Francis and Armenian Orthodox patriarch say churches are one in prayer, action

This story appears in the Francis in Armenia feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin II, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, greet the crowd after participating in a divine liturgy at Etchmiadzin in Vagharshapat, Armenia, June 26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis and Catholicos Karekin II, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, greet the crowd after participating in a divine liturgy at Etchmiadzin in Vagharshapat, Armenia, June 26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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While there may continue to be theological obstacles to the full unification of the different long-separated Christian communions, Pope Francis and the head of the Oriental Orthodox Armenian apostolic church both boldly declared Sunday that their communities are already one in prayer and action.

During an Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the Armenians' mother church here, Francis and Catholicos Karekin II echoed one another in separate remarks.

The Armenian leader said in his homily for the liturgy that during the pope's Friday-Sunday visit to the country the two communities had "reconfirmed that the Holy Church of Christ is one in the spreading of the gospel of Christ in the world, in taking care of creation, [in] standing against common problems."

In his remarks at the end of the liturgy, the pontiff declared: "We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ. We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one."

Moments later Francis turned to Karekin and asked for a blessing, requesting the patriarch to "bless me and the Catholic Church, and to bless this our path towards full unity." The two then embraced in a fraternal hug with three kisses on the cheeks.

The shared sentiment of unity among the two leaders carries special significance as the Catholic and Armenian churches have been separated since the fifth century.

The Armenian church, which traces its founding to the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, is one of six churches that form Oriental Orthodoxy. Those churches, which have about 84 million members together, recognize only the first three ecumenical councils.

Francis and Karekin were speaking at a liturgy held in the square outside the Armenian church's Etchmiadzin Cathedral, a fourth century building that is among the oldest cathedrals in the world.

As the Catholicos led the Armenian community in a liturgy marked by use of elegant gold and red-trimmed liturgical vestments and chanted music with strong vibrato, the pope sat on the side of the sanctuary, using a booklet to follow along in the rite.

It was only the second time that Francis had publicly attended an Orthodox liturgy since his election in March 2013, following a liturgy with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2014.

Later in the afternoon Sunday Francis and Karekin released a joint common declaration in which they stated: "We gladly confirm that despite continuing divisions among Christians, we have come to realize more clearly that what unites us is much more than what divides us."

"We urge our faithful to work in harmony for the promotion in society of the Christian values which effectively contribute to building a civilization of justice, peace and human solidarity," they continued. "The path of reconciliation and brotherhood lies open before us."

The Christian leaders also used the statement to speak out about what they called the "immense tragedy" of displacement and targeting of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Invoking Bartholomew and Thaddeus alongside the apostles Peter and Paul, founders of the Christian church in Rome, they called for "a change of heart in all those who commit such crimes and those who are in a position to stop the violence."

"We implore the leaders of nations to listen to the plea of millions of human beings who long for peace and justice in the world, who demand respect for their God-given rights, who have urgent need of bread, not guns," they stated.

Francis and Karekin also invoked Jesus' words in Matthew's Gospel about seeing him in the hungry and giving them food, or in the stranger and welcoming them, asking Christians "to open their hearts and hands to the victims of war and terrorism, to refugees and their families."

"At issue is the very sense of our humanity, our solidarity, compassion and generosity, which can only be properly expressed in an immediate practical commitment of resources," they stated.

In his homily at the Divine Liturgy earlier Sunday, Karekin reflected on the Armenians' Gospel reading for the day, which was Matthew's account of Jesus' feeding of 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fishes.

"The essence of this miracle, which became one of the important missions of Christ’s holy church, is the satisfaction of empty spirits by the Lord-given teachings and the support of the needy through compassion," said the Catholicos.

"The Lord urges his followers to rejuvenate faith by works, to conjoin prayer and worship with compassion, and to give alms; through which, by the appeasement of hardship and tribulations, we are co-workers with God," he said.

The Armenian leader also said that faith in God today "is being tempted and human souls are being hardened during times of hardship and difficulties as well as during times of wealth and lavishness, when they are disengaged with the concerns of those who long for daily bread and are in pain and suffering."

"The root of evil in modern life is in trying to build a world without God, to construe the laws and commandments of God which bring forward economic, political, social, environmental and other problems, that day by day deepen and threaten the natural way of life," said Karekin.

In his three-day visit to Armenia, Francis has been sending both ecumenical and political messages.

On Saturday he called on Christians to "abandon rigid opinions" in the search for unity among their different communions and demanded the wider world not forget the lessons of the World War I-era killings of some 1.5 million Armenians.

Visiting the large memorial complex to the killings in Yerevan, the country's capital, the pontiff wrote in its guestbook that memory of the event "should not be watered-down or forgotten."

Francis is to conclude his visit to Armenia Sunday afternoon with a trip to the apostolic church's monastery of Khor Virap, an historic institution that dates to the seventh century and is within walking distance of the Armenia-Turkish border.

The pope is to return to Rome Sunday evening.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.] 

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