Pope Francis honours victims of Armenian genocide

Pope Francis at the memorial service at the Tsitsernakaberd complex in Yeravan, Armenia

Pope Francis at the memorial service at the Tsitsernakaberd complex in Yeravan, Armenia. The banner, in Spanish, says: ‘Thank you, Holy Father, for recognizing the Armenian genocide.’

Pope Francis this morning offered prayers in memory of those died in the 1915 massacre  of a million and a half Armenian Christians by Ottoman forces, in a moving ecumenical ceremony at the Tzitzernakaberd memorial outside the capital, Yerevan.

The Armenians refer to the mass killing as the Metz Yeghern, or ‘Great Evil’. Pope Francis last year referred to it as the first genocide of the twentieth century, leading to a 10-month diplomatic rift with Turkey, which resents the term. (Last night, in a meeting with political leaders, he used the term again.)

The Pope was this morning accompanied Catholicos Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After praying before the eternal flame at the centre of the memorial complex, Francis met a small group of descendants of survivors who were sheltered by Pope Benedict XV in 1915 at the pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. He also blessed a pine tree planted in honor of his visit and signed a book of remembrance.

“May God take care of the memory of the Armenian people,” Francis wrote in the book. “Memory must neither be watered down nor forgotten; memory is a source of peace and of the future.”

The Pope began his three-day visit yesterday with praise for Armenia as a “herald of Christ among the nations” that had kept alive the “light of faith” even in the darkest times. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, during the Roman persecution.

“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, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself,” he said.

In a mostly Orthodox country of three million where Catholics are a minority, Armenians have given a warm welcome to Francis, who championed the Armenian cause during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Argentina has a number of Armenian immigrants who fled during the time of the persecution.

In his remarks yesterday in the ornate Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, Francis spoke of the “holy sign of martyrdom, which has constantly accompanied the history of your people.”

Yesterday evening he referred to “that tragedy, that genocide” as “the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”

In the address to political leaders and diplomats, he went on to link that genocide with that of today.

Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith.  At the same time, all too many conflicts in various parts of the world remain unresolved, causing grief, destruction and forced migrations of entire peoples.  It is essential that those responsible for the future of the nations undertake courageously and without delay initiatives aimed at ending these sufferings, making their primary goal the quest for peace, the defence and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution, the promotion of justice and sustainable development.  The Armenian people have experienced these situations firsthand; they have known suffering and pain; they have known persecution; they preserved not only the memory of past hurts, but also the spirit that has enabled them always to start over again.  I encourage you not to fail to make your own precious contribution to the international community.

This morning, before visiting the genocide memorial, the Pope celebrated Mass in Vartanants Square in Gyumri, proposing three foundations on which to build the Christian life: memory, faith, and merciful love.

(The two texts from yesterday and this morning’s homily follow. For detailed reports and analysis, see Crux.)

  1. Address of Pope Francis at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, 24 June 2016

Venerable Brother,
Supreme Patriarch-Catholicos of All Armenians,
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It is very moving for me to have crossed the threshold of this holy place, a witness to the history of your people and the centre from which its spirituality radiates. I consider it a precious gift of God to be able to approach the holy altar from which the light of Christ shone forth in Armenia. I greet the Catholicos of All the Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, with heartfelt thanks for his gracious invitation to visit Holy Etchmiadzin, and all the Archbishops and Bishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church. I thank you for your cordial and joyful welcome. Thank you, Your Holiness, for having welcomed me into your home. This sign of love eloquently bespeaks, better than any words can do, the meaning of friendship and fraternal charity.

On this solemn occasion, I give thanks to the Lord for the light of faith kindled in your land, the faith that has given Armenia its particular identity and made it a herald of Christ among the nations. Christ is your glory and your light. He is the sun who has illuminated and enlivened you, accompanied and sustained you, especially in times of trial. I bow before the mercy of the Lord, who willed that Armenia should become, in the year 301, the first nation to accept Christianity as its religion, at a time when persecutions still raged throughout the Roman Empire.

