ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Armenian Origins

Although now a diaspora – a dispersed and martyred people – the Armenians have preserved their language, culture and religious beliefs.

Some 600 years before Christ, during the great Aryan migration, a nomadic tribe settled in western Asia in a region north of the great rivers in the expanse between the Black and the Caspian Seas.

This enterprising and prolific people called themselves Haikh, and their country Hayastan; we know them as Armenians. The place they chose was fertile with lakes and lofty plateaus bounded north and south by towering mountain ranges. The site where Noah’s ark came to rest, Mount Ararat, lies in what is now Turkish Armenia.

Unfortunately, the Armenian homeland has always been situated on the borders of great empires. Its area has proved a constant battleground fought over and conquered in turn by Persians and Greeks, Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Arabs, with rare periods of precarious peace and independence. Today Armenia is split between Russia and Turkey. Wars and raids, earthquakes, and outright genocide have marked the long history of the Armenian people.

Under similar circumstances less hardy people have disappeared altogether from history, or have been absorbed by surrounding countries. The Armenians have managed to maintain their cultural and national identity. Their national religion, most of all, their common language, their native resourcefulness, and remarkable adaptability have made survival possible.

Though the statistics can only be approximate, some 4.5 million Armenians are now said to live throughout the Soviet Union, of whom two million remain in Soviet Armenia. One-third of an estimated 6.5 million Armenians reside outside Russia; they are scattered throughout the Near East, Europe, and the world. A half-million are said to live in the U.S.

It’s a proud Armenian boast that theirs was the first Christian nation to embrace Christianity as a result of the preaching of St. Gregory the Illuminator. An ancient national tradition traces their Christian origins to the Apostles, Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew, and all reputable historians acknowledge that there were Armenian Christians before St. Gregory. The Armenians rejected the teaching of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (450). Since the Crusades a portion of the nation has remained in communion with Rome; with the vast majority not in communion, relations are very cordial.

Until the fifth century the Armenians lacked a written language. Then, St. Mesrop devised an alphabet based largely on Greek and some Syriac in order to translate the Bible and sacred writings into the native tongue.

Catholics of Armenian rite have as shepherd, Ignatius Peter XVI Batanian, whose title is Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, and whose see is located near Beirut. His immediate predecessor, Cardinal Gregory Peter XV Agaganian, resigned as Patriarch to take up duties at Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

As spiritual leader of Armenian rite Catholics, Ignatius Peter XVI presides over 100,000 people with bishops in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel in the Near East, and in Greece, Roumania, Poland, and France. In the U.S. Armenian rite Catholics have organized parishes in New York, Paterson, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Detroit, and Los Angeles where they are under the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishop. The non-Roman Armenians are much more numerous and widespread and are under their own bishops.

There has been a Pontifical Armenian College in Rome since 1883, and four seminaries for Armenian Catholics exist. The Mechitarist monks, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, have two monasteries, one in Venice, and the other in Vienna. They were founded in Constantinople in 1701 to elevate the religious and cultural life of the Armenian people. For 275 years, thanks to Mechitarist publications, scientific, cultural, religious and artistic instruction has aided all the Armenian people. There is also a Congregation of Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception with more than 150 members. They are dedicated to the education of Armenian girls and staff many schools in the Near East.

Like the Jews, so long without a homeland, and so often the innocent victims of persecutions and prejudice, the Armenians have survived as a people by their force of character, a common language and culture, and dedication to their religious tradition. In spite of every adversity they have prospered as bankers, merchants, artists, scientists and professionals in the lands to which exile has forced them.

The Armenian liturgy, like the language, basically derives from that of the old Byzantine rite as used in the mother Church of Cappadocia; it contains some Syriac influences too, and since the Middle Ages, notable Latin accretions as well.

As in our Roman rite until recently, the Armenians use only one canon at Mass; they mix no water with the wine to be consecrated, and in this they are unique. Among the Armenians, the liturgy is celebrated normally on Sundays and major feasts only.

Doctrinally the non-Roman Armenians hold that Christ had only one nature, both human and divine, but it is questionable how closely they differ from us on this doctrinal point. As one learned author notes, “we shall understand their position best by conceiving it as practically that of the Orthodox.” Their differences from us result more from long segregation and historical circumstances.

In practical importance, in size and influence, as well as in prosperity, the Armenian Church not united with Rome is second in the East only to the Orthodox. The multitude of their saints, the sufferings of their even more numerous martyrs, as well as their faithfulness to Christ for more than 17 centuries entitles the Armenians to our respect and admiration for their venerable and vigorous tradition.

F.C. Edward, the author, is a student of Oriental Ecclesiology and a frequent visitor to the Middle East.

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