A moment of silence at the Zyzernakapert, the Monument of the Martyrs. (photo: CNEWA files)
Redemptoris Mater hospital was partially financed by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. (photo: CNEWA files)
Villagers from Panik greet the delegation. (photo: CNEWA files)
The delegation visits Catholicos Vasken I (center) at Etchmiadzin, heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church. (photo: CNEWA files)
After an unexplained delay of nearly a day in Bologna, our delegation – officials from the Vatican, Caritas Italy, Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Italian press – arrived at Yerevan, Armenia, in the early morning of Oct. 4.
We had a tight schedule. In the afternoon a select group of 15 was received by the president of Armenia, Levon Ter Petrossian. Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, prefect for the Congregation for Eastern Churches and our delegation’s leader, exchanged words of cordiality with the Armenian president. In response, President Ter Petrossian praised the charitable work of Caritas Italy, particularly, the erection of a hospital in an area badly affected by the earthquake in 1988. He referred to the earthquake as a tragic event, but noted that such a disaster also opened new horizons.
“We are now the recipients of charity,” the president said. “But I hope in two years that Armenia will be a contributor to works of charity.”
This visit marked the first time the Holy See dealt with an independent Armenia. President Ter Petrossian welcomed this Catholic presence. At a brief press conference, which dealt mainly with political issues, he stressed that Armenia’s actual problem is not with Turkey, its traditional enemy, but with the Republic of Azerbaijan, where every day there are more victims of civil strife. He called the nations of the West to help establish democracy in the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Throughout all this I was privileged to act as translator between the parties.
After meeting with the president, a group of Vatican officials, including Msgr. Robert Stern and myself, met with several health professionals to discuss the future of the hospital. One, Mihran Nazaretian, M.D., is the Armenian republic’s minister of health and a Catholic.
The next day we dedicated a new factory for manufacturing prefabricated building materials. Located about 20 miles outside Yerevan, this plant, which features advanced Italian technology, will help develop new housing projects.
The ceremony started with the raising of flags. It was my first experience as an Armenian of the diaspora to see the Armenian red, blue and orange tricolor rising into the sky as the national anthem played. I was deeply moved.
Later that afternoon we went to the Monument of the Martyrs – Zyzernakapert –dedicated to the genocide of Armenians in 1915 at the hands of the Turks. It was a clear hot day, and from the top of the hill we could see Mount Ararat rising majestically from the valley. Nature reigns silently in this sanctuary.
At a tomb about 150 feet away a young man was holding his face in his hands. We approached him and I greeted him in Armenian, “Parev.” He moved his head acknowledging us.
“He is my brother Moushegh, killed in Azerbaijan,” he muttered, his eyes filled with anger.
We stayed with him. After a short while the dead man’s widow and daughter arrived and knelt. It was Saturday and, in keeping with tradition, both lit candles and prayed. Every Saturday evening Armenians celebrate the resurrection of Christ in this way. This family held on to their faith.
It was dusk as our driver took us back to the city. At the request of the director of Tele-Pace, an Italian television station, I assisted his crew in interviewing people. Political meetings were being held in the squares. What else can be discussed in these times?
We interviewed people on the street, people shopping, buying bread. Bread is almost one ruble, and an average salary is 150 rubles; the official exchange rate is about one ruble to the dollar, but on the black market one dollar fetches 30.
On Oct. 6 we left early in the morning for Ashotzk, the site of the hospital. As always, we had a police escort. On the way we passed Leninaken, a city devastated by the earthquake. To my amazement the ruins had been removed and the streets were clean. A lot of work was accomplished since my last visit a year and a half ago, but much remains to be done.
By mid-morning, under a bright sun, we reached Ashotzk. The whole village had turned out to celebrate with us. The local Armenian Apostolic bishop, Krikoris Pouniatian, was also there to greet us, and the papal nuncio to the Soviet Union, Archbishop Francesco Colasuonno, arrived from Moscow to participate in the dedication.
The hospital, named Redemptoris Mater in honor of the Virgin Mary, was built to withstand earthquake conditions and has 105 beds and four divisions: surgery, infectious diseases, gynecology and odontology.
