Nearly two years after his landmark visit to Armenia, Pope Francis inaugurated the statue of a medieval Armenian cleric in the Vatican on Thursday at a ceremony attended by President Serzh Sarkisian and the leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Sarkisian held separate meetings with Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, earlier in the day.
“During the cordial discussions, keen satisfaction was expressed for the good relations existing between the Holy See and Armenia,” read a Vatican statement on the talks. It said the two sides also discussed “the condition of Christians and religious minorities, especially in theatres of war.”
According to the Armenian presidential press service, Sarkisian and Francis “expressed readiness to continue to develop and deepen interstate relations between the Vatican and Armenia.” The Armenian leader emphasized the fact that it is their fifth face-to-face meeting since Francis was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013. He praised the pontiff for his commitment to a “sincere and warm dialogue” with Armenia.
Sarkisian also thanked him for agreeing to place the statue of St. Gregory of Narek (Grigor Narekatsi) in the Vatican Gardens.
Venerated as a saint by the Catholic and Armenian churches, Gregory was an Armenian monk, theologian and poet who lived in the 10-11th centuries. He is renowned for his religious writings, notably his “Book of Lamentations.”
Francis bestowed the title of “Doctor of the Universal Church” on Gregory at an April 2015 Vatican mass dedicated to the centenary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. The pontiff described him as “an extraordinary interpreter of the human soul.” Only 36 Christian figures have received the Catholic title to date.
Gregory’s bronze statue was unveiled by Mikael Minasian, Sarkisian’s son-in-law and the Armenian ambassador to the Holy See, during the ensuing ceremony. Francis blessed it before in a joint prayer service with the two top Armenian Apostolic clergymen, Catholicos Garegin (Karekin) II and Catholicos Aram I.
A copy of the statue donated by Armenia will be placed at the Echmiadzin headquarters of the Armenian Church later this year. The Catholic News Agency on Wednesday quoted Minasian as referring to Gregory of Narek as a “bridge between the Armenian Church and Catholic Church.”
The rapprochement between the two ancient churches, strongly supported by successive Armenian governments, gained momentum in 1996 when they essentially ended their long-standing theological disputes. In 2001, John Paull II became the first Pope to have ever set foot in Armenia.
Francis was given a red-carpet reception when he visited the South Caucasus state in June 2016. Praying at the Echmiadzin cathedral, he saluted Armenia for making Christianity an “essential part of its identity”.
The Pope’s ecumenical liturgy with Garegin held in Yerevan’s central square attracted thousands of people. The two religious leaders praised the “growing closeness” between their churches in a joint declaration issued at the end of the papal trip.
While in Armenia, Francis also reaffirmed his recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide, prompting a strong condemnation from Ankara.
During his April 2015 mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Argentine-born pontiff said the World War One-era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians is “widely considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.”