Crowns for Armenia

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Armenia, a land of towering mountains, fertile valleys, shimmering lakes[1] , and shifting borders, is located on the continent of Asia, between the Black and the Caspian Seas, pressed between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. In the past, Greater Armenia’s borders have extended: North to the Caucasian mountains and the river Kur, East to the Caspian Sea, and West to include Lakes Van and Urmia, as well as the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. With Lesser Armenia encompassing a portion of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Armenia as a whole once covered approximately 250,000 square miles. Today, it occupies only 11,506 square miles.

This location at the crossroads of mighty nations largely explains why, since ancient times, Armenia has been the battleground of empires and larger nations, dominated at different times by Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Rome, Byzantium, Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union. This, together with a lack of accessible historians, conspires to make Armenia’s history as confusing as her borders. Adding to the confusion are the distorted accounts stemming from the disputes and schisms within the Armenian Church, beginning in approximately AD 550, following the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).

Armenians do not call themselves “Armenians” — the word doesn’t occur in their language. They received their name from other nations, because of the military feats of King Aram, the seventh king of the pre-Christian Armenian kingdom. Because of their lineage from the founder of the Armenian kingdom ‘Haik’, the Armenians call themselves “Haik,’” and their country “Haïasdan.” Armenians throughout history have also called themselves “the house of Thogorma”[2]; twice the Prophet Ezechiel mentions them by this title: first as bringing horses and mules to the market of Tyre, and again as being part of the army of Gog.[3] This last, it should be noted, was not a compliment.

King Haik lived at the time of (and worked on) the Tower of Babel (c. 2500), which was located in the valley above the meeting of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Upon the dispersion of nations, Haik and his people settled in the area North of Babylon: Armenia. As a geographical location, our subject is first mentioned in the book of Genesis viii, 4, when the ark of Noah rested “upon the mountains of Armenia.” Tradition and scientific research prove that this mountain is Mount Ararat. Relevant to this is a tradition about Saint James of Nisibus (called by Armenians: Sourp Hagop of Medzpin) in connection with the ark.

St. James, who died around AD 350, spent the early years of his religious life as a hermit. An eloquent preacher, St. James became a bishop, and was a representative of Armenian Catholics, along with St. Aristakes (younger son of St. Gregory the Illuminator), at the Council of Nicea (AD 325). At that time, there were some people claiming that the ark of Noah had landed on their mountain. To defend tradition and settle the argument, St. James set out to climb Mount Ararat and find the ark, no small task, as the mountain rises 16,854 feet above sea level. (Today, Ararat is no longer within Armenia’s borders, but at the time it was in its heartland.) St. James soon encountered the treachery of the permanently snow-covered mountain: “‘Usually in the morning, the mountain is crystal clear and it’s a beautiful sight. But almost every day about ten o’clock the haze sets in, and by three o’clock, there’s a storm on Mt. Ararat. At lower elevations, it’s a severe thunderstorm, while at higher levels it often results in a blizzard.’ [...W]inds of up to 150 miles per hour send gigantic boulders crashing down the Ararat slopes… the temperature [drops] to minus forty… [there] are loose porous rocks, often causing the climber to slip backwards two steps for every three he takes forward… Probably most dangerous are the huge snow and rock avalanches, which climbers set off merely by talking to each other.”[4] For St. James, “ice, snow, freezing temperature, and the inaccessible terrain marked by ridges, and mountains of sheer rock made his ascent impossible and he [became] hopelessly marooned in one of the innumerable crevices of the mountainside.”[5] At this point, when he was in a state of exhaustion and unable to go on, an angel appeared, bearing in his hand a large splinter of wood. He gave the piece to the saintly bishop, telling him it was a piece of the ark. Saint James joyfully made his descent; and many miracles proved the authenticity of the relic, which is still treasured to this day (unfortunately, though, in the possession of schismatics).

Apostles and Martyrs

There is a debate as to when the Armenians first received the Gospel. Some say that the king of Armenia, hearing of Our Lord’s miracles (during His public life), sent messengers to ask Him to come and cure him of leprosy. The messengers were told that if Our Lord wouldn’t come, they were at least to paint His portrait. They carried out their orders as far as approaching the Apostles[6] , but the messengers being unable to paint the portrait, Our Lord took pity on them and, pressing His Face to the linen gave them a miraculous image to take back to their king. The modern writers when mentioning this account are skeptical about it, since it seems to be a combination of various other stories, but the fifth-century Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, states it as fact.

Be that as it may, we do know that Armenia received the Faith very soon after Pentecost from the Apostles, first from St. Jude Thaddeus, and later from St. Bartholomew. St. Simon “the Zealot” also went throughout the area, but the Armenians do not mention him in their tradition as they do the other two apostles. It was in Edessa (on no less authority than that of St. Jerome and St. Bede) that St. Jude cured and then baptized the Armenian king, Abgar, and a great number of his people.[7] Both St. Jude and St. Simon were martyred in AD 67 by Abgar’s apostate nephew, Sanatrouk. The first was clubbed to death and the second was crucified. Their feast day is kept together on October 28th. St. Bartholomew was martyred in AD 72 in Armenia proper, being flayed alive, and then beheaded. His feast day is on August 24th.

It has been proven throughout history again and again that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” What a treasury of “seed” the Armenian people have! Three apostles gave up their lives in the vicinity of Armenia in defense of the Faith: that Faith only to be found in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, founded by Our Lord Himself. Following their example, many others would give up their lives rather than give up their “pearl of great price.”

King Abgar lived only a few years after his baptism, but during his life he did much to help the spread of Christianity, though the whole nation was not converted at this time. Upon his death, his son Ananias (or Anan) apostatized, returned to the worship of idols, and began persecution of the Christians. One story related is that of Bishop Addé, whom St. Jude had appointed to the see of Edessa. He had been a silk-maker and had previously been employed to make the royal tiara for King Abgar. The apostate Ananias sent for the bishop and ordered him to return to his old trade in order to make a tiara for him. Bishop Addé refused, saying, “My hands shall make a tiara for no head which does not bow down to the dust in honor of Christ.” Furious, Ananias gave orders to have both of the bishop’s feet cut off, which resulted in Addé’s death. But God did not allow Ananias to go unpunished. Years later, when a huge marble column fell from the upper story of his palace and knocked him to the earth, it crushed his legs so badly that he died from shock. The Christians noted that Divine justice had caused the king to be mortally wounded in the same part of the body as Bishop Addé.[8]

Following the death of Ananias, his cousin Sanatrouk took possession of Edessa, sending King Abgar’s wife and daughter into exile, and slaying his remaining sons. With all rivals out of the way, Sanatrouk set about to enjoy his extended domains. Being an apostate, he could not stand to see others receive the light of the Faith, and a most cruel persecution ensued. St. Thaddeus and Sanatrouk’s own daughter, along with a large group of holy women, were among the first to be martyred. St. Bartholomew arrived some time later, also making many converts. These included the general of the army and Queen Thakauhr, Sanatrouk’s own sister. Sanatrouk’s fury was unleashed again, and St. Bartholomew and his two esteemed converts were also martyred. This persecuting king reigned for over thirty years, without successfully crushing the Church in his domains, until a misfired arrow ended his life while he was hunting.

Saint Gregory the Illuminator

The Faith continued to spread with intermittent persecutions, but over a century and a half later, it was prominent enough to be a threat to the pagan ruling class. Then, contemporaneously with the persecution of Diocletian in the Empire, King Tiridates, Diocletian’s own product, began a severe persecution. “Yet in the providence of God this same Tiridates made Christianity supreme in Armenia years before Constantine made it supreme in the Roman Empire, thus making Armenia the first Christian nation.”[9] The story of Tiridates, the lion-turned-lamb, is interwoven with that of the country’s greatest patron (after the above-mentioned apostles) Saint Gregory the Illuminator.

