Speaking of national churches in Rome, ours is a very special example," said
Father Yiejhiayan Elia, pastor of Rome's Armenian Catholic community. "Our
parishioners are all Armenians, and one of our main objectives is the
preservation of our national identity and culture."
That goal was very evident in the sunny courtyard of the Pontifical Armenian
College (home for approximately 15 Armenian seminarians studying in Rome), where
we waited one May day to meet with Father Elia. In the cloister, a large
terra cotta Armenian cross honored those Armenians - about 1.5 million,
historians estimate - massacred in Turkey in 1915. Just a month before, on April
24, the parish had commemorated the 1915 genocide, and the walls were still
decorated with silk banners in the Armenian national colors: red, blue and
orange. There were also notices for Armenian language classes for children and
adults, and for liturgical chant courses.
An Ancient People, Sorely Tried
Anyone who studies the history of Armenia will be amazed at the resilience of
the Armenian people.
In the first century before Christ, this ancient kingdom in southwest Asia
stretched from the Caucasus to the Mesopotamian desert, and from the Caspian to
the Mediterranean Sea. But its situation as a buffer region between greater
powers turned Armenia into a battleground.
Ancient Armenia was successively invaded, occupied, ravaged and dismembered
by contending empires (Romans, Persians, Sassanids, Byzantines, Mongols and
Tartars, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Imperial and Marxist Russia). The Armenian
people were persecuted, oppressed, dispersed, and finally all but wiped out by
the Ottoman Turks in 1915 in a systematic genocide. More than 1.5 million
Armenians lost their lives and another 500,000 fled their homeland, according to
But the Armenians survived. Today, there almost 6,000,000 Armenians in the
world, nearly 3 million outside of Armenia and 3 million in the ancient
Those left in their homeland after World War II formed the smallest republic
in the USSR, and then became the first of these to declare independence in 1991.
And all these - abroad or at home - have tenaciously defended their national
culture, language - and above all their religion.
Armenian's Christian Identity
Armenia's national identity is defined by its Christian faith. The nation's
most famous landmark is Mount Ararat, where scripture reports that Noah's Ark
landed safely after the Great Flood. That biblical site now lies in Turkish
territory, in the very area where Armenians were deported and massacred in 1915.
The first state in the entire world to embrace Christianity, Armenia made the
Christian faith its national religion in about 301, a decade before Constantine
forbid persecutions of Christians in 313, and nearly a century before the
Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman
Empire in 380.
According to Armenian tradition, Christ's disciple St. Thaddeus and the
Apostle Bartholomew preached the Gospel and suffered martyrdom in Armenia during
the first century AD. But it is St. Gregory the "Illuminator" who is credited
with establishing the Armenian Christian Church.
There are many different versions of that important event. Supposedly,
Gregory was a noble Armenian, forced to flee his country after his father had
killed the ruling monarch in a family feud. Raised as a Greek Christian in
Cesarea, Gregory returned to his homeland to secretly expiate his family crime
by serving faithfully in the Court of King Tiridates III.
One day, the loyal and esteemed servant (by now a high court official), was
asked to sacrifice to a pagan goddess. He refused, proclaiming himself a
follower of Christ. Enraged, Tiridates ordered Gregory to undergo gruesome
tortures and then threw him into a deep well where he remained for more than 10
years. Later, wracked by a terrible illness (by some accounts a paralyzing
depression born of remorse), King Tiridates was persuaded to recall Gregory and
have him pray to Christ the Lord. Then, upon his recovery, the grateful king had
himself and his entire court baptized in a nearby stream and dedicated his realm
with all its inhabitants to the Christian faith.
Two other important events mark the early history of the Armenian Christian
Church. In the early 400s, the Armenian Monk Mesrob invented the Armenian
alphabet, into which he translated the Bible, the Church Fathers, and early
theological works. The Armenian Church thus liberated itself from Greek and
Syrian influence to affirm its own cultural identity and establish its own
national language based liturgy.
Another decisive event was the Battle of Avarayr in 451. In 449, the Persian
"King of Kings," to whom Armenia was subject at that time, decreed that all
Christians in his realm should convert to Mazdeism. An immense revolt broke out
among the Armenian people, who incited their nobles to rise up against the
Persian oppressors. Led by the brave warrior Vartan, the vastly outnumbered
Armenians fought so courageously that their fame has been sung throughout
history. The struggle was lost, but Vartan, his warriors, and all the martyred
bishops and priests took their places among a hierarchy of Armenian saints...
and most Armenians remained Christian.
Armenia is now celebrating 1,700 years since its Christian conversion, and
throughout its troubled history of invasion, persecution and decimation, the
Armenian nation has been held together by the mortar of its Christian faith. Yet
this is not so simple as it seems on the surface. For the Armenian Church is not
one, but two.
