VATICAN CITY (combined sources)–Pope John Paul paid homage to the Armenian Church’s history of martyrdom on its 1,700th anniversary on February 17. The pontiff presided at an Armenian rite service at St. Peter’s Basilica with the Armenian Catholic Patriarch–Nerses Bedros XIX. The liturgy was slow and solemn–including choirs and ancient chant.
"The whole Armenian culture and spirituality has been pervaded by boldness characterized by the supreme sign of giving one’s life in martyrdom," the pope wrote in an apostolic letter to mark the anniversary. After the Mass–he spoke of the 1915 killings of Armenia’s in Ottoman Turkey–calling it "martyrdom" a "constant element" of Armenian history.
"It is a memory which must not be forgotten," the 80-year-old Pontiff said–although he stopped short of mentioning Turkey or using the word "genocide."
Indeed–before his farewell to the Armenian pilgrims and the 20,000 faithful who gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the end of the Mass–the Holy Father said: "Martyrdom is a constant element in the history" of the Armenian people.
"Seventeen centuries ago–the word of Christ resounded in Armenia," the Pope said. "It was an alliance that did not need rethinking–despite the fact that fidelity cost blood–and exile was the price for refusing to renounce it."
In his homily–the Pope addressed the contemporary challenges Armenia’s face. "In experiencing increasingly the influence of secularization in the modern world–at times it is difficult to continue to maintain firmly this spiritual legacy–which has made Armenia a ‘Christian’ nation," the Holy Father said. "At times faith is considered only a personal gift and quest–forgetting that it is the common property of a people."
The Pontiff explained the challenge now faced by Christianity with a question: "How is it possible for the social conquests of modernity not to lose the richness of the continuity of a people and their faith?"
The Armenian Catholic patriarch received from the Pope the gift of a relic of St. Gregory the Illuminator–something the Pope had offered Karekin–saying: "Let us not divide the relics; rather–let us work and pray that those who receive them will unite."
The Holy Father ended his words expressing two profound hopes: to visit Armenia and to promote unity among Christians.
"Now I anxiously await the day in which–God willing–I will finally be able to kiss your beloved land–sprinkled with the blood of so many martyrs; visit monasteries where men and women were spiritually immolated to follow the Paschal Lamb; meet Armenia’s of today–who are determined to find dignity–stability and security of life again.
Rome and the Armenian Church maintain good relations and the Pope has been invited to visit Armenia later this year by Catholicos Karekin II.