Arts & Books

Book review: The African woman who took on Rome

An Ethiopian church in Lake Tana: African culture has not always repressed women

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros
By Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner
Princetown, £28

Jesuit missionaries first reached Ethiopia in 1557. For almost 50 years their conversion campaign was spectacularly unsuccessful. But then, in 1603, Pedro Paez arrived. Paez possessed admirable diplomatic skills, was intellectually curious and, like other Jesuit missionaries around the globe, adapted to local circumstances. He secured some high-profile converts, including a couple of kings, the second of whom made public profession of his new faith in 1621.

The devotional landscape in Ethiopia was very different from that encountered by Jesuits in East Asia or the Americas.

A version of Christianity had been dominant in the region for 1,300 years and not everyone was delighted by the prospect of abandoning this ancient tradition.

It is important to stress that some Jesuit missionaries were driven by a genuine desire to bring news of Catholicism to Ethiopia. The whole enterprise should not be damned or dismissed as a grubby consequence of colonialism.

There was also a great deal at stake. Ethiopian Christianity differed significantly from its Catholic counterpart. Crucially, it held that Christ had “one nature melding the human and the divine”. Jesuit missionaries, loyal to the Christological teachings hammered out at the early Church Councils, found this intolerable. Various local rites and practices also irked the missionaries: refusal to eat rabbit or pork, for instance, or spreading the Sabbath over two days of the week. In time, edicts banning all such practices were issued with royal approval and the old Church was effectively outlawed. Few were quite so incensed by these developments as one Walatta Petros.

Walatta Petros was of noble birth and, aged 16, she had married one of the king’s counsellors. The husband readily converted to Catholicism but Walatta Petros refused to follow suit.

She left her husband and took up residence at a monastery on the shores of Lake Tana. She soon emerged as a “radical itinerant preacher” loudly rebuking all who had been converted by the Jesuits. She was twice summoned to the royal court. On the first occasion she narrowly avoided execution and, on the second, she was treated to weekly conferences with missionaries who sought, in vain, to win her over to Rome. She again dodged a death sentence and was sent into exile for three years.

By the time of her death in 1642, Walatta Petros was well on her way to being regarded as a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Her resistance had played a major role in plunging the missionary enterprise into disarray and, by 1632, the king had felt obliged to rescind all the pro-Catholic edicts, setting the old Church on track to regain its former status.

Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner have produced an English translation of a 17th-century account of Walatta Petros’s life. It is probably “the first true biography of an African woman” and it reminds us that this part of Africa had enjoyed a highly literate culture since the 4th century. The text also challenges any lazy assumption that African culture has always repressed women. The north-east of the continent, for instance, had a long tradition of dynamic female rulers and influential cultural figures. It would have surprised no one that women led the resistance to Catholic advance.

The book’s introduction reports that “most people outside of Ethiopia have never heard of Walatta Petros”. Whatever one makes of her beliefs and her response to the Jesuit missionary enterprise, this lack of awareness is a shame because she was a truly fascinating figure.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/11/15)

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