As part of a series of pilgrimages to Armenian hierarchical sees and holy places organized on the 1700th Jubilee of the Armenian Church, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey went on a pilgrimage to Lebanon.
Upon the invitation of His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, His Beatitude Patriarch Mesrob II of Istanbul and All Turkey attended a series of celebrations in Antelias, Lebanon, marking the 1700th Anniversary of Armenian Christianity. The Patriarch was accompanied by Their Graces Archbishop Sahan Sivaciyan (Patriarchal Vicar General), Bishop Aram Atesyan (Grand Ecclesiarch of the Patriarchal See), Sub-deacon Vagarsag Seropyan (staff-bearer and “Lraper” editor) and a group of twenty-five Armenian pilgrims from Istanbul.
On Friday, 25 May, a delegation from Antelias, headed by Their Graces Archbishops Vartan Demirdjian and Yeprem Tabakian, greeted the Patriarch Mesrob and his entourage at the Beirut International Airport. The First Secretary of the Turkish Embassy in Beirut was also present in the VIP lounge to welcome His Beatitude to Lebanon in the name of the Turkish Ambassador.
Patriarch Mesrob was then escorted to the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia where he was warmly greeted by His Holiness Catholicos Aram I. A luncheon followed at the patriarchal headquarters attended also by Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Archbishop Theophilos George Saliba of Mount Lebanon, Archbishop Sebuh Sarkissian of Tehran and Dr Konrad Raiser, Secretary General of the World Council of Churches.
In the afternoon, Patriarch Mesrob paid courtesy visits to Their Excellencies the Ambassadors Mr Nazim Dumlu of Turkey and Mr Arman Navassartian of Armenia.
Later in the evening, Catholicos Aram and His Beatitude attended a moving concert of sacred music in the Patriarchal Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, performed by the Shnorhali Choir, under the direction of Father Meghrig Parikian.
On Saturday, 26 May, Patriarch Mesrob visited the Theological Seminary of the Catholicosate in Bickfaya, a village located in the district of Metn, Mount Lebanon, approximately 30 kilometres from Antelias and 850 metres above sea level. Bickfaya, originally an Assyrian name meaning ‘the house of the rock’ was perhaps a most appropriate locality for a theological seminary whose structures sat on a beautiful rocky terrace on the western slope of the mountain, calling to mind that our life of faith must be founded upon the Rock, which is the Lord’s Word (Lk 6:48).
The Dean, members of the faculty and the seminarians greeted the guests at the entrance of the Seminary compound, which was followed by prayers in the Chapel of the Holy Mother-of-God, a spiritual fellowship in the courtyard, a short tour of the Seminary buildings, the Library, and refreshments in the summer cloister of the Brotherhood. In his address to the students, the Patriarch said it is quite moving for him to be at the Seminary as the institution was founded in 1930 by Catholicos Papgen Gulesserian, formerly a member of the celebrated Armash Monastery of the Istanbul Patriarchate. His Beatitude’s spiritual father, Patriarch Shnork of Istanbul, had also served as the Dean of the Seminary of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia during the 1941-1944 academic years.
His Beatitude told the seminarians never to lose sight of the Church’s apostolicity, not only in terms of apostolic faith and succession, but also in terms of witness and service. Later during the day, the Patriarch visited the Tombs of the Catholicoi, the Martyrs’ Chapel, the Cilicia Museum and the Library of the Catholicosate.
Blessing of Myron
On Saturday evening, the Blessing of the Holy Myron (Chrism) was held following vespers. Thousands of pilgrims from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Kuwait, the Gulf states, Canada, the United States, and as far as Venezuela had traveled to Antelias to take part in the momentous event. Catholicos Aram, Patriarch Mesrob, four bishops representing the Holy Sees of Etchmiadzin and Jerusalem, and eight bishops selected from amongst the Brotherhood of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, hieromonks, deacons and acolytes formed an impressive procession that moved from the patriarchal headquarters on to the large stage that had been built for the occasion before the façade of the Patriarchal Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. His Holiness Catholicos Aram celebrated the Divine Liturgy with twelve bishops assisting, while Pope Shenouda, Patriarchs Zakka, Philippos and Mesrob were given chairs of honour on opposite sides of the stage.
The Blessing of the Myron took place just before the Kiss of Peace, when, following canonical prayers and readings, Catholicos Aram added balsam, the main ingredient of the Holy Myron, to the ancient container prepared for the occasion. Aged Myron from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin was mixed to the new Myron blessed in Antelias, as a visible sign that, despite having four hierarchical sees, the Armenian Church is and remains one in sacris.
In his uplifting homily, Catholicos Aram said the Holy Myron was able to secure the continuation of the Armenian Church. He mentioned how the same Myron has been used to baptize Armenian children for 1700 years without cessation. His Holiness spoke of the Church’s role in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, and the need to reform the Church so that these responsibilities can duly be fulfilled.
Lebanese President Gen. Emile Lahoud attended part of the ceremony, along with representatives of the Lebanese prime minister and parliament speaker, and several state ministers and deputies.
On Sunday, 27 May, the Divine Liturgy in the full capacity Armenian Cathedral of Surp Nshan in Beirut was celebrated by His Beatitude Patriarch Mesrob, assisted by Their Graces Bishop Kegham of Beirut and Bishop Aram from Istanbul. His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, His Holiness Patriarch Philippos of Eritrea, numerous bishops, priests and representatives from Armenian and foreign sister churches and a representative of the Lebanese president attended the solemn liturgy.
An ecumenical prayers were said in English, before the Lord’s Prayer, when Catholicos Aram received a relic of St. Gregory the Illuminator from His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper representing His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
Similar relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator were given to the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin last year by the Vatican, and to the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate early this year.
Cardinal Kasper read Pope John Paul II’s message to Catholicos Aram, who spoke of the relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Holy See of Rome, in particular, and the ties between the Holy See of Cilicia and the Vatican, which have spanned several centuries.
Following the church services, Catholicos Aram invited all Armenian and foreign guests to the Birds’ Nest Orphanage in Jebeil for an informal lunch with the children. Patriarch Mesrob offered a toast in honour of Catholicos Aram who was celebrating his name and recalled reading the memoirs of Patriarch Shnork who had been a student in the Birds’ Nest for two years, in 1924 and 1925, before being transferred to another orphanage in Nazareth.
Catholicos Aram concluded the Agape meal reiterating that the Church is not a hierarchy for and in itself. “The Church is the people. The structures of the Armenian Church,” he said, “need reform in order for her to fulfill her ministry and service to the people.” The Catholicos then thanked all who had responded to his invitation to attend the 1700th anniversary celebrations organised by the Holy See of Cilicia.
Later in the afternoon, Patriarch Mesrob had a meeting with His Eminence Walter Kasper, and congratulated him for being promoted to the rank of Cardinal by His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
Following supper, His Beatitude Mesrob II took leave of the Catholicos and thanked for his and the Brotherhood’s hospitality.
This was the first ever pilgrimage of His Beatitude Patriarch Mesrob to the Holy See of Cilicia. He returned to Istanbul on Monday, 28 May.