“I see that God has not left you alone»: Pope Francis
Hundreds of people impatiently waiting for His Holiness Pope Francis’ historic visit began to gather in Vardanants square since 7 am: at 11: 00 AM their number was more than 20,000. Such large-scale spiritual event has never taken place in a small city like Gyumri. The leader of 1 billion 300 million faithful, spiritual head of Catholic or the Universal Church, the successor of St. Peter the apostle has visited Gyumri and offered the Holy Mass. By the way, by a symbolic coincidence, on June 25, the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, who were the founding pillars of the Universal Church.
The organizational group of Armenian Catholic clergy, the employees of Gyumri municipality together with the responsible persons for His Holiness’ ceremony were busy with the final adjustments in preparing the altar. Many of them had not slept for several nights to prepare everything properly.
The volunteers of Armenian Catholic Church distributed to thousands of people hats with yellow and white colors of Rome’s Holy See, scarfs, drinking water, and then for 3 hours cared about people helping and fitting them in relevant sectors of the square.
“Gohar” and “Our Lady of Armenia” choirs, conducted by of Robert Mlkeyan, were performing the last rehearsals of responsibly and unique performance.
For a few hours, Gyumri has become the center of the world. About 600 journalists from around the world with their cameras, various types of equipment, stormed the square, talking to people, regardless of their social status and background, inquiring about their daily life, problems, joys and expectations. And all this, thanks to Pope Francis’ resolute determination- visit Gyumri, a decision that was made at the moment of hearing from the leader of Armenian Catholics about Gyumri’s past full of sufferings and Shirak region people’s present full of struggle because of appearing in a difficult socio-economic conditions. His Holiness cannot keep his paternal love only for the elite; people in the peripheries are always under his special care.
His Holiness Pope Francis arrived in Gyumri at 11: 00 am together with His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. At the airport, they were welcomed by His Eminence Raphael Archbishop Minassian, Primate of Armenian Catholic Church in Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Eastern Europe, His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahian, Primate of the Diocese of Shirak, Hovsep Simonyan, the governor of Shirak and Samvel Balasanyan, Mayor of Gyumri.
When the Holy Father’s modest car entered Vardanants Square, the crowd could hardly guess that the coming person was Holy Father of Rome, spiritual head of the Universal Church, the Vicar of Christ on earth.
Holy Father Pope Francis and His Holiness Karekin II went up on the stage with solemn procession where they were Catholic bishops, monks, priests, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, His Beatitude Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan, as well as Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Archbishop Bazotto and other Catholic priests, bishops of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The message of His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians
“I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.”
Beloved spiritual brothers and faithful children,
Today, as our Church is commemorating the Feast of the Holy Apostles of the Lord, this message directed by our Lord to His disciples, is so ever sweetly and powerfully resounding in our souls. With this God-given warm feeling of love in the name of all the faithful of the region we welcome you to the city of Gyumri, beloved brother in Christ. It brings us great joy to be joining you in prayer, a great friend of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people, in a Mass celebrated by you.
Gyumri is one of those historical towns of Armenia where centuries-old Armenian Christian values have flourished, where the history and culture of our people and the spirit of generosity have harmoniously been shaped. The people of Gyumri are distinguished for their particularly profound faith and love towards the Church. They are also bearers of a beautiful tradition of Christian brotherly coexistence, which is witnessed by the prayerful presence of the faithful of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches, as well as of other Christian denominations. During the Soviet years of atheism churches were being destroyed or shut in Armenia, and only through the zealous resistance of our people, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and a few other churches were still open. During that time, Gyumri’s church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) opened its maternal bosom and became a haven and a place of prayer for all the Christians of the Northern districts of Armenia and of the ethnically Armenian towns and villages of Georgia, regardless of their national identity or what denomination they belonged to, may they be Armenian Apostolic, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The Northern apse of Yotverk church was turned into a place of prayer for the Catholic faithful where the crucifixion statue in the Catholic tradition, brought from the Catholic Church of Arevik village, was erected and is maintained to this day. While the Southern apse was provided to the Russian Orthodox where in a most honorable place, the Russian icon of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker was placed. Thus, Gyumri and the church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) became a tangible provider and preacher for ecumenism, years before the modern definition of ecumenism was established.
Beloved brother in Christ, the city which we are visiting today, on its warm and hospitable heart, also carries the seal of anguish. At the dawn of the twentieth century, when our people were subjected to genocide, Gyumri as well felt the heavy blows of the Ottoman Empire’s devastating and invasive politics. Today as well Gyumri faces closed borders as a witness to the genocide committed one hundred years ago and to the continuous denialist policies.