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, a gift of immense significance, to be accepted with joy, preserved with great effort and strength, even at the cost of life itself. As Saint John Paul II wrote: “With the ‘baptism’ of the Armenian community… the people acquired a new identity that was to become a constitutive and inseparable part of Armenian life. It would no longer be possible to think that faith did not figure as an essential element among the components of this identity” (Apostolic Letter for the 1700th Anniversary of the Baptism of the Armenian People [2 February 2001], 2). May the Lord bless you for this luminous testimony of faith. It is a shining example of the great efficacy and fruitfulness of the baptism received over seventeen hundred years ago, together with the eloquent and holy sign of martyrdom, which has constantly accompanied the history of your people.

I also thank the Lord for the journey that the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have undertaken through sincere and fraternal dialogue for the sake of coming to share fully in the Eucharistic banquet. May the Holy Spirit help us to attain the unity for which our Lord prayed, so that his disciples may be one and the world may believe. I gladly recall the decisive impulse given to developing closer relations and strengthening dialogue between our two Churches in recent years by Their Holinesses Vasken I and Karekin I, and by Saint John Paul II and by Benedict XVI. As significant stages of this ecumenical engagement, I would mention: the commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the twentieth century during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000; the consignment to Your Holiness of the relic of the Father of Christian Armenia, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, for the new Cathedral of Yerevan; the Joint Declaration of His Holiness John Paul II and Your Holiness, signed here in Holy Etchmiadzin; and the visits which Your Holiness has made to the Vatican for important events and commemorations.

Tragically, our 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 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.

Dear brothers and sisters, 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.
May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, Saint Gregory the Illuminator, “pillar of light for the Holy Church of the Armenians”, and Saint Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church, bless all of you and the entire Armenian nation. May he preserve you always in the faith you received from your ancestors, and to which you have borne glorious witness throughout the ages.

2. Pope Francis address to Civil Authorities and the Diplomatic CorpsYerevan, 24 June 2016

 

Mr President,

Honourable Authorities,

Distinguished Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It gives me great joy to be here, to set foot on the soil of this beloved land of Armenia, to visit a people of ancient and rich traditions, a people that has given courageous testimony to its faith and suffered greatly, yet has shown itself capable of constantly being reborn.

“Our turquoise sky, our clear waters, the flood of light, the summer sun and the proud winter borealis… our age-old stones … our ancient etched books which have become a prayer” (ELISE CIARENZ, Ode to Armenia).  These are among the powerful images that one of your illustrious poets offers us to illustrate the rich history and natural beauty of Armenia.  They sum up the rich legacy and the glorious yet dramatic experience of a people and their deep-seated love of their country.

I am most grateful to you, Mr President, for your kind words of welcome in the name of the government and people of Armenia, and for your gracious invitation that has made it possible to reciprocate the visit you made to the Vatican last year.  There you attended the solemn celebration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, together with Their Holinesses Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch-Catholicos of All Armenians, and Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, recently deceased.  The occasion was the commemoration of the centenary of the Metz Yeghérn, the “Great Evil” that struck your people and caused the death of a vast multitude of persons.  Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.

I pay homage to the Armenian people who, illuminated by the light of the Gospel, even at the most tragic moments of their history, have always found in the cross and resurrection of Christ the strength to rise again and take up their journey anew with dignity.  This shows the depth of their Christian faith and its boundless treasures of consolation and hope.  Having seen the pernicious effects to which hatred, prejudice and the untrammelled desire for dominion led in the last century, I express my lively hope that humanity will learn from those tragic experiences the need to act with responsibility and wisdom to avoid the danger of a return to such horrors.  May all join in striving to ensure that whenever conflicts emerge between nations, dialogue, the enduring and authentic quest of peace, cooperation between states and the constant commitment of international organizations will always prevail, with the aim of creating a climate of trust favourable for the achievement of lasting agreements.

The Catholic Church wishes to cooperate actively with all those who have at heart the future of civilization and respect for the rights of the human person, so that spiritual values will prevail in our world and those who befoul their meaning and beauty will be exposed as such.  In this regard, it is vitally important that all those who declare their faith in God join forces to isolate those who use religion to promote war, oppression and violent persecution, exploiting and manipulating the holy name of God.

