Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia is a chance to build on decades of productive ecumenical dialogue with the Armenian Apostolic Church, a local Catholic bishop has said.
“Now there is more friendship, more collaboration, a more open dialogue, and I am very optimistic about the future, from this point of view,” Archbishop Raphael Minassian, the Armenian Ordinary of Eastern Europe, told CNA.
The archbishop will be at the Pope’s side during his journey to Armenia, fifteen years after St. John Paul II visited in 2001.
Armenia’s national church is the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church to which 93 percent of the population belongs. Armenia prides itself on having been the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, which it did in the year 301.
For Archbishop Minassian, the separation between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church is due to human factors, not theological ones. On theological matters, “there is no difference.”
“No difference in sacraments, nor in theology, nor in the profession of faith,” he said.
Unlike national churches still linked to the universal Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s nationalism has “taken a different direction,” the archbishop said.
As an Oriental Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church separated from the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches over its rejection of the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon, in 451. For the Armenians, the break was solidified when they held a local council in 554, in which they chose to become autocephalous.
Chalcedon defined that Jesus Christ has both a human and a divine nature. Because the Oriental Orthodox rejected this definition, both the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox historically considered them to be monophysites — those who believe Christ has only one nature.
But since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have improved their relations.
Catholicos Vasken I, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visited Blessed Paul VI at the Vatican in May 1970. There, the Pope gave Catholicos Vasken a relic of St. Bartholomew, who is considered to be one of the founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
During St. John Paul II’s pontificate, Catholicos Karekin I made two visits to the Pope, with whom he was a friend.
In December 1996 St. John Paul II and Karekin signed a joint declaration on Christology, recognizing that the Armenian Apostolic Church's Christological doctrine does not imply any confusion about Jesus Christ’s two natures in a single person — the belief held by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox.
Pope Francis will visit Armenia June 24-26. Like St. John Paul II before him, Francis will stay at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral compound that is nicknamed “the Holy See of the Apostolic Church.” This could give a new impetus to ecumenism, building on the good relations developed over recent decades.
Archbishop Minassian is a bishop of the Armenian Catholic Church — an Eastern Catholic Church that came into communion with the Bishop of Rome in 1742 — and is based in Gyumri, Armenia's second largest city.
He underscored that the possibility of a renewed ecumenism with the Armenian Apostolic Church will need the help of God:
“I believe in prayer. I believe in witness. I believe in the example given by these pontiffs. Then, God’s grace is called to work on the souls. We can only rely on Divine Providence,” he said.
At present, according to the archbishop, there had been no rapprochement between the two Churches because unity is seen as “the submission of the one to the other.”
“In fact, unity is rather a path toward a mutual aim, Christ,” he said. “Unfortunately, this separation is mostly given by a sort of immaturity.”