Saint Gregory was born in the middle of the third century, “the son of that Parthian Anak who, about the year 235, murdered King Khosrov [or Chosroes] of Armenia: when the dying king ordered the extermination of Anak’s family, the baby Gregory was smuggled away”[10] by his faithful nurse. She took him to Caesarea, in Cappadocia, where he was raised in a Christian family and was given a thorough Catholic upbringing. The Persian ruler took advantage of the confusion to conquer the Armenian throne, and King Khosrov’s son, Tiridates, was forced to flee for his life to Rome; it was there that he received his military training. The Persians were sun worshipers (“Zoroastrians”),[11] and they did all they could to force this false religion upon the Christian Armenians. This was not a welcome arrangement, for neither the Catholics nor the native pagans had any liking for foreign domination. In 261, Tiridates returned from exile at the head of an army, and aided by the people, he drove out the Persians and ascended the throne.

Meanwhile, St. Gregory had grown up, well instructed in the Holy Scriptures, and in the Greek and Syriac languages. He married a Christian Armenian girl, Mariam, and they had two sons, both of whom became saints: Aristakes and Vartanes. After the birth of their youngest boy, St. Gregory and his wife separated by mutual consent. Mariam entered a religious house in Caesarea, taking Vartanes with her. St. Gregory, leaving Aristakes with guardians to be trained and educated, returned to Armenia to enter the service of King Tiridates. In entering the King’s service, Gregory hoped to work for the conversion of the king and the nation, and also to atone for the crime of his father, who, as previously mentioned, was the murderer of Tiridates’ father. It is not known whether St. Gregory was a priest at the time of his entry into the court of Tiridates, but priest or no, he soon came under the king’s displeasure for the converts he was making, and for refusing to sacrifice to the gods. The situation was not at all eased when a court busybody found out and told the king that Gregory was the son of his father’s murderer. St. Gregory was put through twelve different tortures and was then thrown into “a noisome pit, stinking with corpses, filth, and vermin, where he was left and forgotten for fifteen years!”[12] His survival was no less than a miracle, and a pious woman (possibly the king’s sister) secretly brought him food.

While St. Gregory was fulfilling God’s unfathomable Will in the awful pit, Tiridates began an active persecution of the remaining Christians, and among the martyrs were St. Rhipsime, St. Gaiana, and their companions, mentioned in the Roman Martyrology on September 29. Donald Attwater completely discredits their story, on the basis that the “legends” are “romance of the most barefaced kind.” (Perhaps Mr. Attwater — a sourpuss of a doubting Thomas — didn’t believe in the Annunciation either, because it too was a Divine romance.) The following story of St. Rhipsime (or Hrip’sime) is given in The Golden Book of Eastern Saints, by Mr. Attwater — who did his research, even if he did not believe what he found:

“Rhipsime was a girl of noble birth [possibly from Nisibus in Mesopotamia], one of a community of consecrated virgins at Rome presided over by Gaiana. The emperor, Diocletian, having made up his mind to marry [and having martyred a number of Christian virgins for refusing him — St. Philomena among them], sent a painter around the city to paint the portraits of all those ladies who seemed to be to him eligible, and he did his work with such conscientious thoroughness that he penetrated into the house of Gaiana and made likenesses of some of her maidens.

“When Diocletian examined the portraits his choice fell on Rhipsime, and she was duly informed of the honor that had befallen her. It was not at all to her liking, and Gaiana was so afraid of what the emperor might do at this refusal that she gathered her flock together, went aboard ship, and sailed to Alexandria. From thence they made their way through the Holy Land to Armenia, where they settled down in the royal city of Valarshapat, near Mount Ararat, and earned their living by weaving. The great beauty of Rhipsime soon attracted attention, but the noise of their arrival apparently reached Rome before it came to the ears of King Tiridates, for Diocletian wrote him asking him to kill Gaiana and send Rhipsime back — unless he would like to keep her for himself. Thereupon Tiridates sent a deputation to fetch her to his palace with great magnificence, but when it arrived at her house, and Rhipsime appealed to Heaven for help, so fierce a thunderstorm at once broke out that the horses of the courtiers became unmanageable and they were all thrown into hopeless confusion. When Tiridates heard this and that the girl refused to come, he ordered her to be brought by force, and when she was lead into his presence, he was so attracted to her that he tried to embrace her on the spot. Rhipsime not only resisted but threw the king ignominiously to the floor, and in a rage he ordered her to prison. But she escaped and returned to her companions during the night.

“At morning when they found her gone, the king sent soldiers after her with orders that she was to be put to death and all the other maidens with her. St. Rhipsime was roasted alive and torn limb from limb, and St. Gaiana and the rest to the number of thirty-five were likewise brutally slain; St. Mariamne was dragged to death from a bed of sickness, and only one, St. Nino, escaped.”[13] This St. Nino made her way to Georgia as a slave, and is greatly responsible “by her beautiful humility and all her prayers and by her wonderful miracles [for converting] thousands and thousands to the one, true Faith.”[14] Her feast day is kept on December 15th (where she is listed as St. Christiana[15]).

Not long after passing this barbaric sentence, King Tiridates came down with lycanthropy, a “mental disturbance, associated with schizophrenia, in which a person thinks he is a wolf.” As anyone would imagine, a king who thinks he is a wolf would tend to upset a kingdom, but the lupine king was cured, thanks to his sister, Khosrovidukhte. When no remedy was of any avail, she reminded the court of the holy man-in-the-pit, whom she had likely fed all those years. St. Gregory was released, called for, and his prayers wrought the cure of King Tiridates. In thanksgiving and repentance, the king, his wife, and his sister received the Sacrament of Baptism. There followed the preaching of St. Gregory, which (together with prayer and fasting) reaped such results, that thousands of Armenians converted. The year was 314. Armenian tradition gives the year as 304, but upon the finding of St. Gregory’s ordination records, the date is now given as above. Since the Roman Empire did not become Catholic until 381[16] , the Armenians can justly claim to be the first nation to convert to Christianity.

Forty Holy Martyrs

Probably the most famous martyrs of Armenia are the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebastia, whose feasts are March 9th and 10th. The praises of these martyrs have been sung by saints such as Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Ephrem the Syrian, Gaudentius, John Chrysostom, and Robert Bellarmine; and historians such as Tillemont, Baillet, Ruinart, Cellier and Assemani. Their relics, thanks to Sts. Basil and Emmelia,[17] have been greatly treasured throughout the East, from Caesarea to Constantinople, with many miracles attending their veneration.

These martyrs were soldiers of the twelfth legion, from “different countries, but enrolled in the same troop, all in the flower of their age, comely, brave, and robust… so famous under Marcus Aurelius for the miraculous rain and victory obtained by their prayers.”[18] In 320, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Licinius, this legion was “quartered in Armenia. Lysias was the duke or general of the forces, and Agricola, the governor of the province.” When Agricola relayed to the soldiers the orders of Licinius that all must sacrifice to the gods, forty of the soldiers “went boldly off to him, and said that they were Christians, and that no torments should make them ever abandon their holy religion.” The governor tried in many ways to change their minds: first with promises and gentleness, then with threats and anger. To his frustration he found them steadfast in their resolve, for they answered that “he could give them nothing equal to what he would deprive them of; [...and] that his power only extended over their bodies, which they had learned to despise when their souls were at stake.” The fuming governor had the forty men whipped and their sides torn with iron hooks, after which he ordered them to prison, loaded with chains.

St. Mary's in Etshmiadzin, reputed to be the largest church edifice in the world.

