NEW YORK — The eyes of much of the world were focused on America’s northeast corridor last week, as Pope Francis made his first pontifical visit to the United States. Among the millions of people anticipating his appearances in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, members of the Armenian Church community made special efforts to welcome the Pope with characteristic warmth and affection.
On Friday morning, September 25, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, took part in the papal prayer service at “Ground Zero” — the former site of the World Trade Center, now a place of “pilgrimage” honoring those slain during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. There, the Primate had an occasion to personally greet the Pope on behalf of the Armenian Church of America.
That afternoon, he attended the Pontifical Mass at Madison Square Garden. Archbishop Barsamian was one of only two non-Catholic religious dignitaries (the other was Archbishop Demitrios of the Greek Orthodox Church) who were specially invited by the city’s Roman Catholic hierarchy to be a part of the liturgical service.
Over the course of his ministry, Archbishop Barsamian has had a fruitful friendship with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with his student days at the Vatican’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. Since becoming Primate of the Eastern Diocese, he has worked closely with the successive Archbishops of New York — Cardinals O’Connor, Eagan and Dolan — as well as Catholic leaders of other major American cities.
He has also been instrumental in serving as an intermediary between the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin and the Vatican. Under the pontificates of Vasken I and Karekin I, both of blessed memory, Archbishop Barsamian was an influential force in arranging periodic interactions between the supreme leaders of the Armenian and Catholic churches. His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, has appointed Archbishop Barsamian as Holy Echmiadzin’s representative to the Vatican, in which role Archbishop Barsamian was a key factor in arranging the 2001 visit of Pope John Paul II to Armenia, and in bringing together the Vatican Mass in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide in 2015.
Regarding the latter event, Armenians around the world found their hearts deeply touched on April 12 of this year, when Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In the company of Karekin II, Aram I and other Armenian dignitaries, the exquisite service in the Armenian rite saw the leader of the Roman Catholic Church offering prayers in memory of the Armenian martyrs of 1915, and expressing solidarity with the Armenian people in their historic struggles and continuing aspirations.
Recalling those recent events, Barsamian said: “The impact of Pope Francis’ public remarks has had powerful repercussions. His recognition of the Armenian Genocide, affirming and amplifying the words of his blessed predecessor Pope John Paul II, was a deeply moral act on its own. But it also inspired similar acts of moral courage across the world-opening the door, as it were, to nations and individuals to speak out in recognition of the Genocide. It’s as if these others were waiting to break their silence on the Genocide, and the Pope’s forthright declaration gave them permission or inspiration to do so.”
Expanding on the April service, he added: “For Armenians, seeing the leader of our church, His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Holiness Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia, standing together in mutual solidarity with His Holiness Pope Francis, was extremely moving and unforgettable.”
For the current papal visit to the US, the September 17 edition of “Catholic New York,” the country’s largest-circulation Catholic newspaper, contained a full-page ad from the Eastern Diocese, expressing thanks to Pope Francis for his support of Genocide recognition. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Armenian community of Philadelphia, whose members sponsored a giant billboard on a major highway, as well as an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to welcome the pope to the City of Brotherly Love.