On Sunday 12 April 2015 Pope Francis celebrated at the Basilica of St Peter in Rome a High Mass for the Armenian “Martyr” centenary and proclaimed St Gregory of Narek “Doctor of the Church”. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was present during the festivities through Mgr Marcuzzo, Patriarchal Vicar.
Celebration and participants
Took part in the celebration Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, Patriarch of Cilicy of the Armenian Catholics, together with 12 bishops and 30 Armenian priests, among whom Mgr George Dankaye, Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem, Rector of the Armenian Catholic College of Rome and coordinator of this event of 12 April. Also took part 7 Cardinals, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Yunan, three bishops of Latin rite, of whom Mgr Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, representing officially the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Patriarch Fouad Twal, unable to attend because of Easter celebrations in Jordan, wanted by all means that the Latin Patriarchate be represented, because of the historical importance of the event and also because of the excellent relations between Latin Patriarchate and Armenians.
Were present H.H. Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians with 10 Apostolic Bishops and H.H. Aram I, Catholicos of the Major House of Cilicy (residing in Antelias, Lebanon) with 6 Apostolic bishops.
The Basilica of St Peter welcomed, for the occasion, thousands of Catholic & Apostolic Armenians coming from all over the world, for Armenians are, precisely because of the events of 1915-17, indeed a world diaspora: they would be 11 million in the world, of whom 3 ½ million in Armenia, 1 ½ million in USA, 1 million in the Middle East, ½ million in France. Those who attended the celebration came mostly from Armenia, but many also from the Middle East (from Lebanon namely), Europe and the Americas. The President of the Armenian Republic, Serz Sargsyan, was present with an official delegation.
The ritual was carried out by students of the “Catholic Armenian College” of Rome and by those of the “Mekhitarist College of St Lazarus of Venesia”. Singing was performed by the “Armenian Catholic Choir of Armenia and by the Armenian Catholic Choir of Lebanon. Traditionally Armenians are known for their love of arts, especially music and singing. They stood up wonderfully to their reputation, the choirs earning the admiration of all present at the Basilica.
The celebration had scheduled different distinct and complementary times: the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the Pope, the proclamation of new Doctor of the Church, the Holy Mass of the Divine Mercy, the commemoration of the centenary by the three Armenian Patriarchs.
Commemoration of the “genocide” by Pope Francis
At the beginning of the Mass Pope addressed, with a heart pierced with pain but filled with hope”, a very touching speech, a memorable and historical one, commemorating “what is generally considered as the first genocide of the XXth century”. The official title, as mentioned in the prayer booklet, referred to Armenian “martyrdom”, but the Pope had the courage to use officially the word “genocide”
An expression which is not considered “politically correct” by Turkey, even of today, but all have recognized the Pope’s courage to have removed the veil of complicity of silence and indifference, and the “parresia”(franchise) – a very Paulinian term but very dear to Pope Francis – “to have called the event by their real name”. This bold attitude of the Pope has deeply moved the Armenians especially those present at St Peter, of whom many had their grandparents massacred. Among them we can mention Mgr Raphael Minassian, former Armenian Catholic Vicar in Jerusalem, who had never known his grandparents and whose father was rescued by the Salesians.
The Pope included in his commemoration other massacred Christians: the Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and the Greeks. He linked this genocide with other “great striking disasters of the 20th century”, like Stalinism, Nazism, exterminations in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi and in Bosnia. He linked the massacres recorded in the “third world war by bits and pieces which we now witness every day and where we hear the choked and neglected screaming of many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, because of their faith in Christ, are publicly and brutally killed, beheaded, crucified, burnt alive, or obliged to leave their land” .
Proclamation of St Gregory of Narek “Doctor of the Church’
At the beginning of the Mass, there was the ritual of proclamation of St Gregory of Narek as “Doctor of the Universal Church”. Mgr Levon Zekian, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Turkey and postulator, standing before a big icon of St Gregory, introduced the life, the personality, the sainthood and the works of this Saint-monk of the second half of the 10thcentury, to which the Armenian tradition attributes many attractive titles: this great mystical, theologian, master of prayer, poet, universal light is considered as the “wise of Armenians”.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, after having introduced the unanimous and positive result of a long and thorough consultation, asked officially the Pope to proceed to proclamation. The Pope, very solemnly and in Latin, proclaimed “St Gregory of Narek, priest and monk, Doctor of the Universal Church”. A thanksgiving singing went forth from choirs and hearts of faithful, accompanied by resounding clapping of joy and gratitude.