Upon the arrival of their general, Lysias, a few days later, the martyrs “were reexamined, and no less generously rejected the large promises made them then they despised the torments they were threatened with. The governor, highly offended at their courage, and that liberty of speech with which they accosted him, devised an extraordinary kind of death, which being slow and severe, he hoped would shake their constancy. The cold in Armenia is very sharp, especially in March, and towards the end of winter, when the wind is in the north as it then was, it being also [a time of] severe frost. Under the walls of the town stood a pond [or lake], which was frozen so hard, that it would bear walking on with safety. The [governor] ordered the saints to be exposed quite naked on the ice. And in order to tempt them the more powerfully to renounce their faith, a warm bath was prepared at a small distance from the pond, for any of the company to go to who were disposed to purchase their temporal ease and safety on that condition [that they sacrifice to pagan gods]. The martyrs, on hearing the sentence, ran joyfully to the place, and without waiting to be stripped, undressed themselves, encouraging one another in the same manner as is usual among soldiers in military expeditions with hardships and dangers, saying that one bad night would purchase them a happy eternity.”[19] They also made this their joint prayer: “Lord, we are forty who are engaged in this combat; grant that we may be forty crowned, and that not one be wanting from this sacred number.” The guards in the meantime ceased not to persuade them to sacrifice, that by doing so they might be allowed to pass to the warm bath.” One of the forty gave in under the pain, but “as the devil usually deceives his adorers, the apostate no sooner entered the warm water but he expired.” This disaster greatly distressed the martyrs, but they were quickly comforted by seeing one of the guards take his place. This soldier, standing by, had seen a vision of angels bearing forty crowns, along with gifts and costly garments, to the martyrs. Inspired by this sight, he declared himself a Christian, and, casting off his garments, joined the thirty-nine on the ice.[20]

The judge ordered that the bodies of the martyrs be cast into a fire upon their death, but when the soldiers were placing them in a cart, they found that the youngest, Melitho, was still alive. “[T]he executioners, hoping he would change his resolution when he came to himself, left him behind. His mother, a woman of mean condition, and a widow, but rich in faith and worthy to have a son a martyr, observing this false compassion, reproached the executioners; and when she came up to her son, whom she found quite frozen, not able to stir, and scarcely breathing, he looked on her with languishing eyes, and made a little sign with his weak hand to comfort her. She exhorted him to persevere to the end,” and picking him up, carried him to where the bodies of the other martyrs were being burned. He died in her arms, and she placed his body with those of his comrades. “Go, go, Son, proceed to the end of this happy journey with thy companions, that thou mayest not be the last of them that shall present themselves before God.”

Golden Age of Armenia

The fourth and fifth centuries are called the “Golden Age” of the Armenian Church, for it is a time of discovery and learning, on both the natural and supernatural planes. These two centuries are rich in saints, for St. Gregory left, upon his death, a re-established, firmly grounded, and growing Church.[21]

St. Nerses Bartev (“the Great,” d.373), an Armenian catholicos (the title is similar to that of “patriarch”), is famous for his reforms, his monasteries, and some of the first hospitals, orphanages, and roadside hostels in the Middle East. One of his best students was his son, St. Sahak (Isaac) Bartev (348-439), who became a monk and a deacon at a young age, and became the second catholicos, following St. Nerses. This occurred just after Armenia had been divided between Byzantium and Persia, with an Armenian figurehead-king, giving St. Sahak great opportunities for diplomacy and peacemaking. “During his rule he did away with the custom of married bishops, confirmed the autonomy of his church, [and] founded many monasteries.”[22] His holiness and encouragement of letters mark his reign.

Sts. Mesrop and Sahak

Up until this time, the Armenians had no written language. Not only was this a handicap on the natural level (especially when half the country uses Greek and the other half Persian, creating a cause of division), but on the supernatural level, also. “Faith comes by hearing,” but catechisms and other educational tools are useful, especially when it comes to accuracy in Holy Scripture.

A student of St. Nerses the Great remedied that situation. St. Mesrop Mashdotz (“the Teacher,” 361-440) had become a monk at the age of forty. (At his ordination he took the name “Mesrop,” being a derivative of the Hebrew word for Seraphim, the highest choir of angels.) Prior to this, he had been the king’s “keeper of the royal seals” and had received an extensive education in various languages. As a lad he studied under St. Nerses the Great. Upon giving up the world and becoming a hermit-priest, St. Mesrop led the life of a dedicated monk. “At the very heart of this life was the love of Christ, and all else was subordinate to it. His burning desire to help his people along the path of the true religion kept him in a permanent state of healthy restlessness and enabled him to disregard any time-and-energy-consuming concern for his own self.”[23] He recognized the need for a written Armenian language, primarily to help preserve and teach the faith, although he also recognized its advantages to the nation. The difficulty lay in finding an alphabet that could express all the sounds of their spoken language. He tried the Greek and Syrian alphabets, then combinations of the two, but these were of no avail. There was always some sound that could not be reproduced on paper. He went for aid to St. Sahak, who sent him to Mesopotamia to meet with linguistic scholars there, but after making set after set of letters, he still found words he was unable to write. After St. Mesrop realized that he could not do it on his own, he received divine aid. While praying one day, he came upon the solution. “Not in sleep as a dream, nor in a vision while awake, but in the workshop of his heart he saw, manifested to the eyes of his spirit, the fingers of a right hand writing on a rock… the exact figures of all the characters were collected together in his mind as a miracle.” A combination of Greek and Syrian letters, with two letters he had never seen before, he now had a 36-letter alphabet with which he could express every sound.

This account of Mesrop’s alphabet has not been without critics, and it is not so documented that it is above question. If the story is an apocryphal legend (as there are many in the stories of Armenian saints — many dreamed up to deny Roman supremacy and justify schism), it is certainly not a harmful one. The critics of the miraculous account say, “Nice story, but Mesrop invented characters and then had a calligrapher turn them into a uniform system.”

His first translation was a fitting passage from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.”[24] How is it possible to express the joy that must have filled St. Mesrop’s heart as he hurried to tell the good news to his patriarch! The rest of St. Mesrop’s life was spent teaching a core group of forty pupils, and through them the rest of the people, to read and write their own language, while St. Sahak set his monks to translating. Among their works are: the Greek Septuagint (this version of the Old Testament was first priority), the sermons of St. Ephrem the Syrian and those of St. John Chrysostom, the Liturgy of St. Basil, the liturgy of Syria (the Armenian liturgy is a combination of the two), and Eusebius’ history of the early Church. Theodosius II of Constantinople, once persuaded by St. Mesrop of the benefits involved, gave invaluable aid to the saint’s work.

St. Mesrop was also responsible for the administration of the catholicos’ office in St. Sahak’s absence, the stabilization of the rites of the sacraments and other ceremonies, missionary work in Georgia and ancient Albania (a district of Eastern Caucasus), and for assisting the Albanians and the Georgians in creating their alphabets.

St. Sahak was sent for a time into exile when the quarrelling Armenian lords asked the king of the Persians to depose the Armenian king, Artashir. The catholicos tried to reason with them, but they would only answer, “He is a bad king.” To which St. Sahak replied, “I know, but a sick lamb is better than a healthy beast.” The lords soon regretted their stubbornness, for the Persians proved themselves oppressors, not saviors. The Persian king allowed St. Sahak to return from exile (although not to his patriarchal chair at Val’arshapat) six years before his death, and he spent the last years of his life strengthening his flock in the Faith. The catholicos (the last direct descendant of St. Gregory the Illuminator) and St. Mesrop died within a year of each other in AD 439 and 440, respectively. This, after having “explained the wisdom of God, by establishing on earth the living letter, to preach to the new Israel with sweet songs,” in the words of a hymn for the feast of Sts. Sahak and Mesrop (September 9th).

