In the first of his six speeches during his three-day visit to Armenia, Pope Francis not only recalled the history of the world’s first Christian nation and how “faith in Christ is part of its identity,” he also emphasized that by working to reach “full unity” between the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches they are together giving an example to a world “marked by divisions and conflicts” that “divergences” can be settled “by dialogue and appreciation of all that unites us.”
He stated this clearly when, less than an hour after his arrival in the country, he spoke at the Apostolic Cathedral in Etchmiadzin, the See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the church’s equivalent of the Vatican. He came here directly from the airport where he had arrived at three o’clock when the sun was high in the sky and the thermometer registered 36 degrees Celsius. At the airport, the pope enjoyed a brief but very warm welcome by the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, and the Supreme Primate and Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, and was saluted by a military guard of honor. There were no speeches, though they would come later.
From there, Karekin II accompanied Francis to the cathedral where the church’s bishops, clergy and laity were gathered, and there, the Catholicos, in a welcome speech, praised him “for strengthening” the relations “between our churches, by showing particular kindness to the Armenian Church and our people on various occasions throughout your ministry.”
In particular, Karekin said, “our people remember with gratitude your solemn Mass celebrated in memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide in the Basilica of St. Peter, with your historic ceremony condemning genocide.”
The Armenian church leader, who also welcomed St. John Paul II in 2001, told him that “after the destruction caused by the Armenian genocide and the Godless years of the Soviet era, our church is living a new spiritual awakening” and “engaging in the life of pan-Christian relations,” convinced that as the world experiences deep “spiritual, political, economic and humanitarian crises” it is “more important than ever for the Sister-Churches to jointly pray and cooperate” together for the good of humanity.
His words synchronized well with the words of the pope who began his talk by confiding that he found it “very moving” to be with them in this holy place.
“I bow before the mercy of the Lord, who willed that Armenia should become, in the year 301, the first nation to accept Christianity as its religion, at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire,” he said.
He recalled that “For Armenia, faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but an essential part of its identity, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself.”
Francis went on to speak of some of the ecumenical milestones in their journey to full unity and said, “I thank the Lord for the journey that the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have undertaken through sincere and fraternal dialogue for the sake of coming to share fully in the Eucharistic banquet.” He prayed that the Holy Spirit would enable them to attain this unity.
He recalled in particular “the decisive impulse given to developing closer relations and strengthening dialogue between our two churches in recent years by Their Holinesses Vasken I and Karekin I, and by St. John Paul II and by Benedict XVI.” He mentioned the Commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th century in Rome, during the Jubilee of the Year 2000, the consignment to Karekin II of the the relic St. Gregory the Illuminator, for the new Cathedral of Yerevan, and the joint declaration signed here by Karekin and John Paul II in Sept. 2001.
Francis went on to link the urgency to achieve this unity to the dramatic situation in today’s world that is “marked by divisions and conflicts, as well as by grave forms of material and spiritual poverty, including the exploitation of persons, not least children and the elderly.”
In the face of this reality, he said, humanity “expects from Christians a witness of mutual esteem and fraternal cooperation capable of revealing to every conscience the power and truth of Christ’s resurrection.”
He told them that by their common commitment to achieve “full unity,” and by “the growth of joint initiatives and cooperation in service to the common good,” they provide an example also for those outside “the visible confines of the ecclesial community.”
Francis said their efforts “represent for everyone a forceful appeal to settle divergences with dialogue and appreciation for all that unites us. It also prevents the exploitation and manipulation of faith, for it requires us to rediscover faith’s authentic roots, and to communicate, defend and spread truth with respect for the dignity of every human being.”
He told the Armenian Apostolic Church leadership present in the cathedral, that “in this way, we offer to the world—which so urgently needs it—a convincing witness that Christ is alive and at work, capable of opening new paths of reconciliation among the nations, civilizations and religions.”
He concluded by telling them, in an allusion to the present tensions and simmering conflicts in the region, that “when our actions are prompted by the power of Christ’s love, understanding and reciprocal esteem, a fruitful ecumenical journey becomes possible, and all people of goodwill, and society as a whole, are shown a concrete way to harmonize the conflicts that rend civil life and create divisions that prove hard to heal."