Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sui Juris Churches XVII: The Armenian Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Armenian

Primary Liturgical Language: Armenian

Juridical Status: Patriarchal

Approximate Population: Somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000; exact numbers are difficult to achieve because the population of Armenian Catholics is very scattered.

Brief History: According to longstanding tradition, the first churches in Armenia were founded by the Apostles St. Bartholomew and St. Thaddeus. As the church grew, it underwent several persecutions until the great St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III; in 301, Tiridates proclaimed Christianity the official religion of Armenia, making Armenia the first officially Christian nation in the world. The principal bishop of the nation became known as the Catholicos. Armenian bishops participated in the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople; none participated in the Council of Ephesus, but that Council's decisions were accepted by the Armenian hierarchy. War with the Persians likewise prevented any Armenian bishops from participating in the Council of Chalcedon. Embrace of Chalcedon turned out not to be quite so simple; the Armenians were closely connected to bishops in the Roman Empire who were Monophysites, and appear to have affirmed the Emperor Zeno's Henotikon, an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the two sides of the dispute.

At the Second Council of Dvin in 555, the Armenians seem to have broken communion with the Chalcedonian hierarchy in the Roman empire. The action seems to have been extraordinarily controversial in Armenia itself; several Armenian churches refused to accept the decision, including the rather important churches of Georgia and of the Aluans. The result is that Armenian Christian history involves a very strange fluctuation for the next several centuries, in which it is difficult to work out when the Armenians, and which Armenians, can be considered in communion with Rome and New Rome. The anti-Chalcedonian party seems to have largely managed to keep a hold of the most important sees, but there seems almost always to have been at least some Armenian bishops who were actually in communion with Constantinople or Rome. In the late sixth century, for instance, the Armenian church was itself broken by schism for a while when two different Catholicoi were elected by the anti-Chalcedonian and the Chalcedonian parties, and the Georgian Church simply broke off entirely. In addition, there are several instances in which the main trunk of the Armenian Church reunited with Constantinople, only to end up breaking off again when political tensions increased or a new Catholicos was elected. There are other cases, like that of the great Nerses Shnorhali, in which the Catholicos clearly made a good-faith attempt at reunion but was defeated by Byzantine politics -- in Nerses Shnorhali's case by Imperial demands he did not regard himself as having the authority to grant.

Over time Armenians migrated from Greater Armenia into Anatolia and Cilicia, which became known as Lesser Armenia; with the invasions of the Seljuk Turks, refugees poured into Cilician Armenia. The See of the Catholicos was also transferred to Cilicia. During the Crusades, which were beginning around the same time, Cilician Armenia became very close and important allies of the Crusaders, and thus the Armenian Church came into regular contact with Rome. In 1194 Grigor VI Apirat was elected Catholicos in Cilicia; but his election was opposed in Greater Armenia, who elected an anti-Catholicos. In part because of this, Gregory entered into communion with Rome. In practical terms, this seems to have remained mostly at the level of a formality, and very little seems to have been done to follow through with it, although there were occasional attempts on either side. Likewise, after the fall of Cilicia to the Mamluks, there was another attempt at reunion by the Council of Florence in 1439, but nothing came of this again. Things became even more complicated in the 1440s when the double Catholicosate developed, with a (primary) Catholicos in Etchmiadzin in Greater Armenia and a (subordinate) Catholicos in Sis.

Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did anything begin to come together fully, although it should be noted that its doing so depended in part on the frameworks that were already in place due to the (many) previous attempts at union. It was a complicated development however; the Armenian Catholic Church as it exists today arose not out of a single union but out of an entire series of small, independent unions that were then consolidated. An important early major step was the formation of the Friars of Unity of St. Gregory the Illuminator in the fourteenth century, in which an Armenian monastery in Nakichevan affiliated itself with the Dominicans. This Dominican-Armenian offshoot, which would become a Dominican province in the sixteenth century and exist until the early nineteenth century, became the seed around which many scattered Armenian Catholic communities began to develop. Another major step was when a small community of Armenians living in Poland and modern Ukraine under Mikołaj Torosowicz united with Rome in the seventeenth century. Other small communities in Transylvania and elsewhere followed suit.

The most important step, however, was when a community of Armenian Catholics elected Abraham-Pierre I Ardzivian as their own Catholicos of Sis. Ardzivian asked Rome for recognition, and in 1742 the great Benedict XIV officially formed the Armenian Catholic Church, consolidating Ardzivian's followers, the Polish Armenians in communion with Rome, and the various other small groups of Catholic Armenians, into one organization. Like the Armenian Church itself, the original Armenian Catholic Church had a sort of dual headship, with Ardzivian as Catholicos of Sis and an Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Constantinople each operating independently. A major reason for this duality was the complication involved in working around the religious laws of the Ottoman Empire. This double church would be more completely integrated in 1866 by Pius IX -- not without some difficulty, since the Armenians in the jurisdiction of Constantinople resisted the move, despite the fact that it had been accomplished by letting the Archbishop of Constantinople succeed to the office. This problem would take more than a decade to work out completely.

Armenian Catholics flourished for a while, but dark days were on the horizon. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Russian persecution of Armenian Catholics desolated the eparchy that had been created for Armenian Catholics in Russia. Beginning around 1915, the Ottoman Empire began systematically arresting, deporting, and eventually killing Armenians. Perhaps 100,000 Armenian Catholics died, many others were scattered into a diaspora, and the hierarchy of the church within Turkey was almost annihilated. As an emergency measure, the primary see of the Church was moved from Turkey to Lebanon, where it still may be found. The rise of Communism also took its toll, since Armenians were found throughout the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and significant portions of the church were suppressed until the Armenia became a Republic in 1991.

The Armenian Catholic Church has always been a highly literary church. One of the major holidays of the liturgical calendar is Holy Translators Day, celebrating Saint Sahak and Saint Mesrob (who touched off a theological and literary golden age by developing the Armenian alphabet, translating the Bible and Greek theological works into Armenian, and developing a commentary tradition) and those who have followed in their footsteps. The Mechitarist, a monastic order founded in 1710, have devoted themselves without cease to studying, preserving, and teaching the Armenian heritage. The problems the church has faced over the years have sharply limited its ability to follow this impulse of its character, but as things have cleared up, it has begun to reassert itself more vigorously. Time only will tell what will come of it.

Notable Monuments: The Cathedral of St. Elie and St. Gregory the Illuminator in Beirut, Lebanon; the Church of Our Lady of the Dormition in Bzommar, Lebanon; the church of San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani in Rome, Italy.

Notable Saints: St. Gregory the Illuminator (September 30); St. Sahak and St. Mesrob (February 17); St. Gregory of Narek (February 27); St. Nerses Shnorhali (August 13). There are also quite a few other saints who are not on the general calendar but are venerated on the Armenian Catholic calendar, like St. Nerses of Lambron (July 17). In addition, there is a large crowd of Armenian martyrs, both in the Armenian Genocide (like Bl. Ignatius Maloyan) and under Communist persecution, who may be raised to the general calendar at some point.

Notable Religious Institutes: The Mechitarists are extraordinarily important, not just for the Armenian Catholic Church in particular but for the Catholic Church as a whole. There are also the Patriarchal Congregation of Bzommar, and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: The Patriarchate of Cilicia in Lebanon; four archeparchies in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and the Ukraine; six eparchies, an apostolic exarchate, and three ordinariates, all scattered around the world. (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside of any official jurisdiction of the church. This is perhaps especially true of the Armenians, who are an unusually dispersed church.)

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