Two small stairways lead down to the room where St. Gregory’s pit is located. It is here, one of the Armenian Church’s most sacred places that Francis concluded his trip. We are less than 50 kilometres from Yerevan, near the – closed – border with Turkey, at the foot of Biblical Mount Ararat. There was once a fortress here, where St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisonned in a pit for thirteen years by King Tiridates III, persecutor of Christians.
In 301, having fallen seriously ill and after being cured through the intercession of Gregory, the king converted to Christianity along with his whole family and proclaimed all of Armenia a Christian nation. It was the first nation to become Christian. St. Gregory’s prison was transformed into a monastery, which in the 12th century hosted a renowned seminary and an important study and training centre. A church was built above the pit – which runs 6,5 metres deep into the subsoil – becoming a national pilgrimage destination.
The complex, which is under the jurisdiction of St. Etchmiadzin, was hit by a violent earthquake in 1679. It had to be rebuilt on a number of occasions, until the structure we see today was built in the 19th century. John Paul II visited it on 27 September 2001, at the end of his three-day trip to Armenia.
After being welcomed by the monastery’s superior, the Pope and the Catholicos headed off down the small stairs, to the room where St. Gregory’s pit is located. Here they lit a candle. They then enterd the adjacent chapel in procession and recited a prayer in Armenian and another in Italian. The Pope and Karekin then went out onto the terrace overlooking Ararat and released two doves in the direction of the Biblical mountain which is now beyond the border, in Turkey. From here, Francis went directly to Yerevan airport to board the return flight to Rome.