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A Special Christianity
The Armenian Catholic Community in Rome
(Inside the Vatican) June 1999

June Hager

Interior of the Armenian church in Rome 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 Armenian historians.

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 homeland.

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

Solemn Mass at S. Nicola, Rome 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.

Monument to the Armenian genocide 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 disciple Thaddeus.

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).

Painting symolizing the union with Rome 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 museums.

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 at 6:30.

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Home | New | FAQ | Search | Forum | Links

All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library