What follows is a reflection by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, on the visit of Pope Francis to Armenia in June 2016.
“I have greatly desired to visit this beloved land, your country: the first to embrace the Christian faith. It is a grace for me to find myself here on these heights where, beneath the gaze of Mount Ararat, the very silence seems to speak. Here the khachkars recount a singular history bound up with rugged faith and immense suffering, a history replete with magnificent testimonies to the Gospel, to which you are heir. I have come as a pilgrim from Rome to be with you and to express my heartfelt affection: the affection of your brother, the fraternal embrace of the whole Catholic Church, which esteems you and is close to you.”
When Pope Francis spoke these words in Yerevan’s Republic Square last month, my heart filled with a spirit of good will and optimism. Here was a man exemplifying genuine piety, humility before God, and down-to-earth humanity. Here was a man held in admiration by the entire world, expressing his personal admiration for the Armenian Christian heritage. Thousands of people came out to be with the Pope and our Catholicos on that day, and we were all blessed to witness something rare and hopeful—something that will have echoes well into the future.
Pope Francis’s visit to Armenia (June 24-26, 2016) was a sequel to last year’s magnificent service in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On that earlier occasion the Pope memorialized the holy martyrs of 1915, and spoke forthrightly about the meaning of martyrdom on the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which he explicitly named “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Authorities and people around the world took notice of the Pope’s words at that time; indeed, his forthright recognition of the Armenian Genocide seemed to liberate others to do likewise — with results that we saw throughout the subsequent year.
The Pope’s presence in Armenia last month also gained wide notice — and we have His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Excellency Serge Sargsyan, President of the Republic of Armenia, to thank for the invitation they personally extended to Pope Francis, and for the excellent arrangements throughout the visit.
The Pope responded with grace and enthusiasm, and in many ways his visit marked a watershed moment in the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches. Let me share some of the images and words that left indelible impressions on me:
- To begin the welcoming service at Holy Echmiadzin, Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin II entered the cathedral together, knelt down side-by-side before the Altar of Descent, and both kissed the holy altar. It set the tone of brotherly, mutual respect among peers that could be seen throughout the visit.
- At the Dzidzernagapert Memorial, spoken words took a back seat to the Pope’s meaningful, lingering silence as he prayerfully meditated before the eternal flame. It was here that he venerated the holy icon of the sainted Genocide Martyrs, planted a tree, and signed the Book of Remembrance with the words: “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.”
- The visit to our homeland’s second largest city, Gumri, was memorable for the way it revealed the Pope’s warmth and humanity, the simplicity of his personality, in his personal contact with the people. I was privileged to travel to Gumri in the company of Catholicos Karekin II and Pope Francis, where the two church leaders were warmly received. In a moving moment during the Latin Mass there, Pope Francis asked Catholicos Karekin to join him in blessing the crowds.
- The Ecumenical Prayer for Peace in Republic Square was an especially moving occasion. The Pope delivered a message of peace to the world. But to the Armenian faithful he delivered a message reminding us of our roots, of who we are, of the great figures in our past and the role they played, not only in the affairs of our people, but in the larger story of Christian civilization. He quoted St. Gregory of Narek — whose Book of Lamentations he called the “spiritual constitution of the Armenian people” — and drew from Narek’s words a challenge to all humanity to seek mercy for all, even for those we regard as enemies. “Do not destroy those who persecute me, but reform them,” he said, quoting Narek; “root out the vile ways of this world, and plant the good in me and them.” He closed with a bold plea to the Armenian people: “The whole world needs this message, it needs your presence, it needs your purest witness. Khaghaghoutiun amenetzoun!”
- The final badarak at the outdoor altar of Holy Echmiadzin drew the largest crowd I have ever witnessed for the Divine Liturgy. This showed the great respect the Armenian people hold for the Pope. Famously, it was on this occasion that Pope Francis dramatically showed his deep respect for our people in turn. During the Voghchouyn (the Kiss of Peace), the Pope and Catholicos embraced, and later Pope Francis spoke directly to his brother in Christ: “We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ. We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.” Calling for peace, unity, and communion among our two churches, Pope Francis prayed that unity must not mean “the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each.”
Even after the beautiful affirmations of the previous days, this message of unity in the universal church without imposing hierarchy, his asking for Catholicos Karekin’s blessing — these were unexpected, profound assertions from the Pope. They had the force of spontaneous outbursts from the deepest part of his heart; and I believe they will be considered genuine breakthroughs in the centuries-old relationship between the Roman Catholic and Armenian churches.
The trip ended at Khor Virab: the site of St. Gregory’s imprisonment, now converted into a shrine overlooking the majestic Mount Ararat. The Catholicos Karekin II and Pope Francis released doves towards Armenia’s western frontier. It was a symbolic message of peace from a man of peace.
Gazing at Ararat, I thought back on the Prayer for Peace two days earlier. A highlight of that service came when columns of children, refugees from various countries, approached a sculpture of Noah’s Ark with soil from their native lands. Together, the Pope and Catholicos planted a tender vine in the soil, watered it, and prayed that it would grow and bear fruit.
Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia had this character. It nourished the seed of spirituality embedded so deeply in our homeland. I witnessed the effect it had on our faithful people, on our clergy, on all who watched the trip in person or at home. It is in our power now to make that seed grow, blossom, and bear fruit. With our Lord’s help and blessing, we will do so.
And we will do so secure in the knowledge that we are not alone in this world; indeed, we enjoy the support and solidarity of others who share our faith, and who draw strength from our story. As Pope Francis said in his words of gratitude to Catholicos Karekin: “You have opened to me the doors of your home, and we have experienced ‘how good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity.’ [Ps 133].”