“It’s a huge deal,” said Fr. Elias Kirejian, Armenian Catholic pastor of St. Gregory the Illuminator parish in Toronto.
In the poor, isolated country wedged in between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Roman pontiff is seen as anything but a threat to the country’s ancient Christian heritage and identity.
“Armenians, they remain faithful to their faith and heritage,” said Kirejian. “Especially to their Christian heritage throughout centuries of persecution.”
Most media attention during the June 24 to 26 visit is expected to fall on the Pope’s visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex and Museum in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. However, at least as significant will be the demonstration of ecumenical progress between Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic Church at the same time as almost all the patriarchs of the Orthodox world are gathered in Crete for the largest council in Orthodox history.
While most of the Eastern Christian world is working out agreements and disagreements on questions of mission, marriage, ecumenism and the autonomy of churches, Pope Francis and Armenian Patriarch and Catholicos His Holiness Karekin II will demonstrate a degree of ecumenical communion between Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic Church that is almost complete.
Twenty-thousand Armenians are expected for an outdoor papal Mass in Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, on June 25. They will be joined by about 3,000 Catholic pilgrims from abroad. Apostolic Armenians are not going to be excluded from the communion line.
Though the Apostolic Armenian Church has always considered itself Oriental Orthodox, unlike other Orthodox churches it never formally broke with Rome. Armenians dissented from the consensus at the Council of Chalcedon and were considered “monophysite” — a belief that Jesus’ human nature was subordinate to His divine nature — but in recent times that has been considered a misunderstanding based on language.
The Armenian Apostolic Church has always maintained its independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople and resisted attempts during the Soviet era to lump it in under the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.
The first Christian kingdom in history, Armenia was declared officially Christian by St. Gregory the Illuminator and King Tiridates III in 301. Armenians believe their church was established by the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus.
In the post-Soviet era, relations between Rome and Armenia have grown warmer. St. John Paul II visited Armenia in 2002. Pope Francis has built upon the last 25 years of ecumenical progress by recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915 last year and then by declaring the mystical poet St. Gregory of Narek a doctor of the universal Church.
Gregory of Narek’s major literary work is a collection of prayers known as the “Book of Lamentations,” but which the saint himself titled an “Encyclopedia of Prayer for All Nations.”
In Toronto the ecumenical closeness between Armenian Catholics and Armenian Apostolic Christians is well established and simply assumed, said Kirejian.
“They are in a fraternal collaboration in all aspects of mission,” said the Catholic pastor.
Toronto Armenians make very little distinction between the two churches. Divine liturgy in an Armenian Catholic church is almost indistinguishable from liturgy in an Armenian Apostolic Church.
“In my church I have lots of Armenian Apostolic Church. They come. They attend the Mass and with the permission of my bishop they receive communion,” Kirejian said.
Kirejian would not preside at Divine Liturgy in an Armenian Apostolic church without specific permission and an invitation. Nor would an Apostolic priest celebrate Mass at the Armenian Catholic church without similar permission. But Kirejian often presides at weddings and performs baptisms for Armenian Apostolic families.
“Any Armenian, be they Catholic or be they Apostolic, feels at home in any Armenian church,” he said.
The Armenian community in Toronto has been drawn even closer together by the arrival of Armenian refugees from Syria.
“They don’t speak English well, so the Canadian Armenians — third or fourth generation — have to speak whatever they know of Armenian. They have to communicate with them in Armenian,” said Zovig Kheir Ayanian, principal of the Armenian Catholic Saturday School run out of St. Gerald Catholic Elementary School.
The school attracts 230 students on weekends from Armenian families who want to pass on their language and culture to the next generation. Recently the school has welcomed 35 new Syrian Armenian students, refugees from Syria’s civil war.
“They are mostly Apostolic, but they like to come to Catholic schools,” said Ayanian.
For Armenians, welcoming refugees is naturally a Church-based effort. The bond between Armenian culture and Christianity is too deep for it to be otherwise, said Karejian.
“I don’t know how to describe this — this tremendous bonding between our heritage and our faith. The Christian faith and the Armenian heritage, they are inseparable. Any Armenian, regardless of his denomination feels at home in churches, in the schools, in communities,” he said.