Catholicos of All Armenians and Pope of the Roman Catholic Church Visit Gyumri

Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin – 26/6/16

On June 25, after visiting the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial Complex in Yerevan, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians; and Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church; flew to Gyumri.

At the Shirak Airport, the Catholicos of All Armenians and Pope Francis were welcomed by His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan, Primate of the Diocese of Shirak; His Eminence Archbishop Rafael Minasyan, Primate of the Armenian Catholic Church in Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Eastern Europe; Mr. Hovsep Simonyan, Governor of Shirak and Mr. Samvel Balasanyan, Mayor of Gyumri.

His Holiness was accompanied by a representative of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia; His Eminence Archbishop Shahan Sarkisyan, Primate of the Diocese of Beroea; and His Eminence Archbishop Khajak Parsamyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America; His Grace Bishop Arshak Khachatryan, Chancellor of Mother See; His Grace Bishop Anushavan Jamkochyan, Spiritual Dean of the St. Gregory the Illuminator Mother Church and Dean of the Faculty of Theology of the YSU; Rev. Fr. Makar Hakobyan, Vicar of the Diocese of Syunik; Rev. Fr. Anania Tsaturyan, Abbot of the St. Gayane Monastery; and Rev. Fr. Aghan Yernjakyan, Staff Bearer of His Holiness.

Following their official welcoming to Gyumri, His Holiness and Pope Francis traveled to the St. Vartanants central square in Gyumri, where the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church offered a Divine Liturgy.

Before offering the Divine Liturgy, the Catholicos of All Armenians made remarks. His message read:

(Gyumri, June 25, 2016)

“I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.”
John 13:34

Your Holiness,
Beloved spiritual brothers and faithful children,

Today, as our Church is commemorating the Feast of the Holy Apostles of the Lord, this message directed by our Lord to His disciples, is so ever sweetly and powerfully resounding in our souls. With this God-given warm feeling of love in the name of all the faithful of the region we welcome you to the city of Gyumri, beloved brother in Christ. It brings us great joy to be joining you in prayer, a great friend of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people, in a Mass celebrated by you.

Gyumri is one of those historical towns of Armenia where centuries-old Armenian Christian values have flourished, where the history and culture of our people and the spirit of generosity have harmoniously been shaped. The people of Gyumri are distinguished for their particularly profound faith and love towards the Church. They are also bearers of a beautiful tradition of Christian brotherly coexistence, which is witnessed by the prayerful presence of the faithful of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches, as well as of other Christian denominations. During the Soviet years of atheism churches were being destroyed or shut in Armenia, and only through the zealous resistance of our people, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and a few other churches were still open. During that time, Gyumri’s church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) opened its maternal bosom and became a haven and a place of prayer for all the Christians of the Northern districts of Armenia and of the ethnically Armenian towns and villages of Georgia, regardless of their national identity or what denomination they belonged to, may they be Armenian Apostolic, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The Northern apse of Yotverk church was turned into a place of prayer for the Catholic faithful where the crucifixion statue in the Catholic tradition, brought from the Catholic Church of Arevik village, was erected and is maintained to this day. While the Southern apse was provided to the Russian Orthodox where in a most honorable place, the Russian icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker was placed. Thus, Gyumri and the church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) became a tangible provider and preacher for ecumenism, years before the modern definition of ecumenism was established.

Beloved brother in Christ, the city which we are visiting today, on its warm and hospitable heart, also carries the seal of anguish. At the dawn of the twentieth century, when our people were subjected to genocide, Gyumri as well felt the heavy blows of the Ottoman Empire’s devastating and invasive politics. Today as well Gyumri faces closed borders as a witness to the genocide committed one hundred years ago and to the continuous denialist policies.

The pious people in Gyumri stood against the disaster of the earthquake through faith and brave heart. On this occasion we extend our words of appreciation to the Catholic Church, who also in those difficult days gave a helping hand of brotherly love to the victims of the earthquake, according to the words of the apostle, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:23-24). Today as well our Children in Gyumri continue to overcome the difficulties and make dedicated efforts to transform Gyumri into a prosperous and thriving city. The testimonies to this are the Catholic Church, built in the recent years, and the two restored historic churches, gracefully overlooking this square as symbols of the revival of Gyumri.

