Relics of St. Gregory Returned to Etchmiadzin

* Pope John Paul II acknowledged Armenian Genocide in joint communiqu with Karekin II. VATICAN–On the morning of Friday–November 10–His Holiness Karekin II and His Holiness Pope John Paul II jointly presided over an ecumenical liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Thousands of people–including many faithful of the Armenian Church and from the Armenian-rite Catholic order–were present at the impressive ceremony–during which the Pope placed the Relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator into the keeping of Catholicos of All Armenia’s.

The ecumenical service transferring the relic was celebrated mostly in Armenian–with Armenian hymns sung by a mixed choir of seminarians from the Armenian Catholic seminary–the Armenian Catholic Sisters of the Immaculate Conception–and the Mekhitarist fathers–brothers–and students in Rome. Pope John Paul II offered several prayers in Italian–and once blessed the congregation using the Armenian words–"khaghaghootiun amenetsoun" ("Peace unto you all").

Also participating in the ceremony were Arch. Zaven Chinchinian–Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Egypt–who read from the Holy Gospel. Bishop Navasart Kjoyan–Patriarchal Vicar of the Araratian Diocese–took possession of the holy relic from the Pope at the end of the ceremony–presumably to assure its safe return to Armenia.

The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America was represented by Fr. Daniel Findikyan–who served as censor (poorvaragir) together with Fr. Michael Atchabahian–Primate of the Diocese of Gumri in Armenia. Deacon Vartan Garabedian of St. Mary Armenian Church in Livingston–NJ–held the relic while one by one the Pope–the Catholicos–and all the attending cardinals–archbishops and bishops venerated the sacred relic. Deacon Anoushavan Margaryan of St. Gregory the Enlightener Armenian Church in White Plains–NY–chanted the Nicene Creed. Diocesan Council chairman Haig Dadourian read a passage from the Prophet Micah.

The ceremony opened with a breathtaking procession: a column of more than two dozen Catholic cardinals and bishops entered–followed by fifteen Armenian bishops and archbishops. Next the sacred Relic of the Illuminator was brought in–held aloft by four deacons–with the Archbishop of Naples–Cardinal Michele Giordano–close behind. Finally the Pope and the Catholicos entered the procession–drawn on a small cart standing side-by-side. (In recent years Pope John Paul II has ceased walking down the long central aisle of St. Peter’s due to his weakening physical condition. The Pope insisted–however–that Catholicos Karekin II ride next to him during the processional and the recessional.)

As is the custom for all liturgical services in St. Peter’s Basilica–a beautiful service booklet had been prepared and distributed–which contained the entire service in Armenian–Italian and English. The cover was adorned with a full-color reproduction of an Armenian miniature from the year 1676 from the Library of the Mekhitarian Fathers in Venice–depicting St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Pope of Rome–St. Sylvester.

In Armenian–Catholicos Karekin II offered the principal prayer of the ceremony–composed especially for this historic occasion.

For more than 500 years–the Relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator have been conserved and venerated in the Monastery of St. Gregory the Armenian–in Naples–Italy. The principal relic is rather large: a tall–glass-and-gold reliquary encases what is believed to be the saint’s femur (thigh-bone). Accompanying it are iron manacles believed to have been worn by St. Gregory during his imprisonment in the dungeon of Khor Virab.

Tradition holds that Greek and Armenian faithful took the relics of the saint with them when they were forced to abandon their countries of origin. Their search for a safe haven led them to an ancient monastery in Naples–dating back to the time of St. Helen–mother of the 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine. The monastery was later dedicated to the Armenian saint–and remained well-known in the city of Naples. In times of uncertainty and persecution for the Armenian people–the religious community of the Monastery of St. Gregory preserved the relics of the saint and implored his intercession for the Armenian people.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Naples and the Monastery of St. Gregory generously agreed to transfer this relic of St. Gregory to the Armenia Church in anticipation of the 1700th anniversary of the conversion of Armenia–which will be observed in 2001. (St. Gregory the Illuminator was–of course–the Christian missionary who baptized Armenia’s king in A.D. 301 and thereafter established the line of supreme patriarchs of the Armenian Church.)

With the relic now transferred to the Catholicos of All Armenia’s–it will be taken to Armenia–where it will eventually be preserved in the new cathedral being constructed in Yerevan. The mammoth cathedral will be dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator; its solemn consecration by Catholicos Karekin II is scheduled to take place in September 2001.

On the morning of Saturday–November 11–His Holiness Karekin II presided over the opening of a day-long scholarly symposium. The gathering–dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity–was organized to honor the Catholicos of All Armenia’s’ visit to the Holy See of Rome.

The symposium took place at the Pontifical Oriental Institute–a Vatican university dedicated to the study of the theology–history–liturgy and canon law of the Eastern churches–including the Armenian Church. Several Armenian clergymen have studied at the Oriental Institute–including Arch. Khajag Barsamian (the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America) and Fr. Daniel Findikyan (of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary).

The international symposium had been organized by Professor Robert F. Taft–S.J.–Professor of Eastern Liturgy and Vice-Rector of the institute.

Catholicos Karekin entered the institute flanked by his delegation of 15 archbishops and bishops–along with a number of cardinals and high-ranking officials of the Vatican. Also present was Achille Cardinal Silvestrini–Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern (Catholic) Churches–and Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

The symposium opened with welcoming words by Fr. Taft–followed by remarks from the Rector of the institute–Professor Hector Vall Vilardell–S.J.–and by Cardinal Silvestrini.

The Catholicos then addressed the assembly in Armenian–with one of his entourage translating into English. His Holiness spoke about the importance of Christian education for the Armenian church and for all churches. He cited the need for trained clergy and laypeople to be able to reinvigorate the Christian faith of Armenia in the wake of the disastrous effects of decades of the "absolute secularization" of the Armenian people during the Soviet period. He praised the work of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and looked forward to collaborating with the Roman Catholic Church in various joint educational ventures.

Following the Catholicos’ remarks–the symposium itself began. The speakers were all internationally renowned specialists in Armenian history and theology; the lectures and the distinguished scholars who presented papers on topics related to the church.

On the same evening His Holiness Karekin II met with His Holiness John Paul II in the Apostolic Apartment–the Pope’s residence within the Vatican.

At 5:35 p.m. the Catholicos of All Armenia’s and his delegation were transported across the Vatican compound to the entrance of the Apostolic Apartment. As the delegation arrived–they were formally received by the Swiss Guard–which stood at attention.

After a 45-minute private meeting between the Catholicos and the Pope in the Pope’s private office–the entire delegation of bishops and priests was led into the Pope’s main reception hall–where the Catholicos personally introduced each member of the delegation to His Holiness the Pope. Following a few brief remarks by both the Catholicos and the Pope–the entire retinue proceeded to yet another larger reception hall–where more than 75 Armenian benefactors and other dignitaries had been invited >From the United States–Europe and South America–to witness the historic meeting of the 132nd Catholicos and the Pope.

When the two pontiffs entered the hall–they were seated next to each other in two ornate thrones. First the Pope read his address–and then the Catholicos.

The guests were then invited to come forward and greet the Catholicos and the Pope–after which the pontiffs exchanged gifts. The Catholicos presented the Pope with a silver triptych of religious images–while the Pope presented the Catholicos with a large reproduction of an ancient mosaic of the Madonna and Child whose original is found in Rome’s St. Mary Major Basilica.

Finally–a Joint Communiqu was signed by the Catholicos and the Pope–which was read aloud by Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy–President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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