An Anniversary Like No Other

The leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, reflects on the past, present and future of this ancient community of faith.

by Armineh Johannes

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Squeezed between Turkey and Iran, flanked by the Black and Caspian seas, and surrounded by mountains, the country of Armenia holds a significant place in Christendom. Historical Armenia (much of which lies in modern Turkey and Iran) is home to Mount Ararat, the extinct volcano where Armenians believe Noah’s Ark landed, where humanity regenerated after the Deluge. Armenia was also the first nation-state to embrace Christianity.

This year, the entire nation of Armenia will celebrate the day when in 301, Gregory, known as the Illuminator, baptized the Armenian king, Tiridate III, who then officially adopted Christianity as the faith of the nation. This faith has withstood centuries of persecution and suppression, bolstering the identity of a people squeezed between far superior powers to the east, west, north and south.

There are two purposes for this historical celebration: to honor 1,700 years of Armenian Christianity and to refocus the mission of the Armenian Church in the next millennium.

In order to go forward, one must also look back. So, Armenians will follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Since the baptism of Tiridate III, pilgrimage has been an essential element in the lives of Armenia’s Christians. Pilgrimages to holy sites in Armenia will be a significant aspect of the anniversary celebration; through these journeys pilgrims will have a chance to re-enkindle their own faith as well as visit sites that define Armenian Christianity.

On 10 November, Pope John Paul II presided at an ecumenical liturgy held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to commemorate this anniversary. Present at the liturgy, on his first visit to Rome, was Catholicos Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. During the solemn liturgy, the Pope presented the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator to the Catholicos. Held in a monastery in Naples for hundreds of years, the relics will be placed in the new cathedral in Yerevan when completed. Though the Father of Armenian Christianity will, after centuries abroad, finally rest in his own land, the church he founded cannot. There are far too many challenges besetting this worldwide community of five million believers.

“The Armenian Apostolic Church is confronted with questions of the laws and traditions of the church, clerical celibacy, cremation, abortion, the use of Grapar (the liturgical language of the Armenian Church) and liturgical reform,” commented the Catholicos in an interview late last year.

“The Council of Bishops has been summoned to provide replies to such questions. I think, in the years to come, the council will propose appropriate solutions so the rituals of our church will become more accessible and comprehensible to believers, and will enrich their spiritual lives.

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