Giving thanks to the Lord for this blessed day of unity of prayer in Gyumri, together with our beloved brother Pope Francis, we bring to you, dear faithful, our plea and wish so that through the firm steps of faith, brotherly love, and hope, you may witness in this world to the following commandment of Christ, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

With this wish we also greet and extend our appreciation and blessings to government officials of Gyumri and the region, and to our faithful people of Shirak. We bring our appreciation and blessings to the Primate of the Diocese of Shirak, His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan, and his co-serving clergy, as well as to the clergy of the Catholic community under the leadership of His Eminence, Archbishop Rafael Minassian. We wish them, with the support of the Lord, to successfully continue the pastoral care of their flock and the partnership in brotherly love.

We extend our prayer to Almighty God with the intercession of the Holy Apostles and all the witnesses of the Lord, for peace in the world, a prosperous and secure life for humanity and for the vibrancy of the holy Church of Christ.

Your Holiness, our dear brother in Christ, your visit to Gyumri is a spiritual renewal for the faithful of the region of Shirak, and it shall always be remembered with warmth and love.

Again with a joyous heart we reaffirm that your visit is a new testimony to the fraternal relationship between our churches.

May God keep steadfast the brotherhood and make fruitful the cooperation between our churches. Forever and ever. Amen.

Then, Pope Francis preached about the mystery of the day.

“They shall build up the ancient ruins… they shall repair the ruined cities”
(Isaiah 61:4)

In this place, dear brothers and sisters, we can say that the words of the Prophet Isaiah have come to pass.  After the terrible devastation of the earthquake, we gather today to give thanks to God for all that has been rebuilt.

Yet we might also wonder: what is the Lord asking us to build today in our lives, and even more importantly, upon what is he calling us to build our lives?  In seeking an answer to this question, I would like to suggest three stable foundations upon which we can tirelessly build and rebuild the Christian life.

The first foundation is memory.  One grace we can implore is that of being able to remember: to recall what the Lord has done in and for us, and to remind ourselves that, as today’s Gospel says, he has not forgotten us but “remembered” us (Luke 1:72).  God has chosen us, loved us, called us and forgiven us.  Great things have happened in our personal love story with him, and these must be treasured in our minds and hearts.  Yet there is another memory we need to preserve: it is the memory of a people.  Peoples, like individuals, have a memory.  Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious.  Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history.

As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence.  He has not abandoned you.  Even in the face of tremendous adversity, we can say in the words of today’s Gospel that the Lord has visited your people (cf. Luke 1:68).  He has remembered your faithfulness to the Gospel, the first-fruits of your faith, and all those who testified, even at the price of their blood, that God’s love is more precious than life itself (cf. Psalms 63:4).  It is good to recall with gratitude how the Christian faith became your people’s life breath and the heart of their historical memory.

Faith is also hope for your future and a light for life’s journey.  Faith is the second foundation I would like to mention.  There is always a danger that can dim the light of faith, and that is the temptation to reduce it to something from the past, something important but belonging to another age, as if the faith were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum.  Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all.  Faith, however, is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives.  We would do well to renew this living encounter with the Lord each day.  We would do well to read the word of God and in silent prayer to open our hearts to his love.  We would do well to let our encounter with the Lord’s tenderness rekindle joy in our hearts: a joy greater than sadness, a joy that even withstands pain and in turn becomes peace.  All of this renews our life, makes us free and open to surprises, ready and available for the Lord and for others.

It can happen too that Jesus calls us to follow him more closely, to give our lives to him and to our brothers and sisters.  When he calls – and I say this especially to you young people – do not be afraid; tell him “Yes!”  He knows us, he really loves us, and he wants to free our hearts from the burden of fear and pride.  By making room for him, we become capable of radiating his love.  Thus you will be able to carry on your great history of evangelization.  This is something the Church and the world need in these troubled times, which are also a time of mercy.

The third foundation, after memory and faith, is merciful love: on this rock, the rock of the love we receive from God and offer to our neighbor, the life of a disciple of Jesus is based.  In the exercise of charity, the Church’s face is rejuvenated and made beautiful.  Concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card; any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful, for it is by our love for one another that everyone will know that we are his disciples (cf. John 13:35).  We are called above all to build and rebuild paths of communion, tirelessly creating bridges of unity and working to overcome our divisions.  May believers always set an example, cooperating with one another in mutual respect and a spirit of dialogue, knowing that “the only rivalry possible among the Lord’s disciples is to see who can offer the greater love!” (JOHN PAUL II, Homily, 27 September 2001: Insegnamenti XXIV/2 [2001], 478).

In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that the Spirit of the Lord is always with those who carry glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted and console the afflicted (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).  God dwells in the hearts of those who love him.  God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor.  How much we need this!  We need Christians who do not allow themselves to be overcome by weariness or discouraged by adversity, but instead are available, open and ready to serve.  We need men and women of good will, who help their brothers and sisters in need, with actions and not merely words.  We need societies of greater justice, where each individual can lead a dignified life and, above all, be fairly remunerated for his or her work.

