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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

An Anniversary Like No Other

This year, Armenia celebrates 1,700 years as a Christian nation. Catholicos Karekin II reflects on this historic event.

Squeezed between Turkey and Iran, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, and surrounded by mountains, the country of Armenia holds a significant place in Christendom. Historical Armenia (much of which lies in modern Turkey and Iran) is home to Mount Ararat, the extinct volcano where Armenians believe Noah’s Ark landed, where humanity regenerated after the Deluge. Armenia was also the first nation-state to embrace Christianity.

This year, the entire nation of Armenia will celebrate the day when in 301, Gregory, known as the Illuminator, baptized the Armenian king, Tiridate III, who then officially adopted Christianity as the faith of the nation. This faith has withstood centuries of persecution and suppression, bolstering the identity of a people squeezed between far superior powers to the east, west, north and south.

There are two purposes for this historical celebration: to honor 1,700 years of Armenian Christianity and to refocus the mission of the Armenian Church in the next millennium.

In order to go forward, one must also look back. So, Armenians will follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Since the baptism of Tiridate III, pilgrimage has been an essential element in the lives of Armenia’s Christians. Pilgrimages to holy sites in Armenia will be a significant aspect of the anniversary celebration; through these journeys pilgrims will have a chance to re-enkindle their own faith as well as visit sites that define Armenian Christianity.

On 10 November, Pope John Paul II presided at an ecumenical liturgy held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to commemorate this anniversary. Present at the liturgy, on his first visit to Rome, was Catholicos Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. During the solemn liturgy, the Pope presented the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator to the Catholicos. Held in a monastery in Naples for hundreds of years, the relics will be placed in the new cathedral in Yerevan when completed. Though the Father of Armenian Christianity will, after centuries abroad, finally rest in his own land, the church he founded cannot. There are far too many challenges besetting this worldwide community of five million believers.

“The Armenian Apostolic Church is confronted with questions of the laws and traditions of the church, clerical celibacy, cremation, abortion, the use of Grapar (the liturgical language of the Armenian Church) and liturgical reform,” commented the Catholicos in an interview late last year.

“The Council of Bishops has been summoned to provide replies to such questions. I think, in the years to come, the council will propose appropriate solutions so the rituals of our church will become more accessible and comprehensible to believers, and will enrich their spiritual lives.

“With regard to the greatest challenges of our church,” the Catholicos pointed out, “it should be noted that during the Soviet regime our people were cut off from their customs, religious traditions and community life; their faith gradually was pushed aside. Many churches were closed and others fell into ruin. Today we have freedom of worship and, since we wish for our people to live according to Christian principles, it is necessary for our church to penetrate into each Armenian hearth. To do that one must reorganize and restore Armenian community life. We are confronted, however, with a lack of priests; we must form them in sufficient numbers so the church may be present to the people – in the army, hospitals, prisons and schools.

“We have established seminaries in Gumri, Etchmiadzin and Sevan,” he continued. “In the beginning of the 1990’s, we had about 60 men in these seminaries, but today we have enrolled more than 200 young men. We have about 25 graduates every year, which is still insufficient for our needs. If we are content with this figure, it will take a century to form enough priests. Therefore, we have decided on a project where we will organize short-term, accelerated courses to train at the graduate level seminarians who wish to become priests; eventually they will serve our villages.”

Forming priests alone will not adequately serve the needs of the Armenian Church. Women also have important roles to play.

“It was the initiative of the late Catholicos Vasken I (1955-1994) to form a community of sisters,” commented Catholicos Karekin II. “We wish to form a community who will live in monasteries and will care for the sick and teach religion in schools.

“Of course, it would be only natural that prayer would be at the core of their lives. We are planning to set up a program where novices will be trained; we would like to utilize the experience of other churches by sending our future sisters to other Christian religious communities of women so they may live together and learn and profit from their experiences.”

Forming men and women in the service of the church has become a primary concern for the leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church – religious sects have made substantial inroads into Armenian society, threatening to fracture a once-whole community:

“After the 1989 earthquake in Gumri, and especially after the independence of Armenia and the subsequent introduction of freedom of religion, numerous sects arrived in Armenia,” the Catholicos stated. “They attract people by utilizing their financial and material wealth. They employ aggressive methods and claim that they, not the church, are the ones who hold the truth.

“After independence, our church, which survived 70 years of Communist atheism, did not have sufficient priests, working churches or the financial means to compete. We concentrated our efforts in helping the victims of the earthquake without asking their religious beliefs. Considering the socioeconomic conditions of the country, the sects found an ideal ground for attracting people. We have taken certain steps in order to prevent the proliferation of these sects and to limit their successes at our expense. We have trained teachers to teach religion and have opened seminaries. We have constructed new churches and repaired others. We have also started airing religious programs on the radio and television, and have published books and brochures.

“If they call themselves Christians,” continued the Catholicos, “they should come and preach together with us; if they want to preach Christianity, they should do so for those who are not yet Christian. We are conscious, however, that it is not through prohibitive rules that we can prevent the growth of sects, but through our work and preaching.

“With the independence of our country, state-church relations have entered a new phase,” the Catholicos asserted. “We want these relations to be governed through laws, so an agreement was signed between state and church stating that both state and church must form councils regulating the duties and rights of the church with regard to different aspects of social and community life, as well as its relations with regard to state authorities. These councils have already been formed.

“Presently, through discussions with the ministries and representatives of the government, we will find suitable solutions to all our issues. State and church are two separate entities, but their cooperation is natural and essential, as the essence of their services and their objectives are the same – to serve the people.”

And service to Armenia is needed, especially as this nation of 3.3 million people continues to reel from changes made from a controlled to a capitalistic economy.

“We have more than 15 soup kitchens operating in various cities of Armenia,” reported Karekin, “and each soup kitchen serves 200 meals a day. We also have an aid program that supports 4,000 orphans. We give credit to small entrepreneurs who present promising business projects in different fields – by opening a computer training center, or a bakery or a farm.

“We have taken four of the Pioneer Palaces used during the Soviet regime for the indoctrination of children and re-baptized them ‘Houses of Children.’ More than 3,000 children ages 6 to 16 attend these palaces to participate in various activities such as music, dancing, sewing, sculpture, sports, painting and computers. We also organize summer camps.

“We have a project for creating employment and have received donations for its implementation. For example, for the construction of roads in villages we hire villagers to do the work and they are paid for it. Of course, the church will work on a nonprofit basis; we have created a council in order to examine and study the issue and to make project propositions.”

Formidable challenges indeed. But for now, the Catholicos is concentrating on the year’s anniversary events:

“This celebration will,” he concluded, “awaken and revive the spiritual lives of Armenian Christians.

“We also hope it will solidify our ancient faith so we may pass it along to future generations – and to Christians all over the world.”

Armineh Johannes is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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