Pope Francis celebrated his only public Mass in Armenia on the second day of his visit here, for some 50,000 faithful, in the Republic Square of Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, which was hit by an earthquake almost 30 years ago.
Throughout his foreign journeys, Francis has always sought to visit the places of suffering and meet the survivors or relatives of the victims of natural or man-made disasters. So too here in Armenia, after praying at the national memorial for the victims of the Armenian genocide and meeting some of their descendants, he took a short plane-ride (75 miles) from Yerevan to Gyumri, a city of some 150,000 people and home to the largest Catholic community in the country.
This city and its inhabitants suffered greatly, together with nearby towns and villages, when the terrible earthquake struck in December 1988 wreaking great destruction and killing some 60,000 people.
Francis is the first pope to come here, and processed into the square under a warm sun tempered by a cool breeze, accompanied by the Supreme Patriarch of all Armenians, Karekin II, who has been at his side all throughout this visit. Karekin and Francis blessed the faithful, many of them huddled under umbrellas, on the way to the altar.
Catholics count for a mere 10 percent of the population of this country of 3 million people, but no less than 50,000 of them—including very many young people—came to this square to attend his Latin rite Mass and receive his blessing. They were joined not only by several hundred from nearby Georgia, where he will visit in late September, but also many from Russia, which he would like to visit one day.
On arrival at the canopied podium, Karekin II welcomed him as “a great friend of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people” and expressed his personal joy at joining him in prayer at this Mass. He informed him that “Gyumri is one of those historical towns of Armenia where centuries-old Armenian Christian values have flourished” and that its inhabitants “are bearers of a beautiful tradition of Christian brotherly coexistence” where all the different denominations have a place. He recalled how this brotherly spirit was evident during the Soviet years of atheism when churches were being destroyed or shut in Armenia, but one remained open this city in which all the different Christian denominations could celebrate their respective liturgies. He recalled too the genocide of 1915 and how the borders with Turkey are still closed. And, he spoke too about how the people of Gyumri responded with courage to the earthquake.
In his homily, which he read in Italian with immediate translation into Armenian, Francis began by recalling the earthquake how they had risen from “the terrible devastation of the earthquake” and “gather today to give thanks to God for all that has been rebuilt.”
In the light of all this, Francis posed a fundamental question: “What is the Lord asking us to build today in our lives, and even more importantly, upon what is he calling us to build our lives?”
He suggested they can “tirelessly build and rebuild” their Christian life on “three stable foundations”: memory, faith and merciful-love.
Referring first to memory, he reminded them that “great things have happened in our personal love story with Jesus, and these must be treasured in our minds and hearts.” But they should also “preserve” their own people’s memory, he said, because there “you can clearly recognize God’s presence. He has not abandoned you. Even in the face of tremendous adversity.” It is good, he told them, “to recall with gratitude how the Christian faith became your people’s life breath and the heart of their historical memory.”
As he spoke, some young people in the square held up high a banner welcoming him to 301—a reference to the year when their country became the first Christian country in the world. That is an essential part of the memory Francis was referring to in his homily.
Next, speaking of faith as the second stable foundation for building their lives, Francis said “it is the hope for your future and a light for life’s journey.” He warned them against the temptation “to reduce it to something from the past, something important but belonging to another age,” because if that happens then “faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all.”
He reminded them that faith “is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives,” and urged them to renew this living encounter with the Lord each day, also by reading the word of God and in silent prayer. He assured them that by doing so they would experience “a joy greater than sadness, a joy that even withstands pain and in turn becomes peace,” and this would renew their lives, make them free and open to surprises.
Lastly, turning to the third foundation on which to build their future—merciful love—Francis reminded them that “concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card; any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful, for it is by our love for one another that everyone will know that we are his disciples.”
As we look to the future he said “we are called above all to build and rebuild paths of communion, tirelessly creating bridges of unity and working to overcome our divisions” and to always set an example, by “cooperating with one another in mutual respect and a spirit of dialogue.”
He concluded by reminding them that “God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor, and by working for a more just society in their homeland."
At the end of Mass, Francis invited Karekin II to join him on the pope mobile, and then together they blessed the faithful as the drove among them in the square to scenes of great joy and enthusiasm.