All the same, we might ask ourselves: how can we become merciful, with all the faults and failings that we see within ourselves and all about us?  I would like to appeal to one concrete example, a great herald of divine mercy, one to whom I wished to draw greater attention by making him a Doctor of the Universal Church: Saint Gregory of Narek, word and voice of Armenia.  It is hard to find his equal in the ability to plumb the depths of misery lodged in the human heart.  Yet he always balanced human weakness with God’s mercy, lifting up a heartfelt and tearful prayer of trust in the Lord who is “giver of gifts, root of goodness… voice of consolation, news of comfort, joyful impulse… unparalleled compassion, inexhaustible mercy… the kiss of salvation” (Book of Lamentations, 3, 1).  He was certain that “the light of God’s mercy is never clouded by the shadow of indignation” (ibid., 16, 1).  Gregory of Narek is a master of life, for he teaches us that the most important thing is to recognize that we are in need of mercy.  Despite our own failings and the injuries done to us, we must not become self-centered but open our hearts in sincerity and trust to the Lord, to “the God who is ever near, loving and good” [ibid., 17, 2), “filled with love for mankind … a fire consuming the chaff of sin (ibid., 16, 2).

In the words of Saint Gregory, I would like now to invoke God’s mercy and his gift of unfailing love: Holy Spirit, “powerful protector, intercessor and peace-maker, we lift up our prayers to you…  Grant us the grace to support one another in charity and good works…  Spirit of sweetness, compassion, loving kindness and mercy…  You who are mercy itself… Have mercy on us, Lord our God, in accordance with your great mercy” (Hymn of Pentecost)”.

During the Divine Liturgy, the two Pontiffs greeted each other then conveyed their blessings and greetings to the audience.

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, His Eminence Archbishop Rafael Minasyan, Primate of the Armenian Catholic Church in Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Eastern Europe delivered a message of gratitude.

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, His Holiness and Pope Francis walked through the square with the Popemobile conveying their blessings attendees.

At the conclusion of the service, Pope Francis left for the Armenian Sisters Of Immaculate Conception Congregation.

On the same day Pope Francis visited the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) Church of the Diocese of Shirak, where he was met by the Catholicos of All Armenians, along with His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan, Primate of the Diocese of Shirak and clergy from the Dioceses of Shirak, Artik, Gougark and Aragatsotn. Led by the procession and under the ringing of the bells, the Patriarchs entered the Church, where under the “Urakh Ler” hymn they approached the chancel. In front of the icon of the Seven Wounds of Holy Mother of God at the Main Altar of the Church, His Holiness and Pope Francis extended their private prayer, after which Pope Francis blessed the people.

Bishop Mikael welcomed the two Pontiffs and stated in part: “With boundless joy and great pleasure we welcome you to the magnificent Mother Cathedral of the Historical city of Gyumri, which has the name of our Holy Mother of God, but is better known as the Yotverk (Seven Wounds) Church due to the miraculous icon which is stored here. The Icon is older than the Church, which sharing the fate of the Armenian people, after centuries of wanderings finally settled here. This magnificent church was originally built for the protection of this icon in the nineteenth century and during the last one hundred and thirty years, has seen and overcome seventy years of militant atheism, two Turkish invasions and two devastating earthquakes. However, despite its hardest trials, through the intercession of the Mother of God and heroism of our people, during those years this Mother Church was and remained a sacred place of prayer for Christians all around the city and even non-Christians. Today also, our Mother Cathedral has opened her maternal embrace to all denominations in the city and continues to be the guarantee and pledge of practical union and love”. On the occasion of the visit, on behalf of the faithful of the Diocese, Bishop Michael gifted a replicate of the icon of the Seven Wounds of Holy Mother of God to His Holiness and Pope Francis, after which the two Patriarchs walked towards the Crucifixion altar inside the church and offered a Prayer Service in front of the Holy Cross.

In front of the entrance of the church, the Pontiffs also conveyed their blessings to the disabled children.

His Holiness and Pope Francis also visited the Armenian Catholic Holy Martyrs Church in Gyumri. They were met by His Eminence Archbishop Rafael Minasyan, clergy and representatives of the Armenian Catholic community at the entrance of the Church.

Following the private prayers of the two Pontiffs, the Catholicos of All Armenian blessed the representatives of the Armenian Catholic community and disabled children through the “Guard Us” prayer.

Leaving the Holy Martyrs Church, His Holiness and Pope Francis left Gyumri and returned to Yerevan.