By Vito Nicastro
On April 23, in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, an historic event took place. There have been ecumenical services commemorating the Armenian Genocide before and that is good; this one was unique in the way we brought the message of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the Armenian people to life on the local level here in Boston. It was also a welcoming, an opening of our church, our house, to our Armenian brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the service, we acknowledged the vast and fruitful spiritual life of the Armenian people, first nation to become Christian in 301 A.D: over seventeen centuries of faithful witness; fidelity in the face of every sort of invasion and persecution; your saints, martyrs, monks, nuns, clergy, faithful, churches, monasteries, liturgy, hymnody, traditions, devotions, arts, and spirituality; St. Gregory the Illuminator, key to converting a nation; the alphabet invented by St. Mesrob to disseminate the Good News; the Church’s corporal works of mercy set up by St. Nerses the Great; St Gregory of Narek, newest doctor of the Church; their history and influence on other countries throughout the world; an entire civilization that has grown up in the light of the Gospel. We revered their beautiful Christian heritage, adorned by God with spiritual treasures for all the Christian world: “a treasury from which” we in the Western Church have “drawn extensively- in liturgical practice, spiritual tradition, and law (Unitatis Redintigratio, 14).” Their tradition is given to enrich us all, and the light which St. Gregory the Illuminator sparked- the light of Christ- is the same light we all gather around. We all desire to gather closer to Him, as we gathered around the Easter Candle which symbolized the Light of Christ.
Another part of our desire to complete the real though imperfect unity we share already is that Christ in us recognizes Christ in our Armenian Christian brothers and sisters. Light calls to light. Christian unity is a mandate based upon the nature of that light, the nature of God, as ontologically One. This is why when Pope St. John Paul II wanted to celebrate the Eucharist for the Catholics in Armenia His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II invited him “with a brother’s love” to do it on the altar of Holy Echmiadzin (Sept. 27, 2001). This is why the Holy Father Pope Francis plans to visit Armenia this June.
The service had the theme, “Remembrance, Witness, Resurrection.”
Last year Pope Francis called the Genocide a true martyrdom of the Armenian people. “Take up your cross,” said the Lord, and witness to the love of God from which nothing can separate us. And the Armenian people has given that witness. This was what Pope St. John Paul called “genocide (Common Declaration, September 27, 2001),” and what our Holy Father Pope Francis called “genocide (April 11, 2015, quoting Pope St. John Paul II’s statement).” It was the event which inspired international lawyer Raphael Lemkin to define the crime for which he created the word “genocide.” This is the event that Hitler thought gave him permission to get away with genocide, when he said “Who speaks today …of the Armenians? (August 22, 1939)” The answer is, “We do.” Pope Francis, the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Boston, and so many around the world who care about justice and the dignity of every human person: We speak today of the Armenians. We welcome all who care about human rights and the value of each person, each life. We stand together against all those who would act with impunity against a people or against one precious human life, and we speak today of the Armenians.
This day also stands for our commitment to all martyrs, confessors, prisoners of conscience, all who are persecuted, past or present. Sadly, these are not realities only from the past. There were some with us in the Cathedral who personally know it. Armenian Catholic Msgr. Atamian’s cathedral was blown up while he was saying Mass in it. It has been three years since Bishops Mar Gregorios and Boulos were abducted, and we pray for their release.
Pope Francis has said we are in the age of ecumenism of blood. Christians of all denominations are suffering for the faith. The theological differences between us are tiny compared to the differences between us and the cultures we live in. This is another reason our progress toward the unity Christ wills for all His followers must continue.
And it does continue. Even right now, our churches are continuing the dialogue and the relationship to ultimately restore full communion. But in the meantime, we have a foretaste in the case of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. They are already fully united- Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox- because all the Christians of whatever church who die for the faith live right now with God in Heaven together. Armenian Catholic Archbishop Blessed Ignatius Maloyan was killed in the genocide. Under torture he was told to renounce the faith and responded, “I’ve told you I shall live and die for the sake of my faith and my religion. I take pride in the cross of my Lord and God.” His infuriated captors shot him on the spot (Golgotha of the Armenian Catholic Church, p.18.). In 2001 the Catholic Church beatified him. Armenian Apostolic priest Father Khoren Hambartzoumian of Bourhan died in 1915 because, under unthinkable torture, he refused to blaspheme (The Window, Vol. 1, N. 3). Exactly one year ago at Holy Echmiadzin the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized him. It is my hope that from this day on our children, Apostolic and Catholic, may know these heroes of the faith and know they share a full communion which is intended for all of us. May we and our children feel already connected through these two and all the other martyrs of 1915. We pray for completion of that unity, so we may bring the Gospel more unanimously to the world which needs to hear it. “Discord among Christians is the greatest obstacle to evangelization,” said the Holy Father (April 27, 2014). Jesus prayed we might be one, “so the world may believe.”
The martyred witnesses of the Armenian Genocide are crowned right now in Heaven. And the Armenian civilization has arisen, resurrected because, as His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian has said, “the cross is the light by which we understand suffering.” The presence of over a thousand believers in the Cathedral on April 23 was a sign that the genocide ultimately failed, that persecutions fail. There are ten million Armenians in the world today, three times what there were before the genocide. There are over 1 billion Christians in the world despite persecutions. Furthermore, every single one of us must carry on the song of the martyrs, speak the message they testified to, and multiply their “cloud of witnesses.” For their suffering, the least can do for them is to pass on what was most important to them, what they counted more valuable than their lives: the Good News of God’s Love and Sovereignty. Today we hold up their witness because it glorifies God. We hold up their message and multiply it to the Glory of God. Remembrance, Witness, Resurrection. We take up the sufferings of our brothers and sisters persecuted around the world because we are all taking up the cross together to follow Jesus and testify to the message that there is something stronger than the violence of humanity: the Love of God.
(Vito Nicastro, M.Div., Ph.D, is Associate Director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.)