The fork in the road came in the year 451. That year a significant Church
Council took place in Chalcedon. Totally preoccupied by its war against Persia,
the Armenians sent no delegation, and afterwards refused to accept the Council
decisions. These proclaimed that Jesus Christ possessed two natures, one divine,
one human, refuting the prevalent "Monophysite" heresy which taught that Jesus'
divine and human natures were fused into one. Thus, by rejecting the
Chalcedonian dogma, the Armenians separated both from Rome and Greece. Armenian
theologians contend that their Church is not Monophysite and emphasize their
acceptance of the three Church councils before Chalcedon: Nicea (325),
Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). Their profession of faith is the Nicene
Creed used by Roman Catholics even today. (Unfortunately, it is not possible in
this short space to explore the intricacies of Armenians' rejection of Chalcedon
dogma, which are in any case quite difficult for non-theologians to comprehend.)
In the end, there were two Churches: (1) the Armenian Apostolic Church to
which 90% of the Armenian people belong and (2) the Armenian Catholic Church,
to which about 5% of all Armenian belong, and which is in union with Rome. The
Armenian Apostolic Church still remains separate from both Orthodoxy and
Roman Catholicism. It traces its roots to the Apostle Bartholomew and his
A fraction of the Armenian Church did accept the Chalcedonian dogma,
remaining in communion with the Greek Church, and after the Great Schism of
1054, with the Pope in Rome. Relations with Rome were strengthened at the time
of the Crusades, and many Armenian Catholics made pilgrimages to Rome to visit
Peter's and Paul's tombs and pay homage to the Roman pontiff.
Unfortunately, conflict has often marred the relations between these two
Churches. The much larger Armenian Apostolic Church (about 6 million
members) is headed by its Catholicos in the ancient monastery-city of Echmiadzin
in Armenia. Armenian Catholics (500,000 strong) first set up their own
patriarchate with a Catholic Catholicos in Sis, Cilicia (Lebanon) in 1741, and
later transferred their headquarters to a new monastery in Bzommar (Lebanon).
It was the Apostolic Catholicos Karekin I who opened the Armenia-Rome exhibit
at the Vatican Museum and invited the Pope to Armenia. (Father Elia laments that
Armenian Catholics are still being excluded from preparations for the July papal
visit to their country.) In general, however, ecumenical relations between the
two Armenian Churches are now quite cordial. In fact not only Catholics but
Apostolics and Protestants - and even one Muslim family - attend Armenian
Catholic churches in Rome.
Rome's Armenian Churches
The Armenians"" first national church in Rome was the very ancient S. Maria
Egiziaca, given to them in 1563 along with a hospice by Pope Pius IV
(1559-1565). When that church was sequestered by the Italian state in 1832, the
community moved to S. Biagio on the Via Giulia, a gift of Pope Gregory XVI
(1831-1846), and when S. Biagio grew too small for their needs, to the larger
church of S. Nicola da Tolentino in 1883. There Pope Leo XIII also built them an
adjacent seminary, the Pontifical Armenian College.
The Armenians' history is more interesting than their actual church in Rome.
Nevertheless, the building is still worth a visit. First constructed as an
Augustinian convent in the early seventeenth century (1606-1624), the edifice
was completely renovated in 1653 by Prince Camillo Pamphili, nephew of Pope
Innocent X (1644-1655), in thanks to S. Nicola, whose intercession had saved his
beautiful wife from death during childbirth.
The church of S. Nicola is Baroque in style and has the form of a Latin
cross. Prince Pamphili entrusted the overall design to Bernini's rival sculptor,
Alessandro Algardi (1595-1654), whose main altar we still admire. A marvelous
painting of St. John the Baptist in the right hand transept is the work of
Giovan Battista Gaulli (1639-1709), called il Baciccia, renowned for his
illusionist vault frescoes in the Church of Il Gesu. The Baroque's preeminent
painter, Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), decorated the chapel behind the
presbytery, and his paintings from that chapel often go on tour to international
A painting (by F. Laurenzi) of the Augustinian S. Nicola da Tolentino, patron
saint of the original Augustinian convent, still hangs over the main altar. But
in other parts of the church, S. Nicola's presence has been superseded by saints
dear to the Armenian Church. The second chapel on the right (facing the altar)
has a painting (by G. Gagliardi) of a meeting between Pope Sylvester and St.
Gregory the Illuminator, in Rome; the event never actually took place, but the
illustration symbolizes the union of the Roman and Armenian Churches.
On the left wall of that chapel is a monument to the famous Armenian Cardinal
Gregory Agagianian, flanked by the virgin martyr Hripsime and St. Vartan. The
left transept altar has a rather gaudy portrait (by Barberis, 1929) of Blessed
Der-Gomidas Keumurdjian, martyred by Apostolics in Constantinople in 1707. That
work may soon be removed in deference to ecumenical sensitivities.
Mass is celebrated in the solemn Armenian-language liturgy at 11:00 a.m.
every Sunday in S. Nicola da Tolentino. and in S. Biagio every Saturday evening