Today Christians in particular, perhaps even more than at the time of the first martyrs, in some places experience discrimination and persecution for the mere fact of professing their faith.  At the same time, all too many conflicts in various parts of the world remain unresolved, causing grief, destruction and forced migrations of entire peoples.  It is essential that those responsible for the future of the nations undertake courageously and without delay initiatives aimed at ending these sufferings, making their primary goal the quest for peace, the defence and acceptance of victims of aggression and persecution, the promotion of justice and sustainable development.  The Armenian people have experienced these situations firsthand; they have known suffering and pain; they have known persecution; they preserved not only the memory of past hurts, but also the spirit that has enabled them always to start over again.  I encourage you not to fail to make your own precious contribution to the international community.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Armenia’s independence.  It is a joyful occasion, but also an opportunity, in cherishing the goals already achieved, to propose new ones for the future.  The celebration of this happy anniversary will be all the more significant if it becomes for all Armenians, both at home and in the diaspora, a special moment for gathering and coordinating energies for the sake of promoting the country’s civil and social development of the country, one that is equitable and inclusive.  This will involve constant concern for ensuring respect for the moral imperatives of equal justice for all and solidarity with the less fortunate (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Farewell Address from Armenia, 27 September 2001: Insegnamenti XXIX/2 [2001], 489).  The history of your country runs parallel to its Christian identity preserved over the centuries.  That identity, far from impeding a healthy secularity of the state, instead requires and nourishes it, favouring the full participation of all in the life of society, freedom of religion and respect for minorities.  A spirit of unity between all Armenians and a growing commitment to find helpful means of overcoming tension with neighbouring countries, will facilitate the realization of these important goals, and inaugurate for Armenia an age of true rebirth.

The Catholic Church is present in this country with limited human resources, yet readily offers her contribution to the development of society, particularly through her work with the poor and vulnerable in the areas of healthcare and education, but also in the specific area of charitable assistance.  This is seen in the work carried out in the past twenty-five years by the Redemptoris Mater Hospital in Ashotzk, the educational institute in Yerevan, the initiatives of Caritas Armenia and the works managed by the various religious congregations.

May God bless and protect Armenia, a land illumined by the faith, the courage of the martyrs and that hope which proves stronger than any suffering.

 

3. Pope Francis, homily in Vartanants Square in Gyumri, July 25. 

“They shall build up the ancient ruins… they shall repair the ruined cities” (Is 61:4). In this place, dear brothers and sisters, we can say that the words of the Prophet Isaiah have come to pass. After the terrible devastation of the earthquake, we gather today to give thanks to God for all that has been rebuilt.

Yet we might also wonder: what is the Lord asking us to build today in our lives, and even more importantly, upon what is he calling us to build our lives? In seeking an answer to this question, I would like to suggest three stable foundations upon which we can tirelessly build and rebuild the Christian life.

The first foundation is memory. One grace we can implore is that of being able to remember: to recall what the Lord has done in and for us, and to remind ourselves that, as today’s Gospel says, he has not forgotten us but “remembered” us (Lk 1:72). God has chosen us, loved us, called us and forgiven us. Great things have happened in our personal love story with him, and these must be treasured in our minds and hearts. Yet there is another memory we need to preserve: it is the memory of a people. Peoples, like individuals, have a memory. Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history. As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence. He has not abandoned you. Even in the face of tremendous adversity, we can say in the words of today’s Gospel that the Lord has visited your people (cf. Lk 1:68). He has remembered your faithfulness to the Gospel, the first-fruits of your faith, and all those who testified, even at the price of their blood, that God’s love is more precious than life itself (cf. Ps 63:4). It is good to recall with gratitude how the Christian faith became your people’s life breath and the heart of their historical memory.

Faith is also hope for your future and a light for life’s journey. Faith is the second foundation I would like to mention. There is always a danger that can dim the light of faith, and that is the temptation to reduce it to something from the past, something important but belonging to another age, as if the faith were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum. Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all. Faith, however, is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives. We would do well to renew this living encounter with the Lord each day. We would do well to read the word of God and in silent prayer to open our hearts to his love. We would do well to let our encounter with the Lord’s tenderness enkindle joy in our hearts: a joy greater than sadness, a joy that even withstands pain and in turn becomes peace. All of this renews our life, makes us free and open to surprises, ready and available for the Lord and for others.

