Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Much has been made of the official Turkish reaction to statements made by Pope Francis during his visit to Armenia June 24-26. That hysterical response was as predictable as it was tasteless. One might take due note, but then move on.
The central thrust of the Pope’s visit was not his recognition of the genocide per se but his guidance on the course to follow to overcome the enduring adversary relationship between Armenians and Turkey, and beyond. His appeal to Armenia’s church and political leaders, as well as its people — especially the younger generation — was to mobilize those same spiritual and psychological resources which have made Armenian survival possible to intervene in the cause of peace and justice, not only there but throughout the world.
Although he is a head of state, it was with his moral authority as a spiritual leader that Pope Francis addressed issues of political import, which constituted a certain challenge to the Armenian people, whether in the Republic of Armenia or the Diaspora. In a video message sent on June 22 to the people of Armenia, and reported on the Vatican radio website, the Pontiff outlined the main themes of his mission. He would make this “visit to the first Christian country,” he said, as a pilgrim, who would “draw on the ancient wisdom of your people and to steep myself in the sources of your faith.” He appealed for perseverance, not to give up “even in the face of the repeated assaults of evil,” and pledged his support for efforts towards peace and reconciliation. In parallel he would seek to fuel the process towards unity of all Christians.
Peace, Reconciliation and Unity
In his entry in the guest book at the Tsitsernakaberd genocide memorial, Pope Francis wrote: “Here I pray with sorrow in my heart, so that a tragedy like this never again occurs, so that humanity will never forget and will know how to defeat evil with good…. May God protect the memory of the Armenian people. Memory should never be watered down or forgotten: memory is the source of peace and the future.”
Throughout his visit he developed the deeper implications of this message. The sufferings of the genocide should never be forgotten. “Not to forget them, he said in Yerevan, “is not only a right, it is a duty,” to warn against recurrence of such horrors. At the same time, he recalled “with admiration” how Armenians had survived through the power of their faith, which is their “true strength.” The Pope compared the “wounds still open, caused by fierce and senseless hatred” to the wounds of the risen Christ, shown to the disciples on Easter. “Those terrible, painful wounds suffered on the cross, transfigured by love,” he said, “have become a wellspring of forgiveness and peace.” That means, “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.”
How memory of such suffering, infused by love, can become the impetus for peace is a difficult concept, and not only intellectually. It requires a fundamental shift, emotionally and psychologically, in the mind of the persecuted. It means resisting “being caught up in the illusory power of vengeance,” a point Pope Francis was to reiterate. Appealing explicitly to Armenian youth, he said they should “strive to be peacemakers” and build a “culture of encounter and reconciliation.” Saint Gregory of Narek, whom Francis proclaimed a Doctor of the Church last year, he dubbed here as a “Doctor of Peace” and quoted a bold passage from his Book of Lamentations: “Remember [Lord,] those of the human race who are our enemies as well, and for their benefit accord them pardon and mercy.… Do not destroy those who persecute me, but reform them; root out the vile ways of this world, and plant the good in me and in them.” Again, with reference to Gregory, Francis said that this “master of life,” taught that we all are in need of mercy; despite failings and injuries, “we must not become self-centered….”
Defeat evil through the power of good — this is the concept that reverberated through the Pope’s several homilies and speeches. In the struggle for unity of Armenians, and the broader unity of all Christians, Pope Francis again reached back into Armenian church history for examples, and again stressed the need to combat negative personal inclinations. The saintly Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali, he said, who was “Tireless in seeking unity, […] sought to achieve Christ’s will that those who believe ‘may all be one.’ Unity,” he went on, “does not have to do with strategic advantages sought out of mutual self-interest…” Francis added that we must “abandon rigid opinions and personal interests” in the name of love, love which is also “capable of softening the hardness of the heart of Christians, for they too are often concerned only with themselves and their own advantage.”
That this Pope has the authority to speak his mind on such matters is irrefutable; he has not only paved the way in the international diplomatic arena for political and institutional recognition of the genocide, he has also called members of his own Curia onto the carpet for their personal failings. If the Pontiff was generous in his appreciation of the strength of the Armenian Church and its people through centuries of tribulations, as well as the beauty of its intellectual and artistic accomplishments, he was no less forceful in his appeal for willful change in a certain mindset which may thwart the search for peace. He laid down the gauntlet to all of us Armenians, whether in the Republic or abroad. History has provided enough tragic examples that peace treaties may be worth less than the paper they are written on. Unless there is a fundamental revolution in thinking, a deliberate emotional and psychological change in the minds and hearts of those seeking to overcome conflicts — and on all sides — the paper remains nothing more than paper. Not to mention unity — whether of the Armenians or of the churches.
In following the reports of Pope’s visit, I was reminded of a couple of singular encounters with fellow Armenians in recent years. The young taxi driver in Glendale, who had been in the US only a few years, told me with grim joy and fierce pride about how he had “shot and killed four Turks” in the war. Or the woman who came up to me after a book presentation in Boston and asked me if I knew any Turks in Germany, and if yes, whether or not I would shake hands with them.
(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is the author of “Through the Wall of Fire: Armenia – Iraq – Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation.” She can be reached at email@example.com)