Other Notables of the Golden Age

St. Leontius (or Ghevont) of Vanand was a tremendous preacher, particularly strong against Zoroastrianism. As a pupil of St. Mesrop, he learned the Armenian characters and helped much with the great work of translating. St. Leontius was with Vartan Manigonian at the battle of Avarair against the Persians, and was captured by them. The Persians tortured him by dragging him over sharp, jutting rocks, but they were unable to shake his faith. “You have lost your senses and have caused your immortal souls to become mortal and to be devoured by the inextinguishable fires of hell.”[25] Furious, the Persians finally had him beheaded.

Although not canonized saints, the two great historians of Armenia also lived at this time: Movses of Khoren and Yeghisheh (or Eghishe-Elias). Movses is responsible for the tremendous History of Armenia, a three-volume work. It was he who traced the Armenian lineage back to Noah, who recorded the story of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and who recorded the history of Armenia, ending with the death of St. Mesrop. Why did he write about his country? In Movses’ own words: “Although we are a small patch in the garden and very limited in numbers, and [although] we have been subdued by foreign kingdoms, in our country, also, there are deeds of valor worthy of writing and recording.” The last chapter (68) of the third book is a lamentation over the pitiful condition of his country and countrymen, a lament most of us can repeat about the land of our birth. “I mourn thee, Land of Armenia, I mourn thee [...because] disorder has taken firm hold; orthodoxy has been dislodged; wickedness has been imbedded in ignorance.” He continues “with a complaint about the unholy attitude and criminal complacency of all classes of people.”[26] “Teachers — stupid and conceited, [...] transformed into wolves tearing asunder their flock. Clericals — hypocritical, [...] lovers of glory rather than lovers of God. Primates — lovers of proud matters, empty-worded, haters of learning and philosophical writings, lovers of business and comedies. Pupils — lazy to learn, impatient to teach, who have become theologians without having yet learned. Civic leaders — insolent, licentious, braggart, shunning work, inebriate, rancorous and escaping from their spiritual heritage. Military men — cowardly, boastful, haters of arms, lazy, covetous, weak, predatory, drunkard, marauders, having the same characteristics as thieves. Princes — rebellious, companions of thieves, corrupt, filth-lovers, having the mentality of serfs. Judges — ill-bred, falsifying, deceitful, corrupt, non-defenders of justice, unstable, contradictory. And generally, love and shame have left them all.” Movses ends his book with these words: “May Christ the Lord save us, and all who truly worship Him, from them. Glory to Him from all the created. Amen.”

Yeghisheh was a student of Saints Sahak, Mesrop, and Cyril of Alexandria. Following the battle of Avarair, he lived as a hermit, in caves, moving whenever his retreat was discovered. He is best known as the “man who with his fiery pen immortalized the epic of Avarair and kindled the patriotic spirit of Armenians for generations…. His magnificent narration of the tormented life of Armenian womanhood, who in spirit shared the tortures and sufferings of their loved ones in exile and servitude [following the defeat on the plains of Ardaz, of which Yegisheh was an eye-witness], is the most impressive and beautifully expressed passage in the Armenian classical literature of the fifth century.”[27] He also had a great love of Truth, for he “pulls no punches” in berating clergy who apostatized and became Zoroastrians, those bad shepherds now leading their flocks astray. “You were instructors of apostolic teachings; are you now to be disciples of an errant deception? You were teachers of the truth; are you now to profess the false doctrine of the magi [infidel magicians — not the Three Kings]? You were expounders of the powers of the Creator; are you now to profess the elements to be gods? You reprimanded deceitfulness; are you now to be more deceitful than deceit itself? You were baptized in fire and spirit; are you now to be engulfed in ashes and dust? You were nurtured by living flesh and immortal blood; are you now to be defiled with greasy tallow and the filthy blood of sacrificial offerings? You were the temples of the Holy Ghost; are you now to be sacrificial chambers of demons? You were clothed in the spirit of Christ from infancy; now, denuded of glory, are you to dance before the sun like devils? You were the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, now you have made yourselves inheritors of Gehenna…You had been free since childhood; but you entered miserably into inescapable servitude.”[28]

Krikor Naregatzi, Aremnian mystic.

Other great writers at this time, the Age of Translators, included Koriun (the biographer of St. Mesrop), Joseph of Paghn, John of Ekeghets, Joseph Voyots Tzorits, Leantius of Vanand, John Manatagooni and Lazarus of Pharp (Gazar Pharpetsi), among others. One of them, Esnik of Koghb, wrote a refutation of heresies. He is called a “doctrinarian,” and classified with other Church Fathers, such as Tertullian, St. Hippolytus, and St. Epiphanius.

“It has often been remarked, and with perfect truth, that it was to the invention of the Armenian alphabet, and the publication of [Sts.] Mesrop and Sahak’s [translation] of the Bible in that language that the nation owed not only its retention of Christianity during the terrible persecution that so quickly followed the fall of the dynasty, but even its very existence.”[29] About the middle of the fifth century, Yesgerd II of Persia sent out a decree ordering all his subjects to “abandon their heresies, worship the sun, bring him their offerings, and call him ‘god.’” As a great portion of Armenia was then under Persian rule, the Armenian bishops were concerned about this threat to their flocks. They called a council at Ardashad and unanimously agreed to defend the Faith at all cost. The council also sent a letter to the Persian grand vizier in which they defended the true religion and showed the absurdities of Zoroastrianism. The letter ended: “From this belief no one can move us, neither angels nor men, neither fire nor sword, nor water, nor any other horrid tortures… in heaven [we] have no other God but Jesus Christ, for there is no other God save only Him… Do thou, therefore, inquire of us nothing further concerning these things, for our belief originates not with men… but we are indissoluble, bound to God from whom nothing can detach us, neither now or hereafter, nor forever, nor for ever and ever.”

Although the Armenian princes equivocated with the Persians, trying to outwardly conform to their pagan overlords, while “holding the truth in their hearts,” the people where quite prepared to fight. So when the Persians sent a huge army to wipe out Armenian Christianity, they were met by an army on the plains of Avaraye (Avarair, near the present city of Van), lead by Prince Vartan Mamigonian. Vartan’s address to his soldiers before the battle reflects his virtues as in a mirror. The morning of the battle, Mamigonian and his men heard Mass, received Holy Communion, and marched on with these words: “May our death be like to the death of the just, may the shedding of our blood resemble the blood-shedding of the prophets. May God look in mercy on our voluntary self-offering, and may He not deliver the church into the hands of the heathens.” God accepted their sacrifice, for Vartan and over a thousand of his men died that day, fighting for Christ the King. While they did not gain the victory that day, it was gained in the end. The Battle of Avaraye inflicted heavy losses on the Persians, and sparked a series of engagements of which the Persians so tired that in 485, they were willing to negotiate peace. Prince Vahan, the nephew of Prince Vartan, proposed the terms, including the destruction of “fire-altars” and the freedom to practice Christianity. The terms were accepted, Vahan was made governor of Armenia, and a time of peace followed. Prince Vartan and the brave men who fell defending the Faith are honored as martyrs in the Armenian calendar. Called collectively the “Vartanants,” their feast day is kept on March 2nd.

It is hard to believe that this fighting people, so strong in the Faith, could, in a mere fifty years, begin to break off from the Universal Church. Yet, by a complex set of tragic events, an initial crack in unity spread over the centuries into a major schism, which has substantially continued to this day.

