In 2015, Pope Francis declared as a Doctor of the Church the sainted Armenian monk and poet, Gregory of Narek. In raising the medieval mystic to the vaulted halls of…
In 2015, Pope Francis declared as a Doctor of the Church the sainted Armenian monk and poet, Gregory of Narek. In raising the medieval mystic to the vaulted halls of the universal Church — one of just 36 men and women recognized for their theological and spiritual contributions — Pope Francis honored a man and his faith tradition once regarded by Catholics as dissident. The timing of the pope’s declaration was also important. In the same year, Armenians held commemorations mourning the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians (and Assyro-Chaldean Christians) in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, the so-called Year of the Sword.
Key to understanding St. Gregory of Narek (950-c. 1005), and his contributions to the universal Church, is reflecting on the precarious position of the Armenian Church, of which he is inextricably linked.
Looming high above the clouds in eastern Anatolia, an extinct volcano marks the site where the children of Abraham — Jews, Christians and Muslims — believe humanity regenerated after the great flood. According to the Book of Genesis, here, on Mount Ararat, Noah’s ark rested. And on these sacred slopes God promised Noah he would never again destroy creation with water.
In the shadow of Ararat — which lies just within the modern demarcation line dividing Turkey from Armenia — perched on a lesser hill but severed today from the mountain by barbed wire, a small church stands above a dungeon: Khor Virap.
For more than 13 years this pit, some 23 feet deep, interned the future “illuminator of the Armenians,” a Christian nobleman named Gregory who healed a king and baptized a nation into Christ in the year 301.
Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Persia and Rome, Armenian Christians digested the philosophical positions and theological vocabularies of the great learning centers of the early Church — Alexandria and Antioch, Athens and Rome, Constantinople and Seleucia, Edessa and Nisibis — and began the development of an alphabet for the Armenian vernacular. These rich cultural advances occurred even as an independent Armenian nation expired at the hands of their non-Christian Persian neighbors.
Armenian Christians were conscious of the great theological controversies that rocked the early Church, but rebellion against the Persians prevented them from actively participating in these debates, especially the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451).
These disputes, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus and His relationship to the Creator, grew as Christianity spread throughout the wider Mediterranean world, embracing converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic worlds, each of which had its own culture, history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and worldview.
In Alexandria, theologians tended to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, as opposed to theologians in Antioch, who emphasized the humanity of Jesus. These distinctive understandings of Jesus, or Christology, reflected largely the culture and language that defined them, and are recognized today by Church leaders and theologians as authentic and complementary.
In 448, the Persian emperor demanded his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Eastern Roman (Byzantine) rival. Appeasing Persian oppression, the Armenian bishops called for a national council.
Gathering near the very dungeon that had once imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator, the council declared the Armenian peoples’ fealty to the Persian emperor, but their steadfast spiritual loyalty remained with Christ: “Nobody can move us away from this faith, neither angels, nor people, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any severe ordeal. For we have a covenant of faith, not with human beings … but an indissoluble vow with God, from whom it is impossible to stay away neither now, nor tomorrow, nor for ever and ever.”
A century after Chalcedon, the Armenian bishops denounced the Christological decrees of the council, and reaffirmed their adherence to a more conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature and asserted their independence from the churches of Constantinople and Rome.
Though the bishops of the Armenian Church underscored its apostolic identity and independence, they did not demand the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Byzantine Empire, including the imperial church of Constantinople.
For more than 400 years, trade between the two flourished. Byzantine emperors employed Armenian monks and scribes, who flocked to Constantinople. Byzantine subjects served Armenian prelates and members of the nobility. Armenians engineered Byzantine defense systems and restored the dome of Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. Armenians even ascended the Byzantine throne, establishing dynasties of emperors who supported the redevelopment of an independent Armenia, which cushioned the barrier between the Byzantine Christian and ascendant Arab Muslim worlds.
The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the sophistication and wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1,001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices, such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults, later employed to support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.
Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depict kings and catholicoi (heads of Eastern churches), saints and angels, birds and crosses, revealing Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.
The liturgical rites of the Armenian Church, particularly the Soorp Badarak, or Divine Liturgy, mirror the cosmopolitan nature of Armenian ecclesiastical art and architecture. While historians suggest the supremacy of Syriac sources, they also recognize influences from the churches of Antioch, Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.
