Pope Francis’ intense three-day apostolic voyage to Armenia was, in his own words, an “unforgettable” and “greatly desired” visit to the world’s first Christian state, which further cemented warm ecumenical relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church and brought the Pope closer to the Armenian people.
The June 24-26 trip culminated in a joint declaration between Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, and the Holy Father, who committed themselves to “more decisive collaboration” in theology, prayer and promotion of Christian values.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at the end of the visit that ecumenical relations were the “major point” of the visit, and it was clear throughout that ties between the two Churches have probably never been closer.
The Catholicos was at the Pope’s side at every event. He rode in the popemobile with Francis at the end of Mass in the northern, predominantly Catholic city of Gyumri, and he hosted the Holy Father at his residence in Etchmiadzin, close to the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
On the final day, at the monastery of Khor Virap, where St. Gregory the Illuminator — the venerated founder of the Armenian Church — was tortured and imprisoned before converting the Armenian king to Christianity, making way for the first Christian state established in A.D. 301, the Pope and Catholicos released two doves to symbolize the joint desire for peace.
However, the Pope’s unexpected mention of the word “genocide” in relation to the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the early part of the 20th century caused controversy and protest in Turkey, which has consistently denied being the perpetrator of the immense tragedy that cost 1.5 million, mostly Armenian, lives.
The Pope’s visit began soon after landing, with a trip to the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin. The Armenian Apostolic Church, part of Oriental Orthodoxy, is Armenia’s central religious authority. It broke with Rome and Constantinople in 554 over the Council of Chalcedon. It remains very close to Rome, however, and defines itself as both Orthodox and Catholic.
Francis stressed during the prayer service that in a world marked by division, poverty and conflict, ecumenism offers a “convincing witness” to Christ’s love, mercy and reconciliation. It requires us to “rediscover faith’s authentic roots,” he said, leading to the spread of truth and “respect for the dignity of every human being.”
The world needs a “convincing witness that Christ is alive and at work, capable of opening new paths of reconciliation among the nations, civilizations and religions,” the Pope said.
As often happened during the visit, the Pope praised the Armenian people, giving thanks to the Lord “for the light of faith” in the country, the first Christian state, and adding that its faith has made it “a herald of Christ among the nations.”
He also alluded to its history of suffering, saying the Lord had “illuminated and enlivened you, accompanied and sustained you, especially in times of trial.” Faith is an “essential part” of Armenia’s identity, he said, a “shining example of the great efficacy and fruitfulness of the baptism” received more than 1,700 years ago.
Surprisingly, Pope Francis set aside diplomatic sensitivities during his next discourse at the Presidential Palace in the company of diplomats and civic authorities, by referring to the Metz Yeghérn (“Great Evil”) as “genocide.”
He said that “sadly, that tragedy, that genocide was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors, even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”
The Holy Father again departed from his prepared text to say that it is “so sad that, [during] both this [genocide] and the other two [German and Soviet genocides], the other international powers were looking in another direction.”
In the weeks leading up to the Pope’s visit, it wasn’t clear if the Pope would mention the word and risk causing a diplomatic rift with Turkey, as it had in the past. But Father Lombardi told reporters that evening that the substance of the word “genocide” is “very clear,” and the Holy See has “never denied what the reality is.”
The use of the word caused consternation in Turkey, and its deputy foreign minister said he felt it showed a “crusaders’ mindset.” Pope Francis told reporters on the flight back to Rome that he has only ever known it to be genocide and that it is a word that “brings with it actions of reparation.”
He said he never meant it to be offensive.
Contribution to Christianity
Elsewhere in his discourse at the Presidential Palace, the Holy Father also praised the Church in Armenia and the great contribution Christianity has made to the country.
The following morning, the Pope visited the Tzitzernakaberd Memorial Complex, where the victims of the Armenian genocide are remembered. While there, he wrote in the memorial’s “Book of Honor” that he was praying “with pain in my heart, so that never more will there be tragedies like this, so that humanity does not forget and knows how to overcome the evil with good.”
At the memorial, he also joined Armenian Church leaders in a joint prayer liturgy, blessed a pine tree planted in his name, and met descendants of Armenian genocide survivors whose ancestors, having been orphaned by the genocide, were given refuge in Castel Gandolfo by Pope Pius XI.
The Pope was then flown to Gyumri, where he celebrated Mass in the city’s Vartanants Square. He recalled the devastating earthquake that hit the region in 1988, costing more than 20,000 lives, and after giving thanks to God for all that was rebuilt, he asked the faithful to reflect on what God is calling us to build in our lives.
He laid down three foundations on which to build the Christian life: firstly, “memory” — to recall what God has done for us and his presence in adversity; secondly, “faith” — the need to renew our living encounter with the Lord each day, which “renews our life,” “makes us free” and helps us to become “capable of radiating his love” to others; and lastly, “merciful love” — the “rock of love” needed to exercise charity and “concrete” Christian love.
The Holy Father made two more visits in Gyumri: to the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in the city and to the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. He then returned to the capital, where he attended what was billed as the main focus of his visit: an ecumenical meeting and prayer for peace in the city’s Republic Square.
There, he spoke positively about Catholic-Apostolic Church relations, saying the visits and meetings between the two Churches have increased, and there is now “real and profound unity.” The Pope quoted copiously St. Nerses Shnorhali, a former Catholicos, who tirelessly sought unity and stressed that “everyone’s prayer is needed.”
“St. Nerses spoke of the need to grow in mutual love, since charity alone can heal memories and bind up past wounds,” the Pope said. “Memory alone erases prejudices and makes us see that openness to our brothers and sisters can purify and elevate our own convictions.”
The Pope stressed how the Christian faith marked the beginning of Armenia’s rebirth, even in tragic moments of history and that “even the greatest pain, transformed by the saving power of the cross, of which Armenians are heralds and witnesses, can become a seed of peace for the future.”
Memory, infused with love, “becomes capable of setting out on new and unexpected paths, where designs of hatred become projects of reconciliation,” the Pope said.
Francis’ final day in Armenia was spent in Etchmiadzin, the mother house of the Apostolic Church. At a Divine Liturgy with the Armenian Apostolic Church, Pope Francis made a heartfelt appeal for unity, saying the two Churches have “embraced as brothers” and “believe and experience that the Church is one.”
He said unity must be sought that is not about “submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but, rather, the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each.” He also urged both Churches to “respond to the appeal of the saints,” to listen to the “voices of the humble and the poor, of the many victims of hatred who suffered and gave their lives for the faith.”
In particular, he stressed the importance of heeding the desires of “the younger generation, who seek a future free of past divisions.”
The Pope’s 14th visit outside of Italy rounded out with the release of a joint declaration, in which he and Catholicos Karekin recalled the many persecuted Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world. This persecution, they said, has become a “daily reality.”
“The martyrs belong to all the Churches, and their suffering is an ‘ecumenism of blood,’ which transcends the historical divisions between Christians, calling us all to promote the visible unity of Christ’s disciples,” the declaration stated.
They prayed for a “change of heart” in the perpetrators and implored world leaders to provide “bread, not guns.” They also said more needs to be done to combat human trafficking and smuggling, warned about the “crisis of the family” and said both Churches have the same vision of the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman.
The declaration closed with recognition that both Churches have “successfully entered a new phase” in combining efforts to overcome “contemporary challenges,” with a “view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity.”