Message to Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, for the 1,700th Anniversary of the Baptism of Armenia

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

On the occasion of the 1,700th anniversary of the Baptism of the Armenian nation, the Holy Father sent the following Message to His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia. We publish the original English text.

To His Holiness Aram I
Catholicos of Cilicia

"Jesus came and said to them: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age"' (Mt 28,18-20).

Between the two solemn liturgical celebrations of Ascension and Pentecost, these words of the Risen Lord are proclaimed in all Christian communities. In the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, celebrating today the 1,700th Anniversary of the Baptism of the Armenian nation, they resound with a particular significance. These words of Jesus explain why, in the year 301, St Gregory the Illuminator baptized the Armenian King Tiridates III, and they illumine the resulting fact that shortly thereafter the whole Armenian nation came to confess the Christian faith and to be baptized. "The whole Catholic Church rejoices in recalling this providential Baptism, by which your noble and beloved nation definitively joined the ranks of the peoples who accepted new life in Christ" (Apostolic Letter for the Baptism of the Armenian People, 2 February 2001).

The Risen Lord assured his disciples: "I am with you always, to the close of the age". How many times in the course of Armenian history have your people put their whole trust in these words! In glorious times, when the Armenian nation could live the Christian faith in freedom and joy, this promise of the Lord was remembered with confidence and pride. In dark periods, when bitter persecution and expatriation tormented the Armenian nation, it was remembered in desolation and pain. On this 1,700th anniversary celebration, may all Armenians be able to look again to the future with trust, assured that the Lord never abandons his faithful flock.

The Catholicosate of Cilicia represents in a particular way the age-old pilgrimage of Armenian Christianity. When the ancient Armenian kingdom was attacked and eventually destroyed, many of the faithful fled to Cilicia, where a new kingdom was established, with Sis as its capital city. In this area, Armenian Christianity prospered for centuries, until in the late 19th and early 20th centuries drastic political and social shifts caused the Armenian faithful to be again dispersed. Many of them fled to neighbouring countries, especially to Lebanon and Syria, while others set out for a world-wide diaspora. The horrible massacres that led to the death or the emigration of so many of your ancestors are part of your common memory. They inflicted deep collective and personal wounds that are still in need of healing. To the Apostle Thomas, Jesus said: "Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe" (Jn 20,27). Armenian hands have repeatedly touched the painful wounds inflicted on the suffering Body of Christ. But likewise, the splendour that radiates from the glorified Body of Christ has never ceased to illuminate Armenian hearts and minds.

Situated at a kind of crossroads between different peoples and cultures, the Catholicosate of Cilicia established, since the Middle Ages, cordial relations and fruitful exchanges with Byzantine, Syriac and Latin Christianity. Many saintly shepherds and spiritual leaders of Cilicia worked assiduously for reconciliation and full communion among Christians. They followed the teaching of Nerses of Lambron, who wrote: "I think it is useful to remind Your Piety that love is the first of all God's commandments ... the Lord gave us this precept, which was new at the time ... Let us not contravene it by nurturing jealousy towards other Christians" (Letter to King Levon of Cilicia). Down the centuries, cordial relations also developed between the Catholicosate of Cilicia and the Catholic Church. Frequent exchanges of letters and visits, and even attempts to restore full communion, were part of this continuing fraternal communication.

The 1,700th Anniversary of the Baptism of Armenia represents a providential opportunity to celebrate and renew the fraternal bond between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Church. In recent times, an increase of contacts has given rise to a new closeness. With regard to the Catholicosate of Cilicia, His Holiness Catholicos Khoren I paved the way, visiting the Church of Rome and Pope Paul VI in 1967. His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I, who knew the Church of Rome very well since he was present at the Second Vatican Council as an observer, visited me twice, in 1983and in 1992. Finally, Your Holiness has followed in the ecumenical footsteps of both your illustrious predecessors. On the occasion of your visit to Rome in 1997, we had the great joy of signing a Common Declaration, in which we stated that "when Christian communities are more deeply engaged in ecumenical dialogue, a serious rapprochement supported by mutual respect and understanding is the only sound and reliable way to full communion" (25 January 1997).

Your Holiness is a dedicated promoter of Christian unity and you hold a position of high responsibility in many ecumenical bodies, including the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches. Consistent with the best tradition of the Armenian Church, always open to other ecclesial traditions as complementary rather than contradictory, Christian reconciliation and fellowship have been among your primary concerns. I pray that the Holy Spirit will sustain your ecumenical commitment and make it increasingly fruitful, as we set out on a new Christian millennium.