Gregory of Narek
This golden age of the Armenian civilization is personified by Gregory of Narek — priest and poet, theologian and philosopher, monk and mystic.
Gregory was born about 950 to a family dedicated to the Church. His father, Khosrov Antsevatsi, served as a bishop and theologian of the Armenian Church. After his wife’s death, the bishop entrusted the boy to the care of an uncle, Anania. A respected scholar and monk, Anania founded the Narek Monastery (known as Narekavank) on the shores of Lake Van in what is today eastern Turkey and reared Gregory as one of the monastic community, to which his pupil remained attached for the rest of his short life.
Few details of Gregory’s life are known, but hints of the man’s years of pain and suffering suffuse his writings, particularly his “Book of Lamentations.”
Written in the waning years of the first Christian millennium, “Lamentations” is considered by scholars a metaphor for the preparation and celebration of the Badarak — an “edifice of faith,” wrote Gregory.
The 95 lamentations are grouped together, mirroring the different stages of the liturgy, from the dismissal of the catechumens, the profession of faith and Communion to the final prayers in preparation of death and judgment.
The work of St. Gregory of Narek encouraged the development of classical Armenian as a literary language, even as his work has been translated into many languages and adapted for music. His writings adorn much of the liturgical life of the Armenian Church, apostolic and catholic, including the Eucharistic liturgy, which Gregory’s father described as “the great medicine”: “We beseech you,” the priest prays silently as he ascends the sanctuary, “with outstretched arms, with tears and sobbing prayers.”
Lamentations As Symbol
Gregory died about a year after he completed the final prayer of his masterpiece.
“By your noble and glorious blood, offered unceasingly to please God who sent you, may the dangers be lifted from me, may my transgressions be forgiven, may my vices be pardoned, may my shamelessness be forgotten, may my sentence be commuted, may the worms shrivel, may the wailing stop, and the gnashing of teeth fall silent,” he wrote.
“Let the laments lessen and tears dry. Let mourning end and darkness be banished. May the vengeful fire be stamped out and torments of every kind exiled….
“May you who grant life to all be compassionate now. Let your light dawn, your salvation be swift, your help arrive in time, and the hour of your arrival be at hand.”
Seventy years after Gregory penned these words, Armenia disintegrated when the Seljuk Turks defeated the imperial forces of the Byzantines in the Armenian town of Manzikert. As the Byzantine emperor’s army retreated to Constantinople, the Turks and their allies rushed to fill the void, overrunning Armenian and Byzantine territory, including St. Gregory’s Narekavank.
Nevertheless, Narekavank thrived for nearly a millennium, becoming a notable center of illuminated manuscript production, scholarship, pilgrimage and prayer. Early in the 20th century, the monks founded a boarding school and a seminary within its walls — a source of pride for the influential and wealthy Armenians of Ottoman Turkey, who dominated trade in luxury goods and spices and served as bureaucrats for the sultan.
But the development of national movements, which began in the Ottoman provinces of the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians.
Fearful of the national aspirations of the empire’s Armenians, which were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, agents of the Ottoman sultan assaulted Armenian communities and institutions, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria.
In 1915, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were driven from their communities in eastern Anatolia — many to their deaths. Narekavank, and the tomb of its great saint, was abandoned. Open to the elements, the monastery was defiled, and its churches pillaged.
Today, nothing remains of this important center of the Eastern Christian tradition. Yet, the writings of the newest Doctor of the Church, an “angel in human form,” survive, carrying to God the cries of millions of hearts.
Michael LaCivita, K.C.H.S., is communications director for CNEWA and oversees the publication of its award-winning magazine, ONE, as well as the ONE to ONE blog.
Pope St. John Paul II noted at her beatification the rare blend of characteristics found in Marie Guyart: “wife, mother, widow, businesswoman, religious, mystic and missionary.” The first woman to…
Pope St. John Paul II noted at her beatification the rare blend of characteristics found in Marie Guyart: “wife, mother, widow, businesswoman, religious, mystic and missionary.”
The first woman to evangelize North America, Marie Guyart was a baker’s daughter born in Tours, France, just before the turn of the 17th century. She was a mystic from an early age. The Lord once appeared to her and desired that she be totally his, to which she replied with a wholehearted, “Yes!”
