Pope Francis made a case for “societies of greater justice” as he addressed thousands of Armenian Catholics during an open-air mass celebrated in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri on Saturday.
Joined by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, he toured Gyumri’s central Vardanants Square, the site of the mass, in an open-top car after the service, drawing cheers from the jubilant crowd.
Francis and Garegin then visited local Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches in yet another demonstration of a warm rapport between the two Christian denominations.
Armenia is home to tens of thousands of Catholics following traditional Armenian religious rites. Most of them live in the northwestern Shirak province, of which Gyumri is the capital. Thousands of other Armenian Catholics live in Georgia’s Javakheti province bordering Shirak.
The Gyumri-based Armenian Catholic prelacy issued some 14,000 free tickets required for entering the sprawling square during the papal mass. The two-hour liturgy, broadcast live by Armenia’s main TV channels, featured Latin and Armenian religious hymns performed by an Armenian choir.
“God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor. How much we need this!” Francis declared in his homily.
“We need men and women of good will, who help their brothers and sisters in need, with actions and not merely words,” he said from a massive altar erected in the Gyumri square. “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.”
The message was certain to resonate with many residents of Gyumri and surrounding towns and villages that were devastated by a catastrophic earthquake in 1988 and have still not fully overcome its consequences. The region has long had one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Armenia.
Francis began his homily with a brief reference to “the terrible devastation of the earthquake.” “We gather today to give thanks to God for all that has been rebuilt,” he said.
The pontiff went on to discuss three “stable foundations” of Christianity: memory, faith and love. “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious,” he told the Armenian faithful. “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.
Turning to faith, the Pope said that it must not be seen, especially by young people, as a thing of the past. “Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all,” he said.
True Christian faith, he continued, is in turn inseparable from “merciful love.” “Concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card; any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful,” he said.