When Pope Francis described the killing of more than a million Armenians a century ago as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was widely regarded as making a political statement. Certainly that was the view of Turkey, which recalled its ambassador to the Vatican and expressed its “great disappointment and sadness” over the pope’s remarks.
If a religious significance was attached to the pope’s comments, it was that his condemnation of killings of a Christian group resident in the Muslim Ottoman Empire resonated in the current persecution of Christians by Islamic State.
But even that analysis misses the theological significance of the pope’s remarks and the ceremony at which he delivered them.
Francis spoke last Sunday at a Mass in the Vatican celebrated for Catholics of the Armenian Rite. Present were not only the head of the Armenian Catholic Church, Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, but also the leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church, including Karekin II and Aram I, the two Catholicoi (patriarchs) at the top of the church’s hierarchy.
The Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the most ancient Christian communities, is an “Oriental Orthodox” church, not be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church which broke with Rome in the 11th century. The Armenian Church parted with both Rome and Constantinople much earlier, over an abstruse theological dispute about the nature of Christ.
In recent years, however, the Armenian and other “Miaphysite” churches – another is the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt – have been engaged in theological conversations with the Vatican and Eastern Orthodox churches and the theological differences of Christianity’s first millennium largely have been smoothed over.
The Vatican similarly has found common ground with another branch of Christianity with which it long had doctrinal disputes, the so-called Nestorian churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East whose congregants in Iraq and Syria have been targeted by Islamic State.
In 1994 John Paul II and the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East buried the theological hatchet with a “common Christological declaration” that essentially amounted to a “never mind” about past disagreements. That agreement later led to a remarkable document in which the Vatican permitted the sharing of Holy Communion between Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics, who follow rites similar to the Assyrians’ but recognize the authority of the pope in Rome.
Neither the Oriental Orthodox churches nor the Assyrian Church of the East have recognized the authority of the pope in the way Roman (and Eastern) Catholics do. But both the Vatican’s outreach to them and their welcoming response is part of the ecumenical impulse that grew out of the Second Vatican Council. The council's Decree on Ecumenism quoted Jesus as praying that all of his followers "may be one."
So when the pope embraced the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church he wasn’t just making a political statement about events a century ago; he was doing the Lord’s work.
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