Despite the early seeds of a religious vocation planted in her heart, St. Marie was married at 17 to a silk dealer. Widowed at 19 with a six-month-old son, she was left responsible for her husband’s bankrupt business and settled many claims against it with an astute ability in commerce and finance.
Although other men offered marriage to her, the widowed St. Marie made a vow of chastity. Spending some time with her family, she focused on efforts to make money by embroidery. Later she worked for her brother-in-law’s business for many years.
During this time, St. Marie was committed to providing a good education for her son. Put in charge of her brother-in-law’s business, her time was much more restricted, yet she made time for daily Mass and prayer.
The most drastic change in her life came when she discerned the Lord was calling her to religious life a few years before turning 30. This meant leaving her son in the care of her family, enabling her to enter the novitiate of the Ursuline order, taking vows as Sister Marie de l’Incarnation in 1633.
St. Marie did not stay in the French convent for long. Stirred by a dream about a decade later, the mystic was shown a beautiful and scenic land by God. He told her “it was Canada that I showed you; you must go there to build a house for Jesus and Mary.” This explains why she became absorbed with missionary zeal for the New World.
Once she learned from Jesuits about missions in New France, St. Marie set out for Quebec in 1639 with a small group, including another Ursuline. Her business skills proved very useful as she began a school for Native American girls, the first educational institution for women in North America. She also built the first monastery on the continent, and was superior and novice mistress for the growing order. Her son went on to enter the Benedictines, and he kept in regular contact with his mother through heartfelt letters.
St. Marie of the Incarnation was an evangelist and missionary in the truest sense, even learning four languages and developing dictionaries to share the Gospel and educate the natives.
Great suffering was also part of her life. This manifested itself in a variety of illnesses, including a long-term battle with liver disease, which almost took her life in 1645. She wrote her son, “The seriousness of the ailment which I suffered convinced me more and more to work solely for God, and to practice virtue when one is well, but especially to keep one’s conscience pure and clean.”
St. Marie died in the presence of her community on April 30, 1672. On her deathbed she made sure that word would be sent to her son: “Tell him that I am carrying him with me in my heart.” Upon hearing the news of her death, her saddened bishop St. François Laval eulogized, “Jesus Christ possessed her so completely … that she lived and acted only through Jesus Christ.” She was canonized in 2014.
Her feast day is April 30.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.
There is very little other than Scripture. There are some scurrilous stories in apocryphal writings involving the Infancy Narratives, but they are not Scripture and have been rejected by tradition…
There is very little other than Scripture. There are some scurrilous stories in apocryphal writings involving the Infancy Narratives, but they are not Scripture and have been rejected by tradition as unworthy of our attention.
Though we know so little of Joseph in Scripture, he seems to have been the strong, silent type. Not a word of his is recorded. But his actions have much to say, especially to men. Let’s consider a few examples of his active virtue.
He was a man who obeyed God and clung to his wife. At a certain point, it was discovered that Mary was pregnant, though not by Joseph. Scripture says that Joseph was a “just man.” This does not mean that Joseph was a fair and nice guy (though I presume he was). What it means was that he was a follower of the Law. The Law said that if a man discovered that a woman to whom he was betrothed was not a virgin, he should divorce her and not “sully” his home. Joseph, as a just man — that is, a follower of the Law — was prepared to follow its requirements. To fail to divorce Mary would expose Joseph to cultural ramifications. But Joseph is told in a dream not to fear, that Mary has committed no sin. The Gospel of Matthew records: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (1:24). So, here is a man who obeys God even if it is not popular, even if he may suffer for it. Here is a man who agrees to cling to his wife, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health. This is what a man is to do.
Joseph was a man whose vocation is more important than his career. In Bethlehem, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Joseph may well have had much to lose in this flight. Back in Nazareth he had a business, a career if you will. He had business prospects, business partners and contacts. Fleeing to a distant land might mean others would take his business, etc. But Joseph was a father and husband before he was a businessman. His vocation outweighed his career.
Joseph was a man of work. Scripture speaks of Joseph as a “carpenter” (Mt 13:55). The Greek word however is tektonos, which can mean more than a worker in wood. It can also refer to a builder or any craftsman. It was through his work that Joseph supported his family. It is the call of a man to work diligently and to responsibly, reliably provide for his family. Joseph models this essential aspect of manhood. St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, felt it necessary to rebuke some of the men of his day for their idleness and concludes, “Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food” (3:12).
Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
Everything we know about St. Stephen, one of the first deacons and Christianity’s first martyr, comes from chapters six and seven of the Acts of the Apostles in the New…
Everything we know about St. Stephen, one of the first deacons and Christianity’s first martyr, comes from chapters six and seven of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.
Stephen came from a family of Hellenists, Jews who had emigrated from Palestine to one of the Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire. These Jews spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and in their synagogues they heard the Scriptures read in Greek rather than Hebrew.
The sixth chapter of Acts tell us that tension arose between the Greek Jewish converts to Christianity and the Palestinian Jewish converts. The Greeks said that their widows and needy were being neglected in favor of the Hebrew poor. To resolve the problem, the apostles ordained seven men as deacons to serve the poor and preach the Faith. The first name on this list of seven is Stephen.
St. Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that Stephen was a handsome man with “the face of an angel … full of grace and fortitude,&rdquo who in his zeal for the Faith debated with members of four different Greek synagogues. When Stephen’s eloquence got the better of the Hellenist Jews, his angry opponents seized him and dragged him off to the court of the Sanhedrin. There false witnesses charged him with blasphemy, denouncing the Temple sacrifices and reviling the Law of Moses.
The High Priest (perhaps Caiaphas, the same High Priest who tried Jesus) asked Stephen if he had anything to say: In answer to these accusations Stephen delivered a lengthy speech that traced the sacred history of the Jews from Abraham to their own day. He concluded his discourse with a denunciation of his accusers and judges: “You stiff -necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.”
Oblivious to the commotion in the court, Stephen antagonized his audience further by characterizing them as “betrayers and murderers” who did not keep the Law of Moses. Then, suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
This was too much for the men in the court. They rushed upon Stephen, dragged him outside the city walls and stoned him to death. The man who watched the killers’ clothes as they went about their brutal business was named Saul — known to us as St. Paul the Apostle.
As the stones struck him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then, when he was down on his knees and near death, he prayed again, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
After the mob had dispersed Christians took Stephen’s body away for burial.
St. Stephen has always been venerated by deacons as their special patron. Today a network of deacon-intercessors who call themselves the Sons of St. Stephen pray daily for an end to abortion, the protection of families, the health of the Holy Father, and for all priests and bishops that they may be inspired by St. Stephen to be courageous in teaching and bearing witness to the truth.
St. Stephen is the patron saint of stonemasons, bricklayers and deacons. His feast day is December 26.
Craughwell is the author of more than 30 books, including “Saints Behaving Badly” and “This Saint Will Change Your Life.”
Young Anna Boscardin (1888-1922) overcame a variety of obstacles through the grace of God and went on to serve those who struggled with their own. Her father admitted in the…
Young Anna Boscardin (1888-1922) overcame a variety of obstacles through the grace of God and went on to serve those who struggled with their own. Her father admitted in the investigations that led up to his daughter’s beatification that he was violent, abusive and struggled with bouts of alcoholism, which forced the young girl and her mother to seek safety often by fleeing the family home.
Attendance at school was a rare privilege for young Annette, as she was called most commonly. She had to leave classes frequently to assist her family at home and in harvesting the fields. During the times she could attend school, she was frequently distracted by working as a servant for a nearby family.
Annette was not regarded well by her peers. Few thought her attractive and many spoke of her mediocre intelligence. And she was frequently picked on for what many saw as mediocrity. She was slapped with the nickname of “goose” by a local priest in reference to her slowness.
The spirit of the world that rejected her was no competitor for the spirit of adoption for this beloved daughter of the Father. Annette had a deep and abiding faith that defined her. Because of that, she was allowed to receive first holy Communion early and made early entrance into the “children of Mary” association in the parish. A catechism the priest gifted her with became a symbol of her relentless faith and was found in her pocket when she died.
In spite of a lack of support from her pastor — who thought she was unable to amount to much in life — Annette desired to give herself completely to God as a nun. But her slowness was cited as the cause for rejection when she applied to a religious order. The priest indicated that she was at least able to peel the community’s potatoes. The Sisters of St. Dorothy in Vicenza, Italy, accepted her in 1904, bestowing her the name Sister Maria Bertilla. As she told the mother superior, her only desire was “to become a saint.”
