Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia from 24 to 26 June, La Stampa interviewed Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, who knows the country very well and will be accompanying the Pope on his trip.
By Cristina Ugoccioni
Your Eminence, what is the essence of the Pope’s visit to Armenia?
“I think this visit is first and foremost a sort of pilgrimage: the Pope’s gesture is one of affection and admiration for this ancient Church with its century-old Christian tradition; it is an act of devotion towards this country, the first to adopt Christianity in 301 when St. Gregory the Illuminator led the entire nation to conversion and baptism. The Pope will bring his gratitude and esteem for a people who were moulded by the Christian spirit and managed to protect the precious treasure of faith and their own identity for centuries. This is the spiritual power upon which Armenia can build a future of peace and hope. I also believe this trip will very important for the entire Armenian diaspora, all those men and women living in Europe, the US, South America and many other countries, who are shining examples of the values and human and Christian wealth of this people. Francis’ word and blessing will be a great comfort to them and act as a stimulus.
You have been to this country a number of times, the last time being in 2015, when you celebrated the consecration ceremony of the Holy Martyrs Armenian Catholic Church in Gyumri: what is it about the Armenian people that strikes you the most?
“What strikes me about this people, arousing my deep admiration, is their spirit of sacrifice, their ability to face each historical event – both in times of freedom and in times of persecution and suffering – with an authentic Christian spirit, remaining rooted in Christ’s cross. Khatchkars (carved, memorial stele bearing a cross) are effective symbols of this connection with the cross; they are present across the country, almost like a visible bone structure. Perseverance in the faith, humility and a spirit of service are Armenia’s strong points and what has helped this huge Christian community to get through and overcome the terrible hardships of the 20th century which affected over a million and a half Armenian Christians.”
What impact have these great hardships had on the soul of the Armenian people and their spirituality?
“These incredibly painful events have left an indelible mark on them. I am thinking of the Armenian liturgy: what I find most striking about it are the chants: they are heart wrenching, they seem to come from somewhere deep within the soul. They express a spirit of devotion to God, a faith that has never been denied or sold but preserved at a high price, with suffering. This is a people that is very familiar with suffering. The prayer I feel rising up spontaneously in my heart as I think of Pope Francis going to touch the Armenian nation with the oil of consolation and compassion, is that all of this pain will beget greater hope and love.”
How do you view current relations between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church?
“I perceive them to be very fraternal and particularly friendly. The Catholic community is tiny in terms of numbers and we need to be grateful to the Lord for the fact that the Armenian Apostolic Church – thanks to the generosity of Karekin II and his predecessor Karekin I – has allowed the Catholic Church to exist and to live the faith and acts of charity in service of the people fully. I am thinking, for example, of the work carried out by the Missionaries of Charity in Spitak and Yerevan and at Ashotks hospital, which until today has been run by the Camillians and the Little Sisters of Jesus. This hospital was donated by Caritas Italy at the request of John Paul II, after the devastating earthquake of 1988. I am certain that Pope Francis’ visit will forge even closer ties between the two Churches, fostering stronger and more fruitful ties of fraternity, friendship and mutual support that will lead to an industrious cooperation in many fields.”
Do you foresee that Pope Francis and Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians will draft a “Joint Declaration” as St. John Paul II and Karekin II did back in 2001?
“I presume a Joint Declaration will be drafted on this occasion too, underlining and emphasizing the common faith in Christ our Saviour and expressing the intention and willingness to build ever growing fraternal ties between us with the grace of the Lord.”
Do you think Pope Francis’ visit will sway the OSCE Minsk Group, the group of mediators who have sought a solution – so far unsuccessfully – to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over who has control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region?
“I definitely think this visit will be an opportunity to draw attention to and encourage those values that are the backbone of every human community: the rejection of violence, the use of arms that cause immense suffering and the tenacious pursuit of peace through diplomatic means, dialogue, understanding and negotiations. I think that during his visit to Armenia, the first leg of his journey to the Caucasus region (in September Francis will go to Georgia and Azerbaijan), the Pope will send out a strong appeal for peace and a heartfelt invitation to work towards turning the Caucasus into what it already is in geographical terms: a bridge between East and West.”