It can happen too that Jesus calls us to follow him more closely, to give our lives to him and to our brothers and sisters. When he calls – and I say this especially to you young people – do not be afraid; tell him “Yes!” He knows us, he really loves us, and he wants to free our hearts from the burden of fear and pride. By making room for him, we become capable of radiating his love. Thus you will be able to carry on your great history of evangelization. This is something the Church and the world need in these troubled times, which are also a time of mercy.

The third foundation, after memory and faith, is merciful love: on this rock, the rock of the love we receive from God and offer to our neighbour, the life of a disciple of Jesus is based. In the exercise of charity, the Church’s face is rejuvenated and made beautiful. Concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card; any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful, for it is by our love for one another that everyone will know that we are his disciples (cf. Jn 13:35). We are called above all to build and rebuild paths of communion, tirelessly creating bridges of unity and working to overcome our divisions. May believers always set an example, cooperating with one another in mutual respect and a spirit of dialogue, knowing that “the only rivalry possible among the Lord’s disciples is to see who can offer the greater love!” (JOHN PAUL II, Homily, 27 September 2001: Insegnamenti XXIV/2 [2001], 478).

In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that the Spirit of the Lord is always with those who carry glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted and console the afflicted (cf. 61:1-2). God dwells in the hearts of those who love him. God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor. How much we need this! We need Christians who do not allow themselves to be overcome by weariness or discouraged by adversity, but instead are available, open and ready to serve. We need men and women of good will, who help their brothers and sisters in need, with actions and not merely words. We need societies of greater justice, where each individual can lead a dignified life and, above all, be fairly remunerated for his or her work.

All the same, we might ask ourselves: how can we become merciful, with all the faults and failings that we see within ourselves and all about us? I would like to appeal to one concrete example, a great herald of divine mercy, one to whom I wished to draw greater attention by making him a Doctor of the Universal Church: Saint Gregory of Narek, word and voice of Armenia. It is hard to find his equal in the ability to plumb the depths of misery lodged in the human heart. Yet he always balanced human weakness with God’s mercy, lifting up a heartfelt and tearful prayer of trust in the Lord who is “giver of gifts, root of goodness… voice of consolation, news of comfort, joyful impulse… unparalleled compassion, inexhaustible mercy… the kiss of salvation” (Book of Lamentations, 3, 1). He was certain that “the light of God’s mercy is never clouded by the shadow of indignation” (ibid., 16, 1). Gregory of Narek is a master of life, for he teaches us that the most important thing is to recognize that we are in need of mercy. Despite our own failings and the injuries done to us, we must not become self-centred but open our hearts in sincerity and trust to the Lord, to “the God who is ever near, loving and good” [ibid., 17, 2), “filled with love for mankind … a fire consuming the chaff of sin (ibid., 16, 2).

In the words of Saint Gregory, I would like now to invoke God’s mercy and his gift of unfailing love: Holy Spirit, “powerful protector, intercessor and peace-maker, we lift up our prayers to you… Grant us the grace to support one another in charity and good works… Spirit of sweetness, compassion, loving kindness and mercy… You who are mercy itself… Have mercy on us, Lord our God, in accordance with your great mercy” (Hymn of Pentecost).

[Original Text: Italian] [Vatican-provided text]

Greeting at the end of the Mass

At the conclusion of this celebration, I wish to express my deep gratitude to Catholicos Karekin II and to Archbishop Minassian for their gracious words. I also thank Patriarch Ghabroyan and the Bishops present, as well as the priests and the Authorities who have warmly welcomed us.

I thank all of you here present, who have come to Gyumri from different regions and from nearby Georgia. I especially greet all those who with such generosity and practical charity are helping our brothers and sisters in need. I think in particular of the hospital in Ashotsk, opened twenty-five years ago and known as “the Pope’s Hospital”. It was born of the heart of Saint John Paul II, and it continues to be an important presence close to those who are suffering. I think too of the charitable works of the local Catholic community, and those of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and the Missionaries of Charity of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

May the Virgin Mary, our Mother, accompany you always and guide your steps in the way of fraternity and peace.

[Original Text: Italian] [Vatican-provided text]

 

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