Pope Francis spoke about Christian relations during his visit to the Apostolic Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the “Armenian Vatican”, the see of the Catholicos of all Armenians, Karekin II. He explained: “When our actions are prompted by the power of Christ’s love, understanding and reciprocal esteem grow, a fruitful ecumenical journey becomes possible, and all people of goodwill, and society as a whole, are shown a concrete way to harmonize the conflicts that rend civil life and create divisions that prove hard to heal.” As such, the journey of ecumenism is not just about relations between Christian denominations. It is much more than this and is a sign for the world and for peace in the world.
When he arrived at the Arch of the Tiridate, the Pope slipped on some shoe covers. Bells sounded as he entered the cathedral with the Catholicos, while the choir sang the “Hrashapar” hymn, dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator. When they reached the altar of “the place where the Only Begotten descended” Francis and Karekin II kissed the cross and the book of Gospels before heading to the main altar where they exchanged an embrace of peace. The two religious leaders then took turns to read Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.”
The Catholicos then took then spoke and addressing the Pope, said: “The visit of Your Holiness is a renewed testament to the brotherly relationships and collaboration of our Churches and is mutually empowering for the faithful of both the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. Your visit also fills us with optimism that our testimonies of faith, reinforced with Christian love, will be felt more strongly in our lives.”
Francis, in turn, said it was “very moving” for him to have crossed the threshold of the cathedral and thanked Karekin II for hosting him at his residence in Etchmiadzin during his two-night stay in the country: a “sign of love” which “eloquently bespeaks, better than any words can do, the meaning of friendship and fraternal charity”. The Pope then recalled that for Armenia, “faith in Christ has not been like a garment to be donned or doffed as circumstances or convenience dictate, but an essential part of its identity”. Armenia was the first country in the year 301 “to accept Christianity as its religion, at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire”.
Francis then talked about the good relations and intensified dialogue between the two Churches, quoting Catholicos Vasken I and Karekin, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. One of the most significant moments of the ecumenical effort is the “commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the twentieth century during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000”; the consignment to Karekin II of the relic of the Father of Christian Armenia, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, for the new Cathedral of Yerevan and the Joint Declaration signed by John Paul II and the current Catholicos. His words were tinged with nostalgia as there will be no joint declaration on this occasion, unless there are any last minute surprises.
Francis continued to point to the path of ecumenism which unites Christians in service, saying that the world “is marked by divisions and conflicts, as well as by grave forms of material and spiritual poverty, including the exploitation of persons, not least children and the elderly. It expects from Christians a witness of mutual esteem and fraternal cooperation capable of revealing to every conscience the power and truth of Christ’s resurrection. The patient and enduring commitment to full unity, the growth of joint initiatives and cooperation between all the Lord’s disciples in service to the common good: all these are like a radiant light in a dark night and a summons to experience even our differences in an attitude of charity and mutual understanding.”
The spirit of ecumenism, the path of dialogue and of collaboration, Francis explained, “takes on an exemplary value also outside of the visible confines of the ecclesial community; it represents for everyone a forceful appeal to settle divergences with dialogue and appreciation for all that unites us”. “It also prevents the exploitation and manipulation of faith, for it requires us to rediscover faith’s authentic roots, and to communicate, defend and spread truth with respect for the dignity of every human being and in ways that reveal the presence of the love and salvation we wish to spread. In this way, we offer to the world – which so urgently needs it – a convincing witness that Christ is alive and at work, capable of opening new paths of reconciliation among the nations, civilizations and religions. We offer a credible witness that God is love and mercy.”