Sister Maria Bertilla had a willingness to go wherever God wanted her. But it seemed that simple tasks would be in store for her. The first year in the convent was spent in menial tasks no one else wanted, although she embraced them willingly. The next year, she was moved to a hospital, first confined to work in the kitchen but then assigned to work with the patients.
As a missionary to the sick and marginalized, Sister Maria Bertilla found her calling. She was particularly drawn to assist those who were littlest and without much hope for survival. Her gifts to minister among those who suffered and were on the brink of death were readily acknowledged by the hospital’s medical staff.
By 1915, the hospital was filled with military injured during World War I. Within a few years the hospital was on the front lines of battle. Sister Maria Bertilla wrote in her diary: “Here I am, Lord, to do your will whatever comes — be it life, death or terror.”
As the heaviest bombs were dropped in her city, Sister Maria Bertilla willingly chose to stay at the wounded’s bedside, particularly with those who could not move. She was a comforting presence, bringing snacks and praying with them. Some of the injured to whom she ministered were present for her beatification and canonization.
Her life was marked by a willingness to go out in love and service to others, giving what she received little of, resigning her will in favor of God’s. She died of a painful tumor at age 34 on Oct. 20, 1922.
Her feast day is Oct. 20.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.
As a young boy, St. Louis Bertrand (1526-1581) desired to join the Dominican ranks of his distant relative, the Spanish miracle worker St. Vincent Ferrer. They each began their new…
As a young boy, St. Louis Bertrand (1526-1581) desired to join the Dominican ranks of his distant relative, the Spanish miracle worker St. Vincent Ferrer. They each began their new life in Christ in the same place, having been baptized in the same font in Valencia, Spain. Even though his father tried to stop him, pleading for the saint to keep his inheritance, St. Louis took the Dominican habit and was ordained a priest in 1547 by St. Thomas of Villanova, then archbishop of Valencia.
St. Louis was not an intellectual, but he worked hard at his studies, nonetheless. His stern and humorless disposition was counteracted by a gentility and kindness that caused him to be well-received by others. When a plague broke out in his hometown, he cared for the sick and dying, and he assisted in the effort to bury the large numbers of dead. For a time, he also served as novice master for his convent.
Despite a description saying, “his voice was raucous, his memory treacherous, his carriage without grace,” St. Louis became known for his preaching. Multitudes came to hear him, and saints sought his counsel, including St. Teresa of Avila, who came to him seeking advice about reforming her Carmelite order.
Despite his successes, St. Louis was granted permission to fulfill a longstanding desire to serve in the missions. He set out for the Americas in 1562, carrying only a staff and breviary. He was destined for the territory of New Grenada, reaching land in Cartagena, Colombia.
In the New World, St. Louis worked for the spiritual welfare of his new flock and fought to secure a better life for the natives under colonial rule. He was known to exercise spiritual powers manifested though activities such as physical healings. And he also worked alongside fellow Dominicans, like Bartholomew de Las Casas, to advocate for the natives’ human rights.
He established a variety of missions throughout modern-day Colombia, bringing tens of thousands into the Church, despite some struggles along the way. He traveled from town to town, preaching the Gospel and establishing devotion to the holy Rosary. To assist him in his ministry, he prayed for and received the gift of tongues, enabling the natives to hear and understand his words. He faced every imaginable hardship, from jungles and insects to wild beats and tropical diseases. Once, when approached by a gun-toting man who intended to kill him, St. Louis made the Sign of the Cross over it, turning it into a crucifix.
St. Louis also visited and sewed seeds of faith in the West Indies as well as the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco.
He returned to his native Spain in 1569. There he continued working as an advocate for the rights of the exploited and mistreated natives of the lands where he ministered. He was not allowed to return to those lands, however, and was banned from ministering among the natives in the future.
In his last years, he renewed his contact with St. Teresa of Avila, serving as a spiritual counselor to her. He again assumed the duties of novice master for his convent and inspired the young men by infusing their souls with missionary zeal.
St. Louis died on Oct. 9, 1581, a date he predicted himself. He is regarded as the Apostle to the Americas and was canonized less than a century after his death in 1671.
His feast day is Oct. 9.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.