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Ecumenical Giant

The Universal Church mourns the loss of Karekin I Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

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One of the great Christian leaders of our century, Catholicos Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, died on 29 June in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, after a long struggle with throat cancer.

Renowned as an ecumenist, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church participated while a young priest as an observer at three sessions of Vatican II.

On 13 December 1996, he and Pope John Paul II signed a joint declaration expressing a mutual understanding of the human and divine natures of Christ. The declaration reflected the conclusion of both faith communities that Christological disagreements dating to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 – thus separating the two churches – were based on differences in terminology and culture, not on a different understanding of Christ.

John Paul II hoped to visit the stricken Catholicos, whom he called a “pioneer in the field of ecumenism,” but was unable to do so because of Karekin rapidly deteriorating condition.

The Catholicos met with the Pope at the Vatican on three occasions – in 1983, in 1996 and in March of this year when he attended the opening of a Vatican exhibit devoted to Armenian history and culture.

His post-Communist pastoral achievements were significant. Under his direction, the Armenian Apostolic Church started a number of pastoral and humanitarian projects, many of them supported by CNEWA. These included a mobile preaching unit, increased stipends allowing priests to settle in rural and poorer areas, emergency humanitarian relief, soup kitchens for the elderly and the disabled and development programs enabling the church to move from charity and emergency relief to a line of action eliminating dependency.

Speaking of an impoverished nation emerging from decades of Communist domination, the Catholicos observed in a 1997 interview, “We have to relate the teachings of Christ to the everyday life of our people. We have to explain in practical terms the sacredness of life, the value of the human person and of honest work.”

Born Neshan Sarkissian on 27 August 1932, in Kessab, Syria, the future Catholicos began his studies at the age of 14 at the seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia. He was ordained a deacon three years later in 1949. In 1952, he entered religious life for the Catholicosate of Cilicia, took the name of Karekin and was ordained to the priesthood. He studied theology at Oxford in 1957-1958 and led dioceses in the United States, Iran and India during the 1970.

Karekin was elected Catholicos of Cilicia in 1983. From his see near Beirut, he guided his flock in Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and parts of North America. In 1995, he was elected Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, whose see is based in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, the ancient residence of the Armenian Catholicos.

Speaking of the late Catholicos, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General, said, “Catholicos Karekin was a great priest and distinguished leader of the Universal Church. He was in the forefront of the ecumenical movement and a loving pastor and father to his people. I feel privileged to have enjoyed his friendship. His loss is mourned not only by the Armenian Apostolic Church but by the Church Universal.”

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Tags: Ecumenism Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church