Authorities in Gyumri unveiled a new religious monument on Sunday on the first anniversary of a landmark mass which Pope Francis celebrated in the city during his visit to Armenia.
The open-air liturgy in Gyumri’s central square was one of the highlights of his three-day trip that reinforced the Vatican’s warm relationship with Armenia and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Addressing thousands of Armenian Catholics that filled Vardanants Square, Francis made a case for “societies of greater justice” and again paid tribute to the South Caucasus nation’s Christian heritage. He also mentioned “terrible devastation” caused by a catastrophic 1988 earthquake that wreaked havoc on Gyumri and nearby towns and villages.
Joined by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin (Karekin) II, the pontiff toured the square in an open-top car after the service, drawing cheers from the jubilant crowd.
Gyumri’s municipal administration decided to mark the anniversary of Francis’s visit with a monument resembling the altar that was erected at Vardanants Square for the papal mass. The new memorial was inaugurated by the city’s Mayor Samvel Balasanian, Archbishop Rafael Minasian, the head of Armenia’s small Catholic community, and Archbishop Mikael Ajapahian, the Gyumri-based head of the surrounding Shirak Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“With this memorial, I tried to record the city’s history because Popes of Rome hadn’t visited our city for many centuries and they may not visit again for many centuries,” Balasanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“The holy pontiff of Rome came here not just for the sake of the Catholic community,” Ajapahian said for his part. “He also came to express his brotherly love for the large army of Apostolic Church followers.”
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.
While in Armenia, Francis also held an ecumenical service with Garegin in Yerevan’s largest square. In an ensuing joint declaration, the two religious leaders praised the “growing closeness” between their churches. The pontiff further reaffirmed his recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, prompting a strong condemnation from Ankara.
The rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Armenian Churches gained momentum in 1996 when they essentially ended their long-standing theological differences. In 2001, John Paull II became the first Pope to have ever visited Armenia.