Schism

The council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorianism (the heresy that claimed two distinct persons in the Incarnate Christ), was attended and supported by representatives from Armenia, but by the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451), Armenia was fighting for her Faith and freedom against the Persians. Unable to attend the council themselves, they were open to misinformation. The Council of Chalcedon, ratified by Pope St. Leo the Great (+ 461), defined that Our Lord was one divine Person with two natures, human and divine, thus condemning Monophysitism (claiming Our Lord was one Person with one nature). A number of eastern churches broke away after the council, including several in Syria. It was through these dissidents that the Armenian Catholics heard about the council of Chalcedon. The Monophysite Syrians told them that the rest of the Church had gone Nestorian. Of course the Armenians, who had heard Nestorius and his teachings condemned at Ephesus, couldn’t turn around and now be Nestorians themselves. Their mistake was that, instead of waiting for another source of information to verify what the Syrians were saying, a faction of Armenians, under Nerses II, took it upon themselves to break from the Chair of Peter. There were, nonetheless, still seeds of union: some of the bishops refused to sign against Chalcedon, the patriarchs went back and forth: for a short time in the 600′s there were even two rival patriarchs, one pro-Chalcedon and one anti. Other factors than misinformation also came into play: the seed of false nationalism, the Greek schism (1054), pride, politics, etc., all worsened a bad situation. “The devil loves to fish in troubled waters.” Authorities vary on the details and duration of this schismatic seesaw, but the situation was tragic no matter what the particulars.

Saints for Unity

The political situation did not become less complicated either. “[I]n 639, the Arabs were upon them. There followed four centuries of warfare, with varying fortunes, and oppression from both Byzantines and Mohammedans, and the original home of the race, Greater Armenia, disappeared forever as a political unit and the great Armenian dispersion began. It was natural that those who formed the kingdom of Little Armenia in Asia Minor should welcome the Crusaders from the West as enemies of their enemies, and at the end of the twelfth century, under the influence of the Katholicos[30] St. Nerses the Gracious and his nephew, St. Nerses of Lambron, they formally returned to the unity of the Catholic Church.”[31]

These two saints are wonderful patrons for unity. St. Nerses Klaietsi (better known as St. Nerses “Shnorhali,” i.e., “the Gracious” because of the beauty of his character and writings) maintained the union for which his older brother, Catholicos St. Gregory II, had been working. This union was officially confirmed in 1198. As a true disciple of charity, St. Nerses also looked beyond his own people and worked for the conversion of the Greek Orthodox. Thus when writing to the Eastern Emperor, he refers to the pope as “the first of all the bishops and successor of the apostle Peter.” He is also the most famous writer of the twelfth century Armenian renaissance for both prose and poetry. In one of his hymns, he writes of the Church as “immovably built on the rock of Kephas, invincible by the gates of Hell, and seal of the guardian of the gates of Heaven.”[32] St. Nerses died on August 13, 1173, but his feast day is observed on August 3rd. His nephew also bore the name of Nerses, St. Nerses of Lampron. He was made the Archbishop of Tarsus in 1176 and worked diligently for reunion with both Rome and the Greek Orthodox. The Armenian reunion was sealed on Epiphany, 1198, with the coronation of Leo II, king of Cilicia (Little Armenia), by “the papal legate, Cardinal Conrad von Wittelsbach (the crown being sent by Pope Celestine III), and anointed by the Armenian katholicos of Sis, Gregory IV Abired. Crowned also was the work of St. Nerses, and he died in peace six months later. Among the works that caused him to share his uncle’s place of literary eminence were his translations into Armenian of the Rule of St. Benedict and the Dialogues of St. Gregory.”[33]

Blessed Gomidas Keumurgian

“Throughout the following centuries there were numbers of individual Armenian Catholics, and friars from the West, especially Dominicans, who worked with great vigor for a general reunion.[34] At the same time Mohammedan persecution went on, sporadically but cruelly… Although nothing concrete came of Armenian participation in the Council of Florence (1414-18) the number of Catholic Armenians notably increased during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Capuchins and Jesuits were active among them and a principle center was at Constantinople, where there was a large Armenian population… So numerous were those who returned to unity that for generations the word ‘Catholic’ without qualification was taken in Constantinople to refer to one of the Armenian rite. This movement, which made itself felt in all ranks of the [dissident] Armenian hierarchy, inevitably caused great alarm to the authorities of the [schismatic] church and in 1695, the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople, Ephrem (Ieprem), determined firmly to use the weapon of persecution against it.”[35]

Using the lever of anti-Western sentiment, fueled especially by the bad politics of the French, Ephrem went to the sultan, Mustapha II, and “denounced the French, alleging that by encouraging Armenians to be reconciled with the pope of Rome they were detaching them from their allegiance to the sultan.” Ephrem received a sudden check, however, when the people rose up and drove him from his patriarchal throne. This delayed him for a number of years, but with bribes and political maneuvers he worked his way back into power. He obtained a decree from the sultan that the Catholic Armenians were rebels who must be suppressed, and the wily schismatic took it upon himself to see that this decree was put into violent operation. “Persecution spread from Turkey-in-Europe to Turkey-in-Asia and soon prisons and galleys were full; torture and confiscation of property were used to induce the victims to apostatize.” A number of clergy sought refuge elsewhere for the time, among whom was a priest by the name of Der (“master” — the title for an Armenian secular priest) Gomidas (Cosmos) Keumurgian.

Gomidas had been born in Constantiople in 1656 to a schismatic couple. He became a priest (like his father before him), marrying before his ordination to the diaconate — following the Eastern custom for most secular clergy. He and his wife had seven children, two boys and five girls. Attached to a church in southern Constantinople, St. George’s, he fulfilled his duties in a quiet manner, becoming especially good and preaching and re-converting Orthodox who had apostatized to Islam. “It was about 1694 that Der Gomidas, after a considerable period of quiet study and prayer, was reconciled with the Catholic Church, together with his family. This caused no excitement: it was a common occurrence at the time, and Gomidas was not particularly well known.” It did not even make a change in his occupation; he continued his parochial work at St. George’s as before. This is rather odd, but apparently, rightly or wrongly, the Church was treating the schismatics more as bad children than as open rebels. The Catholics and the dissidents attended Mass at the same churches, sometimes with a schismatic pastor, sometimes with a Catholic one: “praying all together in the same churches, though one does not assent in his heart to what another openly professes,” was the comment of Father Galano in 1641.

When Ephrem started his persecution, Der Gomidas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and while at a monastery in Jerusalem, made an enemy. Another priest, John of Smyrna, was likewise a guest at the monastery of St. James on Mount Sion. This monastery was divided against itself on the question of unity with Rome; the abbot had been reconciled to the Catholic Church, but many of his monks were against this action. John of Smyrna “was an accomplished, self-confident, self-assertive man, and he at once plunged into the controversy, putting himself at the head of the anti-unionist party and making a dead set at the modest and retiring Gomidas, who was thus forced forward as the chief representative of the other side. Worsted in discussion, discomfited by goodness, John of Smyrna went from hard words to blows, and when they had no effect fell back on furious threats, threats he was soon himself to be in a position to fulfill.

“News reached Jerusalem that the partriarch Ephrem had again been deposed and that, in spite of the bad record of his successor, Avedik of Tokat, in the see of Erzerum, the outlook for the Catholic Armenians was improved. Gomidas returned to Constantinople. So did John of Smyrna, and was at once made the vicar general of the new patriarch. Avedik took possession of his see on August 8th, 1702, and a few days later the beating up, imprisoning, and fining of Catholics was going on as merrily as ever. John of Smyrna got a warrant for the arrest of Gomidas, but Gomidas was warned and hid himself in the house of a friend; here he had to stay for nine months, occupying the time by writing a paraphrase of the Acts of the Apostles in verse.” The political situation again changed, Avedik was imprisoned and then exiled, and Der Gomidas returned to St. George’s. “Six of the twelve clergy there were now openly Catholic, and Gomidas was able to preach and minister with more effect than ever, though his opponents did their best to cripple him by spreading slanders among the people; they had not much success, and Gomidas was soon generally recognized as the worthy leader of the Catholic party among his people.”

