Expectations in Armenia are high preceding the visit of Pope Francis to the country. “The Holy Father is coming to strengthen us Armenians in our faith. We Armenians, no matter whether Catholic or Orthodox, love him. After all, he recognised the genocide of our people. We will always remember him for that,” Armenian Catholic Archbishop Raphael Minassian, who is responsible for Eastern Europe, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in an interview.
Pope Francis will visit Armenia from 24th to 26th June. “In the past year, the pope showed strong moral leadership when he called the genocide committed against our people one hundred years ago by its name and recognised it as the first genocide of the 20th century. This is extremely important to us Armenians.” The archbishop then emphasised that in this respect, one needs to understand the psychology of the Armenian people. “For one hundred years we have worked to have our suffering recognised, but to all intents and purposes without success. We only received empty promises from nations and politicians and were at the mercy of interests. The pope, however, is not a politician. He is the representative of Christ on earth, and he is concerned with truth and human rights,” the archbishop said. He further declared that, despite being on the periphery geographically, Armenia is of great significance to Christianity worldwide.
“Armenia was the first country on earth to adopt Christianity. This was more than 1700 years ago. Our people continue to be influenced by the faith today. Over the centuries we have also given Christianity millions of martyrs. I always say: the Jewish people prepared the first coming of Christ. Through our martyrs, we Armenians are preparing the way for the second coming of Christ. We are bearing witness to Christ for the entire world.”
The vast majority of the Armenian population belongs to the Armenian Apostolic church. The Armenian Catholic church, which is united with Rome and has about 160,000 members, emerged from this church. Archbishop Minassian said that the ecumenical relations between Catholics and the Orthodox majority are now excellent.
“I have been bishop in Armenia for six years. At no point during this time have I felt a divide between us Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic church. On the contrary, I have always been met with cooperation and sympathy. When it now became definite that the pope was coming, the head of the Armenian Orthodox church said to me that he would give his best for the visit. The relationship between our churches would become even stronger. I am also convinced of this.”
He then said that the differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic churches were minimal anyway. “We have the same faith, celebrate the same sacraments and have the same liturgy. The only difference is in the recognition of the pope in Rome. But other than that, there are no differences. And in any case, the Armenians, no matter whether Orthodox or Catholic, feel they are one people and one church.”
The anticipation within the Armenian Catholic church for the papal visit is great, the archbishop said. “We already have a lot more applications from people who want to attend the public Mass that will be celebrated by the pope than can fit into the square. We will therefore broadcast the service on a screen set up in a second square, which the Holy Father will visit after holding the Mass. In all, we are expecting more than 50 000 people to attend the large divine service.” More than 300 volunteers will ensure that the service will proceed in an orderly fashion. “They are already preparing for it with Masses and meetings. Our entire church with its forty parishes is filled with great anticipation. We hope that this will lead to a real deepening of our faith.”
According to Archbishop Minassian, the situation of the church in Armenia is completely different from that in other parts of Western Europe. “There is no secularism here. The Armenians are a religious people. The people have faith. This is a fixed part of life. And our church is alive, even though there are not many of us. But for that we have many charitable projects for the poor, old and disabled. However, we as a church only have limited funds. This makes us even more grateful to Aid to the Church in Need and its benefactors for their generous support. I would like to thank them expressly for this. But now I would like to ask them specifically to pray that the papal visit will be a success.”