The pious people in Gyumri stood against the disaster of the earthquake through faith and brave heart. On this occasion we extend our words of appreciation to the Catholic Church, who also in those difficult days gave a helping hand of brotherly love to the victims of the earthquake, according to the words of the apostle, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:23-24). Today as well our Children in Gyumri continue to overcome the difficulties and make dedicated efforts to transform Gyumri into a prosperous and thriving city. The testimonies to this are the Catholic Church, built in the recent years, and the two restored historic churches, gracefully overlooking this square as symbols of the revival of Gyumri.
Giving thanks to the Lord for this blessed day of unity of prayer in Gyumri, together with our beloved brother Pope Francis, we bring to you, dear faithful, our plea and wish so that through the firm steps of faith, brotherly love, and hope, you may witness in this world to the following commandment of Christ, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
With this wish we also greet and extend our appreciation and blessings to government officials of Gyumri and the region, and to our faithful people of Shirak. We bring our appreciation and blessings to the Primate of the Diocese of Shirak, His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan, and his co-serving clergy, as well as to the clergy of the Catholic community under the leadership of His Eminence, Archbishop Rafael Minassian. We wish them, with the support of the Lord, to successfully continue the pastoral care of their flock and the partnership in brotherly love.
We extend our prayer to Almighty God with the intercession of the Holy Apostles and all the witnesses of the Lord, for peace in the world, a prosperous and secure life for humanity and for the vibrancy of the holy Church of Christ.
Your Holiness, our dear brother in Christ, your visit to Gyumri is a spiritual renewal for the faithful of the region of Shirak, and it shall always be remembered with warmth and love.
Again with a joyous heart we reaffirm that your visit is a new testimony to the fraternal relationship between our churches.
May God keep steadfast the brotherhood and make fruitful the cooperation between our churches. Forever and ever. Amen.
The message of His Holiness Pope Francis
“They shall build up the ancient ruins… they shall repair the ruined cities”
In this place, dear brothers and sisters, we can say that the words of the Prophet Isaiah have come to pass. After the terrible devastation of the earthquake, we gather today to give thanks to God for all that has been rebuilt.
Yet we might also wonder: what is the Lord asking us to build today in our lives, and even more importantly, upon what is he calling us to build our lives? In seeking an answer to this question, I would like to suggest three stable foundations upon which we can tirelessly build and rebuild the Christian life.
The first foundation is memory. One grace we can implore is that of being able to remember: to recall what the Lord has done in and for us, and to remind ourselves that, as today’s Gospel says, he has not forgotten us but “remembered” us (Luke 1:72). God has chosen us, loved us, called us and forgiven us. Great things have happened in our personal love story with him, and these must be treasured in our minds and hearts. Yet there is another memory we need to preserve: it is the memory of a people. Peoples, like individuals, have a memory. Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history.
As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence. He has not abandoned you. Even in the face of tremendous adversity, we can say in the words of today’s Gospel that the Lord has visited your people (cf. Luke 1:68). He has remembered your faithfulness to the Gospel, the first-fruits of your faith, and all those who testified, even at the price of their blood, that God’s love is more precious than life itself (cf. Psalms 63:4). It is good to recall with gratitude how the Christian faith became your people’s life breath and the heart of their historical memory.
Faith is also hope for your future and a light for life’s journey. Faith is the second foundation I would like to mention. There is always a danger that can dim the light of faith, and that is the temptation to reduce it to something from the past, something important but belonging to another age, as if the faith were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum. Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all. Faith, however, is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives. We would do well to renew this living encounter with the Lord each day. We would do well to read the word of God and in silent prayer to open our hearts to his love. We would do well to let our encounter with the Lord’s tenderness rekindle joy in our hearts: a joy greater than sadness, a joy that even withstands pain and in turn becomes peace. All of this renews our life, makes us free and open to surprises, ready and available for the Lord and for others.
It can happen too that Jesus calls us to follow him more closely, to give our lives to him and to our brothers and sisters. When he calls – and I say this especially to you young people – do not be afraid; tell him “Yes!” He knows us, he really loves us, and he wants to free our hearts from the burden of fear and pride. By making room for him, we become capable of radiating his love. Thus you will be able to carry on your great history of evangelization. This is something the Church and the world need in these troubled times, which are also a time of mercy.
The third foundation, after memory and faith, is merciful love: on this rock, the rock of the love we receive from God and offer to our neighbor, the life of a disciple of Jesus is based. In the exercise of charity, the Church’s face is rejuvenated and made beautiful. Concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card; any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful, for it is by our love for one another that everyone will know that we are his disciples (cf. John 13:35). We are called above all to build and rebuild paths of communion, tirelessly creating bridges of unity and working to overcome our divisions. May believers always set an example, cooperating with one another in mutual respect and a spirit of dialogue, knowing that “the only rivalry possible among the Lord’s disciples is to see who can offer the greater love!” (JOHN PAUL II, Homily, 27 September 2001: Insegnamenti XXIV/2 , 478).