The respite did not last long; Avedik made a comeback, was again exiled, but managed to have his vicar, John of Smyrna, bribed into the office of patriarch.[36] Der Gomidas was the first to be arrested, but was soon ransomed. Against the advice of his friends — for he had a growing conviction of his approaching martyrdom — Der Gomidas returned to “his work at St. George’s, and preached reunion under the very noses of the priests who were ready to betray him.” On the evening of November 3, 1707 (Gregorian calendar), at the age of 52, Der Gomidas was interrupted at home and arrested. Comforting his family, he said, “Don’t cry. We must trust in God. I may be back tomorrow.” Someone stepped out of the crowd that had gathered, crying, “What! You talk about coming back?” and hit him violently on the mouth. It was the Patriarch John of Smyrna.

After having spent the night in prison, Der Gomidas was charged with being a Frank (Frenchman), a charge he denied since, in the usage of that time and place, the word properly belonged to a European or a Catholic of the Latin Rite. After a complicated proceeding, with twisted testimonies and a crowd clamoring for his death, an unwilling judge turned Gomidas over to the vizier. After another night in prison and having received the Last Sacraments, he said goodbye to his family and paid the executioner; then Der Gomidas was again taken before Ali Pasha, the vizier.

“Gomidas again protested his innocence and challenged the right of the vizier to condemn him for a religious cause. ‘His blood is on your head, if you have lied,’ Ali warned John of Smyrna and his clergy. ‘So be it,’ replied the patriarch. ‘On our heads — and on those of the Frankish priests who have perverted so many of our church.’

“‘You hear they say you have deserted your religion?’ said Ali to Gomidas.

“‘Which seems to you the best among the faiths of Christians?’ asked the martyr in reply.

“‘They are all equally disgusting to me,’ answered his Mohammedan judge.

“‘Very well. Then what does it matter to you which one I choose?’”

Impressed by his bearing, Ali Pasha offered to save him if he would accept Islam. This offer being refused, the death sentence was given to Der Gomidas and two other confessors.

Led to the place of his martyrdom and followed by a large crowd, which included his wife and children, Der Gomidas was stopped twice by messengers from the vizier, offering him his life in exchange for apostasy. Upon reaching the place of execution, “he was bidden to kneel. He did so, facing toward the southeast where lay Calvary — and Mecca. ‘Face west,’ he was told by the Mohammedan crowd, but he would not budge. His hands being tied,” he gave his last blessing with his head, “saying, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, one only God. Praise be to Jesus!’ The headsman approached and made a last suggestion of apostasy. ‘No,’ replied Gomidas, ‘do your work,’ and he began to repeat the Nicene Creed. Before he reached the end his head was smitten off with one stroke of the sword.”

The fruit of this illustrious martyrdom, and those of his fellow Catholics, was seen thirty-five years later, when a Catholic patriarchal see was set up in Lebanon that has continued to this day. Pope Pius XI solemnly beatified Der Gomidas Keumurgian in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 23, 1929. November 5 is the day on which the Universal Church keeps his feast.

An Armenian Order is Born

Another prominent Armenian cleric in Constantinople just prior to Ephrem’s persecution was Vartapet Mekhitar of Sivas. (Vartapet is a special title for a celibate secular priest specializing in preaching and teaching.) Sivas is another name for Sebastia, and it was there that Mekhitar was born in 1675, nineteen years after Bl. Gomidas. He was baptized Manook (“child”) and did not take the name Mekhitar (“consoler”) until his ordination to the diaconate. It seems that his family was at least implicitly Catholic, [37] and at the age of fifteen he gained the reluctant consent of his father to become a monk. These monks did not belong to any religious order, but were simply celibate secular priests with their helpers (brothers) living in community.

After a conversation with a visiting Jesuit, Mekhitar made up his mind to go to Rome, but it was not to be God’s Will for another fifteen years. He went as far as Aleppo in Lebanon, where he spent three months with the Jesuits and made a formal profession of the Catholic Faith. Continuing on his journey as far as Cyprus, he was struck with malaria and became so weak that he was forced to return home. At the age of twenty, he was ordained and became “Father Mekhitar.” He had a great desire, despite his youth, to found a “religious congregation, which by preaching and teaching should revive the spirit of Christ among the Armenian people and restore formal union of the whole church with the Catholic West.” After much traveling, trying to persuade prelates to found this order and getting no response except “It’s a good idea,” Father Mekhitar ended up in Constantinople. There, in 1700, he founded his little community with the following of eight men he had banded together during his travels.

Lest he attract unfavorable attention from the schismatic patriarch, Vartapet Mekhitar lowered his profile by sending two of his monks as missionaries to Armenia, and set the rest to in-house work: translating, publishing, and printing — the work for which his order would become so famous. When the intense persecution of Ephrem began, Mekhitar escaped arrest and, recalling the two in Armenia, smuggled his little flock, by ones and twos, out of Constantinople to the Morea peninsula in Greece, then under the rule of the Venetian Government.[38] They settled in Modon, a village located on Morea’s coast, and which had a sizable Armenian population. Once there, the congregation (which had grown to sixteen) began real community life. Struggling with financial difficulties, they built a monastery and submitted their order to Rome for approval. After clearing himself of various slanders, Mekhitar received permission for his order in 1711, and the Rule of St. Benedict (translated at the end of the twelfth century by St. Nerses of Lampron) was adopted and modified for their needs.

The Mekhitarists, as the order is now called, were Catholic — but they did not stop being Armenian. Staunch defenders of the Armenian Rite and traditions, they ran into considerable opposition from those who mistakenly thought that the only true Catholics were those of the Latin rite. In that regard, Mgr. Coressi, the Latin vicar apostolic at Constantinople, wrote to the Holy See in 1816: “All these differences between [the Mekhitarists] and the secular clergy arise from the fact that the first wish to be Catholic and Armenian, too, while the second want to be Catholic and Latin — or pseudo-Latin… The truth is that the methods of the Mekhitarists greatly help the conversion of schismatic and heretical Armenians, while the methods of the others only serve to flatter us, the Latin bishop and clergy. It is surely just to prefer the unalloyed good of the conversion of souls rather than the less pure good of our own interests and utility.”

By 1714, the monastery at Modon was well established, and the future looked hopeful, but then war between the Venetians and the Turks threatened. Knowing the strength of the Turks, and that Modon on the coast would be right in their line of attack, Abbot Mekhitar took eleven monks to Venice, leaving only six behind. His instincts were correct, for in less than six months, the Turks took Modon by assault. The town and monastery were sacked, and there was a general massacre of Christians, but the monks managed to escape, joining the others in Venice after suffering great hardships.

The “Most Serene Republic” of Venice agreed to rent the island of San Lazzaro to the refugee order. There were some abandoned buildings on the island, including a church, but they were in terrible condition. Abbot Mekhitar planned and carried out their rebuilding, adding a refectory, novitiate, and guest quarters. The final product was an airy, yet simple monastery — artfully blending refinement of style with holy poverty. In the midst of this Herculean project, he had to go to Rome (at last!) to answer charges against his order: again false. He cleared himself and the order of all accusations and received Pope Clement XI’s blessing on his work.

