ARMENIA–On October 27–1999–Armenian Christians chose a new leader for their church. His Eminence Archbishop Karekin Nersissian was elected as the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenia’s–the most authoritative office in the Church’s hierarchy–and a designation roughly equivalent to the Pope of the Church of Rome.
Earlier this year–Armenian Church communities around the world had elected delegations of lay and clerical leaders–who journeyed to Armenia to elect the new Catholicos–the 132nd in a continuous line dating back to the 4th century. These leaders met in a National Ecclesiastical Assembly–which began on Tuesday–October 26–at Holy Etchmiadzin–in Armenia.
More than 400 Armenian Christians from local communities around the world–both clergy and laymen–participated in the deliberations to elect a successor to the deceased Catholicos Karekin I Sarkissian–who died last June after a reign of less than five years as leader of the global Armenian Church.
In the first of two ballots–the assembly delegates narrowed a slate of nominees from among the bishops of the church down to two candidates: Archbishop Karekin Nersissian and Archbishop Nersess Bozabalian–the locum tenens of the Holy See–who had been overseeing the operations at Holy Etchmiadzin since the death of the previous pontiff. On the second ballot–Archbishop Karekin Nersissian was elected by a vote of 262 to 188.
The enthronement of the newly elected Catholicos of All Armenia’s will take place on Sunday–October 31–1999–at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. Background on the National Ecclesiastical Assembly appears below.
Before his election as 132nd Catholicos of All Armenia’s–Archbishop Nersissian was Vicar of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese–the largest diocesan jurisdiction of the worldwide Armenian Church–incorporating the region surrounding the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. He is a native of Armenia–and his relative youth promises a long tenure on the pontifical throne–which is a lifetime position. After his enthronement this Sunday–he will be known as His Holiness Karekin II–Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenia’s.
The Catholicos-elect was delivering his acceptance speech when news arrived that Armenia’s Prime Minister Vasgen Sarkissian had been murdered during a session of Parliament in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan–located 12 miles from Holy Etchmiadzin. The National Ecclesiastical Assembly was immediately adjourned–and the delegates–which include 50 from the United States–are reported safe and unharmed in the unrest surrounding the assassination.
Unlike other churches–in which the selection of a leader is usually conducted behind closed doors by a strictly clerical body–in the Armenian ecclesiastical tradition laymen make up the majority of electors who choose the church’s pontiff; clergy made up only about one third of the vote in the recent election. This tradition dates back to the earliest generations of the Armenian Church–in the 4th century ad–when representatives of the kingdom’s feudal clans would converge on the fortress capital of Vagharshabad to select the "universal patriarch."
The tradition has varied somewhat over time: lay representation has shifted from feudal lords to the rising merchant class to today’s elected representatives–which satisfies the republican spirit of the modern age. But the basic principle that the catholicos should be chosen by the Armenian people–an attribute denoted in the title "Catholicos of All Armenia’s"–has remained steadfast despite changing political and social realities in Armenia. The present election is the second to take place in the independent Republic of Armenia.
The first catholicos of the church was St. Gregory the Illuminator–who converted the Armenian king Tiridates in ad 301 and established the Church of Armenia. (Prior to this–Armenia was officially a pagan kingdom–although a vigorous minority Christian community had been established there by two of Jesus Christ’s original apostles–Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholomew.) To this day–the catholicos occupies the Throne of St. Gregory.