LOWICZ, Poland—In an unprecedented personal and ecumenical gesture, Pope John Paul II has decided to fly to Armenia to pray with the dying leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin of Etchmiadzin.
The one-day visit June 18 will allow the Pope to “express his spiritual closeness to the catholicos in a moment of suffering” and to make a brief ecumenical pilgrimage to the spiritual center of the Armenian Orthodox church, papal spokesman Joaquin NavarroValls said June 14 in Poland.
The Pope, in Poland for 13 days, had been scheduled to fly back to Rome June 17 and visit Armenia in early July.
But when informed that Catholicos Karekin was near death, the Holy Father opted to spend an extra night in Krakow, his last stop in Poland, and fly to Armenia early the next day.
“The ecumenical aspect is very important, but it is also a personal visit to someone who has been very nice to the Pope in previous meetings,” Navarro-Valls said.
The papal spokesman said that during the three-hour stay in Armenia, the Pope would meet the catholicos at his residence in Etchmiadzin and would hold talks with the Armenian president in Yerevan, the nation's capital.
The papal spokesman said he could not recall any precedent in Pope John Paul's 20-year globetrotting pontificate for such an abrupt change in papal travel plans.
A personal representative of Catholicos Karekin briefed Pope John Paul on the Armenian leader's deteriorating health during a June 10 meeting in Warsaw, and it was announced that the Pope's July trip to Armenia was postponed.
“The Holy Father was thinking and thinking and thinking, and he told me on Saturday (June 12), ‘I'm going to Yerevan,’” Navarro-Valls said.
The Pope planned to travel with his entourage and about 50 journalists who accompanied him to Poland.
The Pope had met privately with the catholicos twice at the Vatican and formed a friendship with him, NavarroValls said. The Pope wanted to reciprocate the catholicos's visits.
Doctors monitoring a recurring cancer in the catholicos'mouth advised him not to attend the Pope's July visit; his church announced June 7 that the trip was to be delayed.
The warmth of current relations between Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches has been attributed to the close personal relationship between Catholicos Karekin and Pope John Paul; the Pope noted this closeness in a speech last March.
In December 1996 the two leaders signed a declaration ending 1,500 years of discord over Jesus' identity by expressing a common understanding of his humanity and divinity. The agreement was one of a series between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Pope's planned July visit was viewed by many as a chance to demonstrate the recognition accorded by the Vatican to Armenia fewer than 10 years after the country emerged from communism under Soviet rule.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of six independent Oriental Orthodox churches. They are in communion with each other but not with the Catholic Church or with the Orthodox churches that split with Rome in the 11th century.
About 90 percent of Armenia's 3.6 million people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church.