in 1848 and was given authority to administer the sacraments in the Ethiopian rite. By 1853 he had consecrated 20 priests, made 5,000 converts, and was able to re-open the college at Guala.
In 1860, Kedaref Kassa became the Ethiopian King Theodore II with the backing of Abuna Salama, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. In gratitude, he prohibited Catholicism, and De Jacobis was imprisoned for several months. He was then force-marched to the area of Halai in southern Eritrea, spending his remaining months in missionary work along the Red Sea.
In due course, Saint Justin was arrested in an attempt to make him “disappear.” But, after several months’ imprisonment at Gondar, his guards released him in a wild area from which he was able to make an agonizing journey to Halai in southern Eritrea. He tried to return to his flock at Tigrai, but had to remain on the coast of the Red Sea. Bishop Justin’s work was now circumscribed to the area along the Red Sea; but this still meant exhausting journeying.
He was again imprisoned for extending hospitality to a French political mission. This time he was forced to endure long marches, rapid changes of climate, and a fatal fever. Again he was released and attempted to return to Halai on horseback, accompanied by a priest, and a group of monks and students. When he found he could ride no further, he knew that it was time to give up his spirit. He was anointed, his head supported by a rock in the desert, and spoke his last words: “Pray hard, little ones, for I am going to die. I won’t forget you. . . . I am dying.” Thus, Saint Justin died of a fever on the roadside near Halai.
He is buried in a church at Hebo, in the far north of the country, where his shrine is carefully preserved, and his memory is still very much alive among the people who feel that he was one of them. Saint Justin was an impressive pioneer of ecumenism as well as of missionary achievement. Cardinal Messaia wrote of this man of enormous tact, “God chose him to be a teacher even more by example than by words” (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Farmer, White).
Saint Justin was a great apostle of Africa and the founder of the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) mission. Blessed Ghebre Michael is among the estimated 12,000 converts he made in his time. His memorial is celebrated on July 31.