His Holiness Aram I Visits His Holiness Pope Francis

On Tuesday, June 3, 2014, His Holiness Aram I arrived in the Vatican to begin his official visit to His Holiness Pope Francis.

Last week, H.E. Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, Prelate, traveled to the Vatican to join the delegation of His Holiness Aram I, which was comprised of ten Prelates and eighty community leaders and sponsors from various Prelacies worldwide.

The Western Prelacy delegation was comprised of Mr. and Mrs. Eddie and Talin Amroyan, Mr. and Mrs. Vahan and Nora Bezdikian, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred and Rima Boghossian, Mr. and Mrs. Sarkis and Nune Sepetjian, and Mr. and Mrs. Alex and Arda Yemenidjian.

On Wednesday, June 4, His Holiness Aram I addressed the staff of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, emphasizing the growing importance of bilateral theological dialogues as “the credible and efficient way of leading the churches towards the visible unity”.

His Holiness begun his talk by reminding the pivotal importance of the ecumenical movement for “being church”, because “it reminds the churches of their ecclesial interrelatedness, emphasizes the urgency of healing the brokenness of the church, calls for a deeper interaction between unity and mission, and enhances the interconnection between the local and global”. Hence, in his view, “the ecumenical movement is not an option but an imperative for staying together and being church”.

Against the background of these introductory remarks, His Holiness Aram I said that the present ecumenical landscape is marked by a shift “from institutional to people-centered ecumenism, multilateral to bilateral, Christ-centric to ecclesio-centric, fellowship-centered to non-committal, multi-confessional to confessional, and global to local ecumenism”. Hence, according to the Armenian Catholicos, “the ecumenical movement has become restless, in search of a new self-understanding, new self-articulation and a new vision”. The ecumenical agenda, too, steadily is shifting “from visible unity to issues pertaining to church and society, from church-centered ecumenism to inter-religious dialogue”. These developments said Aram I are the result of globalization and radical changes taking place in the life of churches and societies at large.

His Holiness Aram I then identified some of the implications of these emerging ecumenical realities for the life and witness of the World Council of Churches (WCC). As a person who knows the WCC well having served for fifteen years as the Moderator of its Central and Executive Committees, the Catholicos pointed out that “visible unity has almost lost its centrality, and reception-oriented processes, such as BEM, Apostolic Faith, nature of the church etc. remain in the shelves of the Council”. He said that although the 10th Assembly called for “moving together”, “pilgrimage of justice and peace stressed by the Busan Assembly, may eventually push visible unity to the periphery of the ecumenical moment”. In his view the inter-religious dialogue, a major ecumenical challenge of present times, has become “an area of marginal importance; it needs serious attention”. His Holiness expressed his concern about the Orthodox participation and contribution, “which have been significantly reduced”. As to WCC-Catholic collaboration, His Holiness Aram I considered it a vital dimension of the Council’s work and called for “the broadening of its agenda and revising of its methodology”.

In the evening, His Holiness Aram I and delegation attended a special prayer service organized by the St Egidio community at the St. John the Lateran Church in Rome. In his sermon, the Catholicos spoke of the theological and spiritual meaning of martyrdom (martyria) and linked it to the Armenian Genocide in 1915, when one-and-a-half-million Armenians were massacred by Turkey. He then spoke of the historical importance of St. John the Lateran Church and the St. Egidio community, which began as a movement in 1968 following the Vatican II Council. He then added, “In appreciation of the commitment of its members to justice and peace, during my last visit to the community I offered relics of Armenian martyrs from the Chapel of the Martyrs of Genocide in Antelias.”

At the end of the service, the leadership of St. Egidio held a special reception to honor His Holiness Aram I and his delegation.

On Thursday morning, in a private meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis, His Holiness Aram I briefly discussed the following issues: The Christian presence in the Middle East, challenges and concerns facing the churches in the region, the Syrian conflict and the problems facing the Armenian community in Aleppo and Kessab, the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the bio lateral dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the presidential election in Lebanon.

Following the private meeting between the two Pontiffs, Pope Francis I met with Catholicos Aram I and the delegation accompanying him. In his speech the Catholicos noted that since 1997 he has had the opportunity to meet Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and currently, His Holiness Francis I.

Catholicos Aram I then spoke of the special relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholicosate of Cilicia both during the time of the Kingdom of Cilicia and after the Genocide when it settled in Antelias, Lebanon.