To mark the 1,700th Anniversary celebration of the Baptism of Armenia I am greatly pleased to be able to send you a prestigious relic of St Gregory the Illuminator as a gesture of affection in the Lord. I have recently sent a similar relic to His Holiness Karekin II, as well as to His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX. As shared gifts between Catholics and Apostolics, "the relics of the same Saint are the symbol of a close unity in faith and a strong encouragement to unity in Christ. I am sure that, venerated by the Armenian people without distinction, they will increase the communion that Christ desires for his disciples. Thus brotherhood will be strengthened in charity. We are not dividing the relics, we are working and praying that those who receive them will be united. The same roots and a continuous history of saints and martyrs can prepare a future for your people of full participation and a visible sharing of faith in the same Lord" (Homily at a Divine Liturgy in the Armenian rite, 18February 2001, n. 5).

On this happy occasion I have asked Cardinal Walter Kasper to convey to Your Holiness the assurance of my heartfelt prayer for the Catholicosate of Cilicia and for the entire Armenian people. I make my own the beautiful prayer of the Armenian tradition: "We thank you, Father Almighty, who did prepare for us the Holy Church as a haven, a temple of holiness, where the Holy Trinity is glorified. Alleluia. We thank you, Christ the King, who did grant us life through your life-giving and holy Body and Blood, grant us forgiveness and your great mercy. Alleluia. We thank you, Spirit of Truth, who have renewed the holy Church. Keep her without blemish through the faith in the Trinity from henceforth for ever more. Alleluia" (Prayer of Thanksgiving after Communion). With these sentiments I embrace you as my dearly beloved brother in the heart of the Risen Saviour.

From the Vatican, 20 May 2001.


This year Armenian Christians celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of the baptism of Armenia through the ministry of St Gregory the Illuminator. Armenia is the first nation to embrace Christianity officially. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which gave Christians the freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman Empire only in 313.

St Gregory’s life foreshadowed the persecution of the Armenian Church down the ages. Because of his Christian faith, he spent 13 years imprisoned in a dark pit, the dungeon of Khor Virab, the dungeon of the doomed, not much more than 10 feet square at the bottom of a 6 metre deep shaft by command of King Tiradates. Only after this cruel suffering was St Gregory able to bear public witness to his baptismal faith and preach the Gospel.

According to tradition, an angel appeared and told Gregory he would eventually be safe. In 301 Tiradates was spurned by a Christian virgin. He killed her and 36 virgin friends and then went insane. However, his sister had a dream that he would be cured if Gregory would be released. Gregory was then set free, cured Tiradates, and converted him to Christianity, which became the state religion. Despite his sufferings, Gregory rejected bitterness, took up the way of purity by preaching the life-giving word of God. Gregory became Armenia’s first bishop.

That year he had a vision in which Christ appeared in a village near Armenia’s current capital, Yerevan, and struck the ground with a golden hammer. It was holy Etchmiadzin near Mt Ararat. A great cathedral appeared. Gregory ordered one built there. Seventeen centuries later it is the seat of the Armenian Church.

Gregory’s life foreshadowed the path of suffering that marked the history of the Armenian Church. In 390 Armenia became divided between the Byzantine and Persian Empires, and in 430 the monarchy disappeared. Since then the Armenians have been subject to Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Russians and their unity has consisted in the bond of race, language, literature and religion. The Armenians have suffered persecution intermittently throughout their history, and a large part of the whole nation was massacred by the Turks, and later also by the Russians between 1893 and the present. Such wars and upheavals forced Armenians to leave their coutnry and settle in Lebanon, Syria, Europe and America.

During the centuries of persecution from Persians and Arabs, from the end of the 9th century to the middle of the 11th century, there was an independent kingdom of Bagratids in Armenia. The medieval kingdom of Cilicia or Little Armenia existed as an independent kingdom from the 12th century to 1375. During this period of independence, the Armenians of Little Armenia were united with the Holy See. They adopted many practices from contact with the West. Armenia sent representatives to the Council of Florence (1438-9) which issued the famous instruction for the Armenians.

The present organization of the Church consists of the Patriarchate of Etchmiadzin (the Patriarch is the head of the Armenian Church), the Catholicate of Sis, and the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople. There are about two and a half million Armenians. About 160,000 are in communion with the Holy See.

To mark the 1700th Anniversary of the baptism of Armenia, the Holy Father sent three segments of the precious relics of St Gregory the Illuminator to (1) His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, (2) His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, and to (3) His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, Patriarch of Cilicia for Armenian Catholics. The Holy Father sees in the sharing of the relics a strong encouragement to unity in Christ.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 June 2001, page 5

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