of the Eastern churches

The Armenian Catholic Church

text by Michael J.L. La Civita with photographs by Armineh Johannes

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The landlocked republic of Armenia — squeezed between Russia and Iran in the Caucasus — bridges Asia and Europe. But more than half of the world’s six million Armenians now live outside the country: For almost two millennia this transcontinental people, historically identified as European, have grafted to other cultures farther afield. Diaspora communities have flowered in the Americas, Anatolia, Central Asia, Europe (particularly France, Russia and Ukraine), India, the Middle East and Oceania — proving that migration does not always bring about the end of a culture and identity.

Numerous factors have contributed to this unique Armenian narrative. Perhaps the greatest has been the seamless integration of culture, faith and language forged by the preeminent Armenian institution, the Armenian Church.

Though accurate statistics are not available, the vast majority of Armenians worldwide — about 95 percent — belongs to the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church. Despite its diminutive size, the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Apostolic Church while affirming full communion with the Church of Rome, has contributed considerably to the vitality of the Armenian nation, invigorating monasticism, scholarship and social service.

First developments. Armenia’s Christian roots run deep. According to tradition, the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus first evangelized the kingdom, then a buffer state between the rival empires of the Persians and Romans. After years of persecution, Christianity took hold when Gregory, the “illuminator of the Armenians,” baptized King Tiridates III in 301. The king proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the state, making Armenia the first Christian nation.

Looking both east and west, the Armenian Church digested the philosophical positions and theological vocabularies of the great learning centers of the ancient world — Alexandria and Antioch, Athens and Rome, Constantinople and Seleucia, Edessa and Nisibis — and began the development of an alphabet for the Armenian vernacular even as an independent Armenian nation expired.

Though conscious of the great Christological controversies that rocked the universal church, the Armenians could not participate in these debates, especially the Council of Chalcedon (451). Appeasing Persian oppression, the leaders of the Armenian Church declared their civil allegiance to the Persian emperor, but stressed their spiritual submission to Christ.

A century after Chalcedon, the Armenian Church denounced the decrees of the council, reaffirmed its adherence to a more conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature and asserted its independence from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. In line with Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac Orthodox Christians, who also rejected the decrees of Chalcedon, Armenians emphasized the apostolic roots of their particular church.

Though the Armenian Apostolic Church underscored its independence, self-reliance did not sink it into isolation. Armenian scribes and soldiers served Byzantine as well as Persian and Turkish Muslim courts.

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