The Rev. Grigor Mkrtchian is dealing with the biggest logistical challenge of his life, and he could not be happier. The leader of the Roman Catholic community of the Armenian city of Gyumri is involved in preparations for an open-air mass that Pope Francis will celebrate there during his visit to Armenia later this week.
“It will be a great historic event,” the soft-spoken priest said of the planned June 25 liturgy. “But it’s also very natural that the Holy Father has turned his attention to Armenia, the world’s first Christian nation.”
The three-day visit, which starts on June 24, will underscore Armenia’s deepening relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, a process that began shortly after the South Caucasus republic regained its independence in 1991.
Successive governments in Yerevan have encouraged the state-backed Armenian Apostolic Church, to which the overwhelming majority of Armenians belong (at least nominally), to settle its centuries-old differences with the world’s largest Christian denomination. The ecclesiastical thaw seems connected with a broader political strategy to improve ties with the West in order to reduce Armenia’s economic and diplomatic dependence on Russia.
Francis gave a boost to this rapprochement last year when, at a mass to commemorate the centenary of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 massacre of ethnic Armenians, he referred to the tragedy as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pontiff’s remarks angered Turkey, but won Armenian hearts and minds.
A worldwide opinion poll released by WIN/Gallup International in March 2016 put Francis’s approval rating in Armenia at 75 percent of about 1,000 respondents. Many Armenians admire him not only for his comments on the genocide issue, but also his humble demeanor and strong advocacy of social justice. That admiration should be on ample display when Francis and Catholicos Karekin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, hold a joint prayer service at Yerevan’s central Republic Square on June 25.
Garegin II spoke of Armenians’ “appreciative feelings” toward the pontiff on May 19 as he received a group of German Catholic pilgrims at his headquarters in Echmiadzin, a small town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan. The papal visit to Armenia “will contribute to the strengthening of cooperation and friendly relations between the two Churches,” Karekin was quoted by his press office as saying.
Those relations have had a long and, at times, troubled history. The Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox denomination, took shape after King Tiridates III made Armenia the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301. A century and a half later, it split with the church in Rome for theological or, as some historians think, geopolitical reasons.
The Armenian Church has jealously guarded its independence from both Roman Catholicism and other Orthodox denominations ever since. In the 11th century, it came close to a reunion with the Catholic Church after the creation of an Armenian principality in Cilicia, a region situated along modern-day Turkey’s southeastern Mediterranean coast. The new state, which became a kingdom in 1198, was part of a transit route for crusaders during the First Crusade, ushering in a long period of strong Western influence on its affairs.
Some Cilician kings backed the Catholic Church’s efforts to bring the Armenians into its fold. But they failed to convince Armenian Church leaders.
Catholic proselytizing among Armenians continued after the collapse of the Cilician kingdom in the late 14th century. But it was not until 1742 that Pope Benedict XIV formally established an Armenian Catholic Church over the Armenian Apostolic Church’s vehement objections.
Today, the Armenian Catholic Church claims to have some 700,000 adherents. Only a few tens of thousands live in Armenia, a country of just under 3 million people. They are mainly concentrated in the country’s northwestern Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital.
But Armenian Catholics’ influence once was much broader.
In the 18th century, an Armenian Catholic order, the Mekhitarists, turned the island of San Lazzaro, near Venice, into a unique center for Armenian book publishing, scholarship and research.
The Mekhitarists exposed many Armenians to the Age of Enlightenment by printing and disseminating books on Armenia’s language and history, translating works of famed European thinkers, and founding dozens of Armenian schools in Europe, Ottoman Turkey, Russia and Persia.
As a result, they helped to spark an intellectual and cultural revival of a stateless people scattered across the Ottoman and Persian empires – “far beyond and much earlier than they might have done of their own volition,” wrote Rouben Adalian, an Armenian-American historian, in his “Historical Dictionary of Armenia.”
In the late 1930s, all Armenian Catholic priests in Armenia and neighboring Georgia were arrested, jailed or executed. With their church banned by Soviet authorities, many Armenian believers attended Armenian Apostolic churches, instead.
The Apostolic Church’s relations with the Vatican improved significantly following the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1996, Pope John Paull II and Karekin II’s predecessor, Karekin I, issued a joint statement that essentially settled past disputes between their churches. John Paul visited Armenia in 2001, paying tribute to the country’s “glorious history of Christianity.”
Efforts to promote a rapprochement gained new momentum with the start of Francis’s papacy in 2013. As the Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the pope had developed a warm rapport with Argentina’s influential Armenian community.
Both Karekin and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan attended Bergoglio’s papal inauguration and paid separate visits to the Vatican in 2014. The two men were also present at the 2015 Vatican mass on the Armenian genocide centennial. President Sargsyan’s influential son-in-law, Mikael Minasian, is Armenia’s ambassador to the Holy See.
“Extensive relations with the Vatican are very important to us in the spiritual-cultural sense and in terms of Armenia’s international standing,” said Artak Zakarian, chairperson of the Armenian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. The papal visit, he said, will send a powerful message about “Christian solidarity,” prioritized by Armenia.
Local Catholics are particularly enthusiastic about Francis’s trip. “I will get to see the Pope and feel his presence beside me,” said Ani Tsolakian, the coordinator of the Armenian Catholic Youth League, after attending a recent Sunday mass in Gyumri. “That makes me very happy.”
Emil Danielyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.