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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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


The Armenian Catholic Church

The landlocked republic of Armenia — squeezed between Russia and Iran in the Caucasus — bridges Asia and Europe. But more than half of the world’s six million Armenians now live outside the country: For almost two millennia this transcontinental people, historically identified as European, have grafted to other cultures farther afield. Diaspora communities have flowered in the Americas, Anatolia, Central Asia, Europe (particularly France, Russia and Ukraine), India, the Middle East and Oceania — proving that migration does not always bring about the end of a culture and identity.

Numerous factors have contributed to this unique Armenian narrative. Perhaps the greatest has been the seamless integration of culture, faith and language forged by the preeminent Armenian institution, the Armenian Church.

Though accurate statistics are not available, the vast majority of Armenians worldwide — about 95 percent — belongs to the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church. Despite its diminutive size, the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Apostolic Church while affirming full communion with the Church of Rome, has contributed considerably to the vitality of the Armenian nation, invigorating monasticism, scholarship and social service.

First developments. Armenia’s Christian roots run deep. According to tradition, the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus first evangelized the kingdom, then a buffer state between the rival empires of the Persians and Romans. After years of persecution, Christianity took hold when Gregory, the “illuminator of the Armenians,” baptized King Tiridates III in 301. The king proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the state, making Armenia the first Christian nation.

Looking both east and west, the Armenian Church digested the philosophical positions and theological vocabularies of the great learning centers of the ancient world — Alexandria and Antioch, Athens and Rome, Constantinople and Seleucia, Edessa and Nisibis — and began the development of an alphabet for the Armenian vernacular even as an independent Armenian nation expired.

Though conscious of the great Christological controversies that rocked the universal church, the Armenians could not participate in these debates, especially the Council of Chalcedon (451). Appeasing Persian oppression, the leaders of the Armenian Church declared their civil allegiance to the Persian emperor, but stressed their spiritual submission to Christ.

A century after Chalcedon, the Armenian Church denounced the decrees of the council, reaffirmed its adherence to a more conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature and asserted its independence from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. In line with Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac Orthodox Christians, who also rejected the decrees of Chalcedon, Armenians emphasized the apostolic roots of their particular church.

Though the Armenian Apostolic Church underscored its independence, self-reliance did not sink it into isolation. Armenian scribes and soldiers served Byzantine as well as Persian and Turkish Muslim courts.

Receiving commissions throughout the Near East, Armenian architects built palaces, churches and battlements. Armenian merchants established commercial colonies from the shores of the Black Sea to the coast of India. This distinctively Armenian openness may still be observed in Armenian ecclesiastical architecture and decoration, manuscript illumination and the decorative arts, chant and the form of the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy.

Contacts with Catholics. Armenian states have come and gone, but one has impacted the entire Armenian nation perhaps more than any other except for the Armenian state during the time of King Tiridates III.When the Seljuk Turks (a Central Asian tribe that had embraced Islam) overran Armenia in 1071, a number of Armenian nobles fled south and west. Taking with them their families, retainers and treasure, these nobles settled in historically Armenian communities along Anatolia’s Mediterranean coast — the former Byzantine province of Cilicia. They quickly established several independent fiefdoms, which eventually formed the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, often called Little Armenia. The leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church (in particular the catholicos-patriarch and his retinue) migrated to Cilicia as well, inhabiting a number of monasteries until finally settling in the Cilician capital of Sis.

When a motley crew of Latin Catholics of the First Crusade — Frankish knights and friars, soldiers and their families — passed through Cilicia in 1098, the Armenians quickly formed an alliance. Military aid from Europe, intermarriage and family alliances buttressed Little Armenia and culminated in the formal union of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches in 1198.

The union was not widely accepted by Armenians living in Cilicia, the Holy Land or historical Armenia. It galvanized opposition that set up an independent patriarchate in Jerusalem and the return of the see of the catholicos to Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia in 1441. Yet, the union nurtured significant cross-cultural advances.

Through the work of the Friars of Union of St. Gregory the Illuminator (an Armenian Catholic mendicant order sponsored by the Dominicans), full communion introduced scholasticism to the Armenians, generating Armenian philosophical and theological works now considered classics.

While Little Armenia collapsed in 1375, and with it the formal union of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, individual Catholic Armenian families survived.

Monks and patriarchs. Early in the 18th century, one Mekhitar of Sebaste gathered around him a group of friends committed to the intellectual and spiritual renewal of the Armenian people. He traveled to the capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and center of the most prosperous Armenian community — Constantinople. There, he sought to start a college styled after the institutions founded by European Catholic religious communities then active in the empire. Mekhitar’s vision, however, also included the reconciliation of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, which generated opposition.

Driven from Constantinople, Mekhitar and his companions fled to a Venetian stronghold in Greece, where he set up a Benedictine-inspired community. After pledging fidelity to the papacy, Mekhitar received, in 1712, papal approval for his Armenian Catholic foundation.