In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that the Spirit of the Lord is always with those who carry glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted and console the afflicted (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). God dwells in the hearts of those who love him. God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor. How much we need this! We need Christians who do not allow themselves to be overcome by weariness or discouraged by adversity, but instead are available, open and ready to serve. We need men and women of good will, who help their brothers and sisters in need, with actions and not merely words. We need societies of greater justice, where each individual can lead a dignified life and, above all, be fairly remunerated for his or her work.
All the same, we might ask ourselves: how can we become merciful, with all the faults and failings that we see within ourselves and all about us? I would like to appeal to one concrete example, a great herald of divine mercy, one to whom I wished to draw greater attention by making him a Doctor of the Universal Church: Saint Gregory of Narek, word and voice of Armenia. It is hard to find his equal in the ability to plumb the depths of misery lodged in the human heart. Yet he always balanced human weakness with God’s mercy, lifting up a heartfelt and tearful prayer of trust in the Lord who is “giver of gifts, root of goodness… voice of consolation, news of comfort, joyful impulse… unparalleled compassion, inexhaustible mercy… the kiss of salvation” (Book of Lamentations, 3, 1). He was certain that “the light of God’s mercy is never clouded by the shadow of indignation” (ibid., 16, 1). Gregory of Narek is a master of life, for he teaches us that the most important thing is to recognize that we are in need of mercy. Despite our own failings and the injuries done to us, we must not become self-centered but open our hearts in sincerity and trust to the Lord, to “the God who is ever near, loving and good” [ibid., 17, 2), “filled with love for mankind … a fire consuming the chaff of sin (ibid., 16, 2).
In the words of Saint Gregory, I would like now to invoke God’s mercy and his gift of unfailing love: Holy Spirit, “powerful protector, intercessor and peace-maker, we lift up our prayers to you… Grant us the grace to support one another in charity and good works… Spirit of sweetness, compassion, loving kindness and mercy… You who are mercy itself… Have mercy on us, Lord our God, in accordance with your great mercy” (Hymn of Pentecost)”.
As it was intended, the Holy Mass was offered in Latin or Roman rite, spiced with the beautiful sound of Armenian sharakans, which created the unique prayerful mood. Thousands of people were silently following the historical and Divine Liturgy.
Giving the “greeting of Peace” His Holiness came up to Karekin II and warmly greeted him, then to Patriarch Peter Gregory and Archbishop Raphael Minasyan.
The sanctification of bread and wine and the sacrament were very beautiful. During the sanctification prayer toghether with the Holy Father Armenian Catholic priests were also whispering it in Italian and Armenian, who also had plates full of bread. After the sanctification, they went down into the crowd and gave them the Holy Eucharist. Almost everyone is impatient and in a hurry to approach the barriers with great enthusiasm to enter into communion with the body of Lord sanctified by the prayer of the Holy Father. Unfortunately, the time allotted for the distribution of Holy Communion was short and the left Eucharist was kept in pyxes and taken to the Holy Martyrs Church after the Divine Liturgy.
The end of the Divine Liturgy, the continuation of his visit to Gyumri
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Father together with His Holiness Karekin II, Archbishop Raphael Minasyan and His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan walked through the square with the Popemobile conveying their blessings to the attendees and giving them a happy opportunity to enjoy his presence very closely.
Then the Holy Father approached an old woman and put his hand on her head.
The Pope changed the car in Vardanats square and went to “Our Lady of Armenia” Convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
There, the Pope was welcomed by pupils of the center- children of families living in difficult social conditions, children without parental care, who are under the care of sisters of the Immaculate Conception, get an education and skills necessary for entry into the practical life. The Pope prayed in the chapel of the center.
The Sisters conveyed to His Holiness a sculptor by Gagik Gevorgyan -“The orphans”, the idea of which, according to the author, is in line with the Pope’s homilies- fight and overcome the difficulties of life together and with love.
His Holiness had a lunch and an hour of rest in the center of the Congregation, and then at 16:45 pm he visited the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) Church of the Diocese of Shirak with His Holiness Karekin II. His Grace Bishop Michael Ajapahyan told His Holiness about the history of the Church, recalling episodes from his childhood, which impressed the Pope greatly, as said Bishop Ajapahian.
The last stop of visit to Gyumri was the Armenian Catholic Holy Martyrs Church at 17: 15. A large crowd gathered in the street, the church was also full. Pope Francis and His Holiness Karekin II came together. They were welcomed by fumigation and beautiful sharakans performed by the “Gohar” choir.
Pope Francis and His Holiness Karekin II approached the Holy Altar, kissed the relic of the St. Cross and the Bible, spattered holy water to the crowd and went up to the stage, where they prayed for friendship between the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic communities. After a short prayer, they went out the church. Pope Francis approached the children of “Emili Aregak” day care center with multiple disabilities, who gathered around the church, blessed them, hugged and kissed.
After this exciting meeting, His Holiness Pope Francis left for Yerevan- to the next milestone of his visit.