Pope Francis’ visit another step toward Christian unity?


Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia is widely viewed as a chance to promote unity. It builds on decades of productive ecumenical dialogue since the Second Vatican Council between Rome and the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of the Oriental family of Orthodox churches. Catholicos Vasken I, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visited Blessed Paul VI at the Vatican in May 1970. Paul VI gave Vasken a relic of St. Bartholomew, one of the founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The relationship has strengthened over the last 20 years. Catholicos Karekin I was a friend of St. John Paul II’s whom he visited twice. In December 1996 St. John Paul II and Karekin signed a joint declaration on Christology, recognizing that the Armenian Apostolic Church’s Christological doctrine does not imply any confusion about Jesus Christ’s two natures in a single person – the belief held by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox.

On the recent visit Karekin II welcomed Francis as “a great friend of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people” and expressed his personal joy at joining the Pope in prayer. He said that “Gyumri is one of those historical towns of Armenia where centuries-old Armenian Christian values have flourished” and that its inhabitants “are bearers of a beautiful tradition of Christian brotherly coexistence” where all the different denominations have a place. This brotherly spirit was particularly evident during the atheist  Soviet years when Armenian churches were destroyed or closed down. Karekin recalled that only one church remained open in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, which was used by  all the different Christian denominations to celebrate their respective liturgies.

On the final day of Pope Francis’ three day visit to Armenia, he issued a joint declaration with Catholicos Karekin II which expressed thanksgiving to God for the ongoing and “growing closeness in faith and love between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church in their common witness to the Gospel message of salvation in a world torn by strife and yearning for comfort and hope.”

The joint declaration addressed issues such as persecution and discrimination, and acknowledged the positive steps toward unity between the two Churches. It recalled the various steps taken towards unity, including St. John Paul II’s 2001 visit to mark the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia, as well as the solemn liturgy in April, 2015, commemorating the 1915 Armenian genocide.

The declaration acknowledged the successful “new phase” in relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church, “strengthened by our mutual prayers and joint efforts in overcoming contemporary challenges.”

“Today we are convinced of the crucial importance of furthering this relationship, engaging in deeper and more decisive collaboration not only in the area of theology, but also in prayer and active cooperation on the level of the local communities, with a view to sharing full communion and concrete expressions of unity.”

“The path of reconciliation and brotherhood lies open before us. May the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth, sustain every genuine effort to build bridges of love and communion between us.”

“We praise the Lord that today, the Christian faith is again a vibrant reality in Armenia, and that the Armenian Church carries on her mission with a spirit of fraternal collaboration between the Churches, sustaining the faithful in building a world of solidarity, justice and peace.”

Archbishop Raphael Minassian, the Armenian Ordinary of Eastern Europe who based in Gyumri, commented “Now there is more friendship, more collaboration, a more open dialogue, and I am very optimistic about the future, from this point of view.”   Minassian belongs to the Armenian Catholic Church – an Eastern Catholic Church that came into communion with the Bishop of Rome in 1742.

He maintains that the separation between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church is largely due to human factors, not theological ones. On theological matters, there is “no difference in sacraments, nor in theology, nor in the profession of faith.”

Minassian emphasised that renewed ecumenism with the Armenian Apostolic Church will need God’s help. He thinks that there has been no rapprochement between the two Churches because unity is wrongly viewed as “the submission of the one to the other.” “In fact, unity is rather a path toward a mutual aim, Christ,” he said. “Unfortunately, this separation is mostly given by a sort of immaturity.”

ACN Malta