St Gregory of Narek has thus become the 36th Doctor of the Universal Church, the 9th among the Easterns, the first among the Armenians.
The Mass of “Divine Mercy Sunday”
The celebration took place normally, focused round Easter Sunday in alibis, and Sunday of Mercy, founded by St John Paul II. It was a virtue of mercy sent forth by the Bull of Indiction of the Holy Year of Mercy “Misericordiae vultus”, which the Pope had signed and launched a day before. This extraordinary jubilee will be opened on 8th December and will end on 20thNovember 2016, on Christ the King feast day.
In his homily, referring to the wounds which the Lord showed to Thomas to heal his disbelief, Pope Francis referred to “wounds of mercy of the Lord which enable us to enter into the merciful mystery of love. Through them, like through a luminous breach, we can witness the whole mystery of Christ”. The Pope made a clear allusion to “tragic events of human history and the looks turned towards the wounds of Christ we can sing “eternal is his mercy”. With his words printed in the heart, let us walk along the roads of history, hand in hand with the Lord and Saviour, our life and our hope”.
Mass ended by a gesture which affected all participants: the Pope invited all three Armenians Patriarchs to come up to the altar, exchanging a kiss of peace and together they gave the final blessing.
Commemoration and prayer of Armenian Patriarchs
At the end of the Mass, Armenian Catholic Patriarch and the two Apostolic Armenian Patriarchs recited a prayer for the “martyrs” and said a word of formal commemoration. They all confirmed the position of the Pope reminding how “Metz Yeghern” (the big mischief) was a real genocide, 1 ½ million Christians annihilated being considered as martyrs, saying that we should claim from leading figures to recognize the historical reality, so that this lesson could put an end to atrocities against humanity.
They were all grateful for all what the Catholic church in general, and the Pope in particular, had done to try to save the Armenian people during the 20th century, for the high valued contribution which the Archives of the Vatican had brought in order to spreading the historical fact. The three Patriarchs wanted to refer to the “Joint Declaration” signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Karekin II in 2001 on the good inter-church bilateral relationship and on the common position relating to the “first genocide of the 20th century” which had affected the first Christian nation.
All have deeply rejoiced and thanked the Pope and the Holy See for the commendable initiative to proclaim Gregory of Narek Doctor of the Universal Church. Copy of Aram II letter was printed officially in Italian and in English as a booklet and distributed to all participants. After his intervention and prayer, Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX offered to Pope Francis a painting of the Blessed Ignace Maloyan, bishop of Mardin, killed during the genocide of 1915 and beatified martyr in 2001. He presented him to the Pope as the most significant symbol of all martyrs and witnesses of Armenian genocide.
A final official message-letter of the Pope and feelings of participants
At the end of the Mass at La Pieta Chapel, the Pope welcomed and greeted the Patriarchs and their followers, the official delegations and handed them an official message. This message contained, after the expression of gratitude for their participation, an impressive synthesis of the history of the “first Christian nation” (proclaimed as such in 301), of its glorious and tragic moments. He said a solid support to the aspirations of Armenians and in particular a pledge of spiritual proximity to canonization ceremony of martyrs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which will take place on 23 April at Etchmiadzin, and to the commemorations which will take place at Antelias (Lebanon) in July. The message urged all Armenians, in a framework of Christian fellowship and encouraged by “ecumenism of blood” to fix their eyes towards future, “towards a road of reconciliation between the Armenian and Turkish peoples towards an opening of the heart to forgiveness, source of peace and renewed hope”.
The participants walked out of the Basilica towards the Square to attend Sunday Salve Regina of the Pope, with the feeling that they have attended a historical moment, a special and memorable one, for having witnessed a step forward towards ecumenism, done a gesture of protest against atrocities of the past and a claim of human rights, and launched an appeal for more justice and peace in the Middle East and in the world.