A History of Relations Between the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches
Historically, the relations between the Armenian and Catholic churches go back many centuries. During the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia, between the 12th-14th centuries, relations between the two churches became closer.
During this period the Catholicate moved from Etchmiadzin to Sis. In connection with the Crusades, Pontifical Envoys from Rome established continuous contact with the clergy of the Armenian Church, who were hoping to receive political and economic support from the Pope and the Western powers for the Armenian Kingdom. During this period, the Armenian Church adopted some Catholic Church ritual traditions, and Western culture left a tangible trace on Armenian science, art, miniature painting, literature, as well as in various spheres of public life.
In modern history, inter-church relations received a completely new development after the Second Vatican Council, which opened under the pontificate of Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965.
In 1963, at the invitation of Pope Paul VI, Bishop Pargev Gevorgyan and Mr. Gevorg Bekmezyan from the Catholicate of All Armenians, and Bishop Karekin Sarkisian and Bishop Artavazd Trtrian of the Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia, took part in the council as observers.
This began a new chapter in Armenian-Catholic relations. One bit of evidences was the May 8-12, 1970 visit to the Vatican of the Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians Vasken I, accompanied by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Archbishop Yeghishe Derderian, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, His Beatitude Archbishop Shnork Kaloustian. At the end of that historic event, a Joint Declaration was signed1.
In that declaration, the two Supreme Heads “invite all Christians, especially those of the Catholic Church and the Apostolic Armenian Church, to respond with greater fidelity to the call of the Holy Spirit, stimulating them to a more profound unity which will accomplish the will of our common Savior, and will render fruitful service to the world by Christians.” They hoped that a closer collaboration in all possible domains of Christian life, to find authentically Christian solutions to the problems of the world, would prove to be the means to advance the search for full unity.
In response to these agreements, dialogues were initiated between the theologians of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church.
On April 22, 1994, at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches delivered the relics of St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew to the Catholicos of All Armenians.
A new phase of relations began on December 10-14, 1996, when the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I visited the Vatican, together with His Beatitude Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, and His Beatitude Archbishop Karekin Kazanjian, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople․ In the Common Declaration2 signed at the end of the visit, the two pontiffs expressed their hope that the deep spiritual communion already existing between the two churches “should become factors of motivation for further contact, more regular and substantial dialogue, leading to a greater degree of mutual understanding and recovery of the communality of their faith and service.”
Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I, despite declining health, again visited the Vatican on March 24, 1999, for the opening ceremony of the “Rome-Armenia” exhibition in the Vatican’s Apostolic Library, dedicated to the anticipated milestone in the year 2001: the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s baptism as the world’s first Christian nation. Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin I presided together at this event.
One year later, on November 9-10, 2000, the newly elected Catholicos Karekin II paid his first official visit to the Vatican, during which the Pope handed over of the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator. During this visit a Joint Communique3 was signed as a step to bring the two churches closer.
Responding to the invitation of Catholicos Karekin II, Pope John Paul II visited Armenia on September 25-27, 2001, to mark the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s national conversion of Christianity. This was the first visit of a pontiff of a Catholic Church to Armenia. At the end of the visit a Common Declaration4 was signed by the two pontiffs.
On September 10, 2002, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, sent an invitation to all the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches to initiate a theological dialogue between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
On January 27-29, 2003, a Preparatory Committee Meeting5 for the International Theological Dialogue between Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (Catholicate of All Armenians) and Bishop Narek Alemezian (Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia) took part in this meeting on behalf of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
On April 8, 2005, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, accompanied by a delegation, and Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I, attended the funeral for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
On May 6-9, 2008, Catholicos Karekin II with a delegation of high-ranking clergy of the Armenian Church paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI.
An important milestone in the development of relations between the Armenian and Catholic Churches, which has assumed great symbolic significance, was the Pontifical Liturgy offered by Pope Francis, dedicated to the memory of the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, which took place at the Basilica of St. Peter on April 12, 2015. Both the Catholicos of all Armenians Karekin II and the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I were present on this solemn occasion. In his sermon, Pope Francis announced clearly that the Armenian massacres of 1915 and following constituted the first Genocide 6 of the 20th century. During this celebration at the Basilica of St. Peter, Pope Francis also named the Armenian monk, theologian, and mystical poet St. Gregory of Narek as a Doctor of the Universal Church.
Responding to the invitation of Catholicos Karekin II and the President of Armenia, Mr. Serzh Sargsyan, on June 24-26, 2016, Pope Francis visited Armenia. “A Visit to the First Christian Nation” was the motto of this visit. A new Memorandum and a Common Declaration7 were signed during this visit, in which both pontiffs urged the faithful of the two churches to work in harmony to strengthen Christian values in society, which would effectively contribute to the promotion of justice, peace, and human solidarity in the world.
On April 4, 2018, Pope Francis presided over the unveiling8 of a statue of St. Gregory of Narek in the Vatican Gardens. Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I, as well as President Serzh Sargsyan of the Republic of Armenia, were present at this ceremony.
On October 24, 2018, Catholicos Karekin II again made an official visit to the Vatican. During this visit the Catholicos met with Pope Francis, and had meetings with a number of high-ranking clergymen9.
In order to further strengthen the relations between the Armenian and Catholic Churches, on November 27, 2018, Catholicos Karekin II appointed Archbishop Khajag Barsamian as the official representative of the Armenian Church to the Holy See.
On April 27, 2019, Catholicos Karekin II was invited by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, to participate in the ecumenical celebrations of the “Festival of Religions,” at the Basilica of San Miniato in Florence. The festival was dedicated to the 1,000th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Armenian saint Miniato (St. Minas).
His Holiness Karekin II had his most recent meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis on September 27, 2020. During this meeting Catholicos Karekin II briefed Pope Francis about the military aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan against Artsakh.
The Catholicate of the Great House of Cilicia
Several Catholicoi of the Great House of Cilicia have also visited the Vatican on various occasions.
May 3, 1967: Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Khoren I visited Pope Paul VI10.
April 15-19, 1983: Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Karekin II visited Pope Paul VI in Rome. At the conclusion of this visit a Joint Communique 11 was published.
January 23-26, 1997: Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I visited Pope John Paul II and a Common Declaration12 was signed.
November 24, 2008: Catholicos Aram I visited Pope Benedict XVI.
June 5, 2014: Catholicos Aram I visited Pope Francis.
November 11, 2016: Catholicos Aram I met with His Holiness for the second time.
Notes and Sources