Once back on San Lazzaro, he sent out his monks as missionaries, and plunged completely into the publishing work of the order. He personally contributed grammars in classical and vernacular Armenian, an Armenian dictionary (which became exceedingly popular, especially in India), a catechism, commentaries on the Gospel of St. Matthew and other Biblical books, work on the “great vernacular Bible of 1735,” translations of the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Summa and Paradisus Animae of St. Albert the Great: in all, a tremendous accomplishment for a man with his responsibilities. Even when suffering serious illness during the last three years of his life, he slowed down only when he was forced to remain in bed. Surrounded by his monks, Abbot Mekhitar died on April 27,1749, at the age of 74. A steady stream of pilgrims to his tomb and the miracles worked there testify to his sanctity.

Abbot Mekhitar’s cause for canonization was opened in 1844, but for various reasons (primarily Rome’s lack of familiarity with the Armenian language), it has waned over the years.

The Mekhitarists are still active, though they are suffering the same lack of vocations affecting the western Church. (Unfortunately — and this is worse than a vocations crisis — most of them are going along with the new order of things after Vatican II.) There are two branches: the one in Venice at San Lazzaro, and another in Vienna, Austria, founded in 1773. One of the big fears for a dissident [39] Armenian in embracing Catholicism is that he is “giving up his heritage.” Yet it is this Catholic order that is universally recognized as having contributed more towards the continuation and preservation of Armenian traditions and culture than anyone else!

Venerable Mekhitar, pray for us and for your order that we may work for true unity and not false ecumenism; that we may help those in schism to conform to the Truth, and not be guilty of pulling the Truth out of shape to conform to them!

Martyrs of World War I

A great deal is said about the Turkish massacres at the time of World War I, one of which was an attempted genocide of the Armenian nation. While much is said about the atrocities, little is said about martyrdom or faith. Before the war, the Armenian Catholic Hierarchy was “composed of nineteen dioceses, an Apostolic Administration in Russia, and several Patriarchal Vicariates. There were some two hundred thousand people under its jurisdiction.

Blessed Gomidas Keumurgian

“In the different provinces of Turkey [they] had 156 churches and chapels, 110 mission stations, 148 schools for young boys and girls, 32 convents for male and female religious and six seminaries. The Apostolic Administration in Russia was made up of 50 mission stations with churches and schools. The clergy, numbering 300 secular priests and 120 religious priests, and 150 sisters [Sisters of the Immaculate Conception] was zealously devoted to serving people.[40] When the hostilities ended, eight bishops had been either martyred or had died from mistreatment, “111 priests died, many of them having been killed after refusing to give up their faith. Fifty-three sisters were killed or died during the deportations. Only a small number of the laity, made up mostly of widows and orphans, survived… In the entire Ottoman Empire, [the Catholics were left with] only 39 churches and chapels, 12 mission stations, 11 schools, 11 convents, and one seminary.” These numbers do not include the Armenian dissidents or those who were killed simply because of race.

There are many stories of heroism among the martyrs, some of which we briefly outline below.

Archbishop Ignatius Maloyan with twelve of his priests and some 420 prominent Armenians were put to death together. They all professed their Faith with the encouragement of the Archbishop, who was the last to die. Before they shot him, the Turkish leader urged him to apostatize, but with great constancy the prelate replied, “I have told you several times I wish to live and die in my true faith!” With that, he was shot in the head.

Bishop Stephen Israelian of Kharput was likewise martyred with his flock, including two priests and four sisters. He begged permission to prepare his people for death and to be the last to die, a request that was granted with mocking laughter.

The Bishop of Diarbekr, Andrew Tchelebian, was buried alive in sand up to his shoulders and his head battered with stones. With him were some sisters and faithful who underwent a similar fate.

The Most Reverend James Topouzin, bishop of Mouche, was burned alive in a hayloft with his flock, the bishop begging forgiveness for their executioners.

Bishop Michael Katchadourian, despite his venerable age of 79, was arrested and brutally tortured when he refused to give up the Faith. His tormentors lit a fire on his chest to cook their coffee, and after attempting to strangle him with the string of his pectoral cross, they finally hung him with a rope.

One final story will suffice, which we choose because of the honor it brings to the Mother of God, who has repeatedly shown herself to be a mighty protectress, “terrible as an army set in battle array.”

“A group of deported women arrived under police escort at a place where some Kurds were camped. It was August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. These poor ladies… were ordered… to go to the tents of the head Kurds. All knelt down and with tears in their eyes begged the Immaculate Mother of God on this day of her triumph over death to spare them this shame worse than death itself. At that very moment several violent earth tremors wrecked the encampment and caused all the men to flee. The women were able to continue their march and meet under other circumstances the death for which they had prayed.”

Up to the Present

Since the beginning of last century, the Catholic Armenians have made an amazing comeback. According to 1994 statistics, seventy-one Catholic Armenian parishes can be found all over the world, with an estimated 350,850 faithful, 35 convents and churches, six seminaries, 38 schools, 67 priests, 55 monks, and 119 sisters.[41] Like Catholics of the Roman Rite, the majority foolishly accepts the damnable changes since the last Council. It is hoped that, through the intercession of their many saints, the Catholic Armenians will quickly come back to their authentic Catholic traditions and work for the conversion of their dissident countrymen.

Aside from the blood shed by the recent martyrs we have just mentioned, reason for such hope might perhaps be found in the work of an heroic priest from earlier in the last century.

The schismatic Armenian patriarch from 1896 to 1918 was a man named Maghakia Ormanian. Born into a Catholic family, taught by the Mekhitarists, ordained a Catholic priest, he entertained such a hatred for the papacy that he apostatized and became a schismatic. He proved his hatred of the Catholic Church so thoroughly (according to his admiring biographer) that he was elected as the Apostolic Patriarch. He wrote a book entitled The Armenian Church, which caused so much damage to the faith of Catholics that Pope St. Pius X put it on the list of forbidden books. Translated into dozens of languages, this arsenic of Ormanian was republished and widely distributed in Lebanon in the 1950′s. On this occasion, a saintly, learned (fluent in 14 languages), and heroic bishop, the newly appointed Patriarchal Vicar, Most Rev. Lorenz Sahak Kogian (Kogy),[42]

seeing the danger, wrote a brilliant rebuttal which was published in 1961.

Entitling his book after that of his (now dead) opponent, Bishop Kogian proceeded to defend the One, Holy, Catholic, and (truly) Apostolic Faith. Taking Ormanian’s book paragraph by paragraph and tearing his biased arguments to shreds, Bishop Kogian showed the fire of the confessors of the early Church. At first the book was widely acclaimed by those interested in the Truth, but in time (following Vatican II) the devil retaliated. With the new spirit of false ecumenism, the author was unjustly maligned.

No one, not even his fellow Catholics would touch it, and certainly not translate it. It was too strong. Bishop Kogian met in the Armenian world what Father Feeney was meeting in America — silence from those supposed to be defending him. To this day, Bishop Kogian’s The Armenian Church, has been neither translated, republished, nor made available to the general public (even for those who read Armenian). Someday, however, this book will be recognized for what it is: a true defense of Armenian tradition, the Church founded by Our Blessed Lord, and another crown of which Armenia may well be proud.

Our Lady, Ark of the Covenant, pray for us!


[1] These lakes are a constant proof of the Biblical flood. “Lake Van, [now] in eastern Turkey, is 5,640 feet above sea level and salty. The lake is rich in darekh, a kind of herring. Lake Urmia [today] in Iran, is 4,900 feet above sea level. It is 90 miles long and 30 miles wide and shallow — only 20 feet deep at most. Its salt concentration is 23 percent [depending on the time of year. In the spring the lake rises with the melting snow of the surrounding peaks. Ocean water averages between 33-37%.] Many scientists have said that the salt lakes remained after the flood waters had receded. Herring found in Lake Van is a salt-water fish prevalent in the North Atlantic today. Both Lake Van and Lake Urmia are surrounded by high volcanic mountains with no outlet to the sea, so that they remain as salty as they were 5,000 years ago.” In Search of Noah’s Ark, Dave Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr., Sun Classic Books, 1976, pp. 47-48

[2] Haik (ca. 2350 BC), who is not mentioned in the Bible, was the son of Thogorma, who is mentioned in Genesis x, 3-10.

