His Holiness, Abune Paulos, Patriarch and Catholicos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Archbishop of Axum and Ichege of the See of Saint Teklehaimanot, fell asleep in the Lord in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, early on the morning of August 16, 2012, according to a BBC report. According to sources, His Holiness had been undergoing treatment for a serious illness for a long time, and that he reposed in Dejazmach Balcha Hospital. Details of memorial services for Patriarch Paulos have not yet been released.
The 76-year old Patriarch was an alumnus of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, where he studied from 1962 to 1965. He completed his Master of Divinity degree in May 1966. Dr. Sergius Verhovskoy, at that time professor of Dogmatic Theology, perceived great potential in the student (and then priest) Gabre Madhin G. Yohannes, who would eventually become the Patriarch of Ethiopia. In seminary archival correspondence, Professor Verhovskoy noted that “Father Gabre was highly intelligent, very capable, and eager to study.”
After his graduation from Saint Vladimir’s, the course of young “Abba” (Father) Gabre’s life was determined by dramatic Church and political affairs in Ethiopia, which included his imprisonment and exile. Although his life had begun modestly in the village of Adwa in Tigray Province, its unfolding placed him in the center of many controversies that required from him enormous determination and spiritual strength in their resolution.
As a young boy, Gabre Madhin had entered the Abba Garima Monastery, a place near his hometown with which his family had had a long association. He began his life there as a deacon-trainee, eventually taking monastic vows and being ordained to the Holy Priesthood. He continued his education at the Theological College of the Holy Trinity in Addis Ababa, under the patronage of Patriarch Abune Tewophilos, who then sent him on to Saint Vladimir’s Seminary for further study.
After graduation from Saint Vladimir’s, Abba Gabre entered a doctoral program at Princeton University, but in 1974, his studies were interrupted by extraordinary circumstances in Ethiopia—the revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie. Patriarch Abune Tewophilos summoned him back to Ethiopia, and along with four others, anointed him as a bishop. Abba Gabre took the name “Paulos” at his episcopal elevation, and was given the responsibility of ecumenical affairs by the Patriarch.
However, because the Patriarch had anointed the five bishops without the permission of the newly empowered Derg communist junta, all five men were arrested, and the Patriarch was eventually executed. Abune Paulos and his fellow bishops were imprisoned until 1983. After serving his sentence, Abune Paulos returned to Princeton in 1984 to complete his doctoral degree, and began his life in exile. He was elevated to the rank of Archbishop by Patriarch Abune Takla Haymanot in 1986, while in exile.
Subsequently, after the fall of the Derg in 1991 (replaced by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) and the dethronement of Patriarch Abune Merkorios, the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church authorized a new Patriarchal election. Abune Paulos was elected in 1992, and amidst ecclesial and political controversies that gripped the country, his election and enthronement were recognized by the Coptic Patriarchate in Alexandria.
As Patriarch, Abune Paulos took great pride in the history of the Ethiopian Church, noting the continuous 3,000 year-old Jewish and Christian presence in his country and its astounding size with 45 million faithful and 50,000 church buildings. During his term of office, many urban Church properties that had been confiscated were returned to the Church, notably the campus and library of his alma mater, Holy Trinity Theological College. His Holiness also led restoration efforts for Holy Trinity Cathedral. As well, he rebuilt the patriarchal complex and reformed the central administration of the Patriarchate. Further, he regained treasured Church artifacts, including those that had been plundered by British troops in the 19th century, including 10 “tabots” containing images of the Ark of the Convenant, which had been held up to that time in a British Museum.
During his tenure, His Holiness became widely recognized as a scholar, peacemaker, and advocate for the suffering and poor. He championed the cause of victims of the Derg regime and presided over their funerals, including that of Haile Selassie in 2000. With great reluctance, he acquiesced to the breaking away of the Eritrean Orthodox Church when that country declared independence, and he never ceased to try to bring peace between the Ethiopia and Eritrea and to heal the devastation wrought by their border wars. He initiated peace meetings between religious leaders of the two countries in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
Patriarch Abune Paulos continually sought to strengthen ecclesial relations among Oriental Orthodox Churches. In 2007, he visited the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, meeting with His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and reestablishing a relationship with that Church body. In 2008, he traveled to India to meet with Baselios Thoma Didymos I, Catholicos of the East. As one of the seven presidents of the World Council of Churches, representing the Oriental Orthodox Churches, he was instrumental in encouraging interfaith dialogue in Ethiopia. In that same capacity, he participated in many international meetings, including the World Economic Forum and the World Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations in New York.
Most notably, he became extensively involved in the support of war-displaced and drought-hit Ethiopians, making the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church one of the major relief organizations in the country. He showed keen interest in providing solutions to problems involving youth, women’s issues, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the protection and welfare of refugees, he was awarded the Nansen Medal for Africa by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2000.
In the summer of 2008, Alexander Machaskee, Executive Chair of the Board of Trustees at Saint Vladimir’s, witnessed first hand Patriarch Abune Paulos’s care for the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and his country. Mr. Machaskee, who at that time chaired the Board of Trustees for International Orthodox Christian Charities [IOCC], met with His Holiness for two hours, discussing such IOCC projects as the multimillion-dollar AIDS campaign, the children’s clinic in the city of Waliso, and several agricultural projects and demonstration farms.
May his memory be eternal!