The Catholicos then expressed his appreciation of the Pope’s effort to take the church to the people, which he said is also at the heart of the Armenian Orthodox Church and to which it is fully committed. He then invited all churches to leave confessional differences aside and face together the urgent challenges confronting humanity.

Speaking of the Middle East Aram I said that despite the current violence in the region, Christians would continue to witness for their faith, fulfill their duties and demand their rights as citizens of their countries.

Addressing the 2015 Centenary of the Armenian Genocide, the Catholicos thanked the Pope for his past positions towards the Armenian cause and spoke of the one-and-a-half-million Armenians that had lost their lives and of the churches, homes, sources of livelihood, spiritual and cultural heritage that had been lost in the Genocide that had been perpetrated upon the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. The Catholicos paid tribute to Pope Benedict XV who denounced the Armenian Genocide in a letter to Sultan Mehmet V in 1915. In his conclusion Catholicos Aram I asked Pope Francis I to continue advocating for the rights of the Armenian People.

In his response, Pope Francis said that “Commitment to the cause of Christian unity is known to all. You have been especially active in the World Council of Churches and you continue to be most supportive of the Middle East Council Churches, which plays such an important role in assisting the Christian communities of that region as the face numerous difficulties. Nor can I fail to mention the significant contribution which Your Holiness and the representatives of the Catholicosate of Cilicia have made to the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. I am convinced that on our journey towards full communion we share the same hopes and a similar sense of responsibility as we strive to be faithful to the will of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Referring to the Armenian Genocide, the Pope said that “the Armenian people represent a part of the Christian world that is irrevocably marked by a history of trials and sufferings courageously accepted for the love of God. The Armenian Apostolic Church has had to become a pilgrim people; it has experienced in a singular way what it means to journey towards the Kingdom of God. The history of emigration, persecutions and martyrdom experienced by so many of the faithful has inflicted deeps wounds on the hearts of all Armenians. We must see and venerate these as wounds inflicted on the very body of Christ, and for this very reason a cause for unfailing hope and trust in the provident mercy of the father”.

At the end of formal speeches, the two Pontiffs and the delegation accompanying Catholicos Aram I, coming from Europe, the Middle East, North and South Americas, attended a special service. Following the prayers, the delegates were formally introduced to the Pope. At the end of the meeting, Catholicos Aram I and the accompanying Armenian clergy were the guests of Pope Francis I for lunch.

Later in the day His Holiness met with the Ambassadors of Armenia and Lebanon. Lebanese ambassador General George Khoury stressed the particular importance of His Holiness’ visit to the Vatican, for the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular. He reminded that Pope Francis has always showed his support for the Christians in the Middle East. His Holiness in his turn emphasized the importance of unity and peace in Lebanon as well as electing a president for the Lebanese republic as soon as possible.

During his meeting with the Armenian ambassador Michael Minassian, His Holiness mentioned that being in the Armenian embassy it feels like being on an Armenian land. The Catholicos highlighted the important role of the Armenian ambassadors around the word, in relaying the recognition and reparation of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. His Holiness also met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Parolini. They discussed issue related to the Middle East as well as major concerns and challenges facing the Christian communities. The Armenian Genocide was also discussed and His Holiness appreciated the support of the Vatican.

On the other hand, Cardinal Parolini expressed his concerns regarding the actual situation of Christians in the Middle East. He also reminded that the Vatican continues its support of the Armenian cause.

Afterwards, His Holiness met with the President of the Eastern Catholic Churches Department Cardinal Sandrini. The issue of Middle East was brought up and they stressed on the importance of collaboration between the churches.

On the last evening of the official visit to the Vatican, His Holiness Aram I, the accompanying clergy and the delegates held a festive dinner.

After joyful singing, recitation of poems and thanksgiving, the Catholicos addressed the delegation and described the visit as a positive step in ecumenism and in giving visibility to Armenia and the Armenian cause. Referring to the Catholicosate of Cilicia, he said that the people were at the heart of its mission. He then acknowledged the urgency of the reformation of the Church, and announced that the two Catholicoi had agreed to make the issue as their priority.

In his conclusion, His Holiness urged the delegates and through them the people in their dioceses to be involved in the life of the church and to give concrete expression to its vocation and mission.

The evening closed with the singing of the Cilicia anthem and the final blessings of Catholicos Aram I.

The visit of His Holiness concluded on Friday, June 6.

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