[3] Ezechiel xxvii, 14; xxxviii, 6.

[4] In Search of Noah’s Ark, pp. 70-72.

[5] The Pillars of the Armenian Church, Dickran H. Boyajian, Baiker Press, 1962 (a valuable source, although written by a schismatic and thus highly tainted. The same holds true for Illustrated Armenia and the Armenians and A History of the Armenian Church, used below.)

[6] The Armenians claim that the gentiles mentioned in John 12: 21 were these messengers.

[7] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 1866, vol. 4, p. 219

[8] Illustrated Armenia and the Armenians, Rev. Ohan Gaidzakian, M.D., 1898, pp. 102-103.

[9] Ibid., pp. 106-107.

[10]Golden book of Eastern Saints, Donald Attwater, Bruce Publishing Co., 1938, p. 18.

[11] Zoroastrianism (or Mazdaism) is like Manicheanism, representing “the principles of good and evil as rival deities, both of whom must be worshiped.” It also included the worship of the elements. (Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1910).

[12] Golden book of Eastern Saints, Donald Attwater, Bruce Publishing Co., 1938, p. 19.

[13] The Golden Book of Eastern Saints, Donald Attwater, The Bruce Publishing Co., 1938, pp. 20-21. (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 1963, has the same wording. The fact that Donald Attwater held with its revision may have something to do with it.)

[14] Saints to Remember From January to December. The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, 1963, p. 109.

[15] “[S]he is simply referred to as sancta Christiana ancilla , ‘St. Christiana, a maidservant,’ though possibly ‘a holy Christian maidservant’ was intended.” Golden Book of Eastern Saints, Attwater, p. 25.

[16] This is the date of the first Council of Constantinople, at which Catholicism became the official religion of the Empire. The year 313 was when the Faith was merely tolerated with the Edict of Milan.

[17] The parents of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Peter of Sebastia, and St. Macrina, as well as of six other children. St. Peter, Bishop of Sebastia (d. 387, January 9th), did much to root out the heresy of Arianism in that province of Armenia. His brother, St. Basil the Great, is one of the Eastern Doctors of the Church, and is much loved and respected by the Armenian people. Another holy bishop of Sebastia is St. Blase, whose feast day is February 3rd.

[18] All the excerpts quoted on these martyrs are taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 1866, vol. I, pp. 338-339.

[19] St. Gregory of Nyssa says that they endured for three days and three nights this lingering death, which carried off their limbs one after another.

[20] The defenders of baptism of desire (i.e., the Sacrament of Baptism is not necessary for salvation) use this conversion to defend their position. They claim that the soldier’s conversion merited his salvation without further need for the Sacrament of Baptism. Here are a couple of observations to show how this is no proof of that position at all: First, no ancient writer says that the soldier was not already a Catholic. They simply say that he declared himself one. (There is no reason to assume that the forty soldiers who gave themselves up were the only Christians in the legion.) Next, even if they were the only ones, they knew from their instruction — quite rigorous in those days — that it was necessary to be baptized in order to be a member of the Church. The professing soldier had water at his disposal. Why would the thirty-nine saints leave someone to die unbaptized just because certain theologians of a later era speculate that it might not be necessary under certain conditions?

[21] For documentation, see the article “The Primacy of Peter According to Armenian Church Fathers.” This is an excellent defense of the papacy, with a wealth of quotes testifying the Catholicity of the Armenian fathers; see The Eternal Flame, Volume 17, 1999-New Series No. 3, published by the Apostolic Exarchate for Armenian Catholics. It can be obtained by writing to: The Eternal Flame, 110 East 12th St., New York, N.Y., 10003-5395.

[22] A Dictionary of Saints, compiled by Donald Attwater, Kennedy and Sons, 1938, p. 147.

[23] A History of the Armenian Church, Hagop Nersoyan, Delphic Press, N.Y., 1963, p. 89-90.

[24] Proverbs 1:2.

[25] From Yeghisheh’s History, p. 213.

[26] The Pillars of the Armenian Church, p.115

[27] Ibid., pp. 81, 79.

[28] Ibid. pp. 87-88.

[29] Illustrated Armenia and the Armenians, p. 126

[30] Alternate spelling for catholicos.

[31] Golden Book of Eastern Saints, Donald Attwater, Bruce Publishing Co., 1938, p. 110.

[32] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, revised by Thurnston and Attwater, Kennedy and Sons, 1963, vol. 3, p. 322.

[33] Ibid. See August 13th and July 17th.

[34] Boniface VIII approved the Orthodox (meaning traditional / sound) faith of Catholicos Gregory Anavardzetzi in 1298. See “Armenian Nation and Armenian Catholic Church” (a special publication of Flame periodical), Apostolic Exarchate for Armenians, N.Y., 1994, pp. 42-43 for a list of Catholic Patriarchs throughout the Middle Ages.

[35] Golden Book of Eastern Saints, Donald Attwater, Bruce Publishing Co., 1938, p. 111. (All quotes on Bl. Gomidas are from this source.)

[36] The reader may ask why the office of patriarch had such power in the eyes of the secular state. As with the Romans, the Mohammedans gave a certain amount of authority to local rulers — usually religious leaders — in their conquered domains. (This system, called millat, is explained in our article “The Maronites and Their Saints” in From the Housetops #43.) Unfortunately for the Catholics, the local political leader for all Armenian Christians was the dissident Patriarch of Constantinople. Thus John of Smyrna was a secular ruler as well as a religious one.

[37] “Implicitly Catholic” is such a dangerous phrase, that an explanation is in order. We mean to say that, by all that is known of them, they were not part of the schismatic party within Armenian Christianity. The reader should recall the strange situation with Bl. Gomidas at St. George’s. Sometimes, one is led to believe, only God could tell the Catholics from the dissidents.

[38] It is recorded that Mekhitar kept up a correspondence with Blessed Gomidas until the latter’s martyrdom, but the letters have not survived.

[39] The dissident Armenians are known as “Armenian Orthodox,” “Armenian Apostolic” or sometimes, in reference to St. Gregory the Illuminator, as “Gregorians.” Even they are not united, however, having at least two major divisions. The center of the “left-wing” schismatic “Apostolic” Armenian Church is Etshmiadzin, which means “the Only-begotten has come down.”

[40] All quotes in this section are taken from The Armenian Tragedy, an Appeal to the Conscience of the World, republished by New York’s then Armenian Catholic Exarchate: Bishop Nerses Setian, 1990. (Originally written by the Armenian Catholic Patriarch in Beirut, Lebanon; Ignatius Peter XVI Batanian in 1965.)

[41] Armenian Nation and Armenian Catholic Church, Compiled by Bishop Nerses Setian. These numbers are overly conservative. In a recent trip to Armenia, Bishop Setian has confirmed the presence of over 350,000 Armenian Catholics in Northern Armenia and Georgia alone.

[42] Father Kogy, a Vienna Mekhitarist was responsible for founding the Catholic Armenian Church, Holy Cross, in Cambridge; which church has since been moved to Belmont, Mass. Father Kogy was consecrated a bishop in 1951 and sent to Beirut, Lebanon. While widely respected for his learning, preaching, and the faith, he suffered greatly for his book at the hands of the liberals. He died in Rome in 1965.

 
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