The Ottomans soon flushed out Mekhitar and his Venetian allies from their Greek refuge. The senate of the Venetian Republic offered the displaced monks the abandoned island of San Lazzaro, a former leper colony in the Venetian Lagoon.

Mekhitar himself conceived the design of the monastery, supervised its construction and, until his death in 1749, nurtured a major Armenian movement with cultural, educational and literary dimensions.

Long separated from their homeland, the disciples of Mekhitar, known as Mekhitarists, played a key role in revitalizing the spirituality and the cultural and intellectual life of the Armenian nation. From their house in Venice — and later from Vienna, where they set up a second in 1810 — they published weighty archaeological, historical and literary works, established schools throughout the Armenian diaspora and formalized the grammatical structure of the Armenian vernacular.

The number of Catholic Armenians grew modestly over time. Their leaders petitioned the pope for the erection of proper ecclesial structures, including a patriarchate. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV named Apostolic Bishop Abraham Ardzivian as the Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, extending his authority only to Armenian Catholics in the southern regions of the Ottoman Empire (modern Lebanon and Syria). The pope further stipulated that Armenian Catholics living in the empire’s northern provinces would remain under the spiritual care of the Latin apostolic vicar in Constantinople.

Papal-created jurisdictions notwithstanding, the sultan’s government placed all Armenian Catholics under the civil jurisdiction of Constantinople’s Armenian Apostolic patriarch.

This conformed to the millet policy of the Ottomans, which provided administrative autonomy for the empire’s minorities. The patriarchate saw Catholics as sources of division within the Armenian community and sought to reintegrate them into the larger Armenian Apostolic fold.

Under pressure from the French crown, however, the Ottoman government in 1829 organized Armenian Catholics as a separate millet led by an archbishop in Constantinople, who eventually was vested with civil authority. In 1867, Pope Pius IX moved the patriarchate to Constantinople, uniting the two jurisdictions.

Trials and rebirth. The rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, which began in the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire, significantly altered the status of the sultan’s Christian subjects.

Nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, Armenians were identified by Ottoman reformers as Turkey’s greatest internal threat. Massacres of Armenians occurred throughout Turkey in 1894 and 1895. After the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, these pograms escalated.

While Assyrians, Greeks and Syriac Christians all suffered deportation or death, the sheer number of Armenians affected still astounds. By 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished in what is commonly called the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. (Turkey disputes the term genocide and the number of the dead and expelled.)

Distinctions between Apostolic and Catholic Armenians were not made by the perpetrators. Their actions decimated the tiny Armenian Catholic Church. In all, 7 bishops, 130 priests, 47 women religious and up to a 100,000 faithful died. Churches and schools were leveled. And while the post-Ottoman Turkish government distanced itself from the atrocities, vacant properties were appropriated by the secular state and later redistributed to Muslim Turks.

In 1928, surviving members of the Armenian Catholic patriarchal synod gathered in Rome, where they agreed to transfer the patriarchate to Beirut. Today, from that tarnished jewel on the Mediterranean, Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX presides over a scattered flock. While historically the largest concentration of Armenian Catholics lived in Lebanon and in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Kamichlié, recent statistics provided by the church indicate upward of 400,000 Armenian Catholics living in Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. Some of these Catholics descend from the survivors who escaped the slaughter in eastern Turkey less than a century ago.

While the tsarist government of Imperial Russia impeded the development of all Eastern Catholic communities in its lands, the Soviets were more brutal. Stalin suppressed all Eastern Catholic churches. In Armenia and Georgia, party members shuttered village churches, arrested and shot parish priests and deported religious. Though the Soviets eventually made some accommodations with the Armenian Apostolic Church, they wipedout all traces of Armenian Catholicism — or so they thought.

Catholic Armenians began to surface after a devastating earthquake in December 1988 flattened northern Armenia. And as the Soviet Union dissolved, these Catholics boldly petitioned for their churches to be reopened and for personnel to staff them.

The Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were among the first to respond, sending a team of sisters to work with families and village communities in northern Armenia and southern Georgia. In 1991, the Holy See created an ordinariate for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe and charged the former superior of the Mekhitarists, Father Nerses Der Nersessian, with its leadership.

Though hampered by a lack of priestly vocations, the Armenian Catholic Church in the Caucasus is experiencing a rejuvenation in the ancient Armenian heartland, opening schools, camps and clinics that offer social service assistance to all regardless of religious distinction as well as catechesis for a people once deprived of instruction.

Since 1991, each of the three catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church — Vasken I, Karekin I and Karekin II — have supported these efforts, even providing the Mekhitarists with an abandoned monastery.

“Our mission,” said Sister Arousiag Sajonian, “is not only to work for the Armenian Catholic Church, but for all Armenia.”

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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