To insure its proper functioning, an administrator from abroad will direct the hospital for a year. In the meantime, a medical exchange program from Verona, Italy, will enable staff to adapt themselves to the European standards for which the hospital was designed.
The dedication liturgy was celebrated by the newly appointed ordinary for Armenian Catholics in the former Soviet Union, Father Nerses Der Nersessian, former superior general of the Mekhitarist Congregation. It was his first public liturgy in Armenia.
A considerable task awaits Father Nerses – he has to start from scratch. He must re-establish relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church, the faith of more than 85 percent of Armenians. He has to locate the once-sizeable Armenian Catholic community now scattered, assess their needs and devise a plan of action.
Following the liturgy, Cardinal Silvestrini read aloud a personal letter from Pope John Paul II to the Armenian people. In it, the pope exhorted the people to build their country with truth and respect for human rights. The hospital, funded by Caritas Italy and Catholic Near East Welfare Association, was a gift from the pope to the people of Armenia, a sign, he said, of his own commitment to them.
During the liturgy, medals from the pope were given by Cardinal Silvestrini to outstanding people who made this project possible. Special acknowledgement was made to the Dieci brothers of Montecchio, Italy, who oversaw the actual construction of the hospital. Despite harsh weather conditions (Ashotzk is 7,000 feet above sea level), the Diecis finished the hospital within a year, and became very much loved by the locals.
The celebration ended with the apostolic blessing as people pushed to be closer to the altar. Some elderly women were right in the thick of it, clutching rosaries in their hands.
During a meal that followed, Msgr. Stern and I were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people. We were touched by their simple expressions of love.
The most important thing is the Christian feelings of the people. Being with them, one realizes that atheism never became a part of their lives. One need only hear the story of the church in the nearby village of Metzepasar.
Metzepasar is a Catholic village. Since the last Catholic priest was killed in 1921, the village was without a pastor. In place of a priest, an old woman would gather the people to church, don vestments and lead the community in prayer. This is how they kept their faith alive.
Before the earthquake the people of the village tried to restore their ancient church. But Metzepasar was among the areas affected by the quake and the church was almost completely destroyed. When Caritas Italy offered humanitarian assistance to the village, the only request from the local people was for help to rehabilitate their church. An Italian architect worked with the villagers for a year, and the church has been brought back to its original beauty.
Cardinal Silvestrini was so moved by the villagers’ tenacity and faith, he offered as a personal gift an altar and a bell for the church.
That night we went back to the hospital and slept there, as there are no hotels in the area.
On our way back to Yerevan the following day, we visited Panik, another Catholic village. Father Gomidas Oundjian, another Mekhitarist who arrived there only a few months before, received the delegation according to the ancient Armenian tradition: people in traditional dress lined the entrance of the village as two little girls offered a greeting of bread and salt to the guests.
“Until today Armenian Catholics have been called ‘Franks,’ ” said the local Armenian Apostolic bishop, referring to those missionaries who passed through Armenian lands and converted some Armenians to Catholicism. “It is time to see things positively. They are our Christian brothers, and we are all Armenians.”
The delegation was invited to a late picnic lunch in an apple orchard while the local choir sang Armenian and Italian songs. Young ladies danced in their traditional costumes. Everything was perfect. The people gave more than they really could afford.
Tired, we arrived late that night in Yerevan, our last night.
The next morning we met with Catholicos Vasken I, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the holy city of Etchmiadzin.
The 83-year-old Vehapar (meaning “His Holiness”) was very pleased with our visit, and recalled his momentous visit with Pope Paul VI in May 1970. He said that the new political situation in what was once the Soviet Union favors the growth of the church; for example, it allows for the opening of formerly closed churches. Catholicos Vasken urged Cardinal Silvestrini to work in the spirit of ecumenism, respecting Armenia’s heritage and national traditions.
Catholicos Vasken called the recent turn of events “the resurrection of Christ.” After 70 years of “slavery,” the church is risen.
“We are breathing the new breath of freedom,” the Catholicos continued. His words remarkably echoed the pope’s thoughts to the people of Armenia – her rebirth must be built upon truth, love and unity.
Sarkis Boghjalian is a program coordinator for CNEWA.