In theory, at least, size doesn’t matter in Christianity. One’s spiritual dignity is not supposed to correlate with numbers of followers, infrastructure, or bank accounts; as Pope Benedict XVI once put it, “statistics are not our god.”
Rarely, however, will you see a clearer demonstration of that principle than what’s unfolded in Armenia during Pope Francis’s June 24-26 trip to this small nation in the South Caucasus region, on the dividing line between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
By any worldly measure, a comparison between Pope Francis and His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, is a total mismatch.
A pope leads a global faith made up of 1.2 billion people, presides over a sovereign state in the Vatican that has diplomatic relations with pretty much everybody, and is a media rock star all around the world.
The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, on the other hand, has at most 9 million followers, and is a rock star in exactly one spot: Armenia, a nation of around 3 million people. Otherwise, take off his clerical vestments, and he could move through airports unrecognized.
Despite its history as the world’s first officially Christian nation, Armenia is, frankly, something of a bit player even within Orthodoxy. It’s one of six Oriental Orthodox churches that don’t recognize the Council of Chalcedon, and thus tends to be overlooked in comparison to better-known Orthodox groups such as the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Yet over the past three days, the choreography of the trip, over and over again, has projected the idea that Francis and Karekin are complete equals, both heads of ancient churches and both invested with spiritual authority.
Everywhere Francis has gone, Karekin has been at his side; everywhere Francis has spoken, so too has Karekin; and anything Francis has blessed, prayed, over, or put flowers in front of, he was joined in doing so by Karekin.
Francis stayed in Karekin’s Apostolic Palace, sharing meals and prayer every day. The pope accepted an invitation to an ecumenical luncheon with Karekin and his bishops on Sunday, despite generally abhorring formal meals, and the two men were scheduled to visit a monastery together Sunday afternoon, in the shadow of the storied Mount Ararat, where they were to release two doves as signs of peace.
On Saturday, Francis and Karekin visited the northern Armenian city of Gyumri, and before leaving they stopped at both the Armenian and Catholic cathedrals. Francis offered the final blessing in the Armenian place of worship, while Karekin did so in the Catholic setting.
Also on Saturday, Karekin joined Francis for an open-air Mass the pontiff celebrated in Gyumri’s Vartanants Square, and on Sunday Francis returned the favor by taking part in a Divine Liturgy staged in the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace of the Armenian church in Etchmiadzin.
In both cases, the two men processed in together, side-by-side, and Sunday’s Orthodox liturgy was a rare case of a public event at which a pope was present but not actually the main actor. At one point, a choir intoned prayers for both Karekin and Francis.
The demonstration of common cause among Francis and Karekin of equal standing reflects not only the corporate commitment of both churches to ecumenism, but also Francis’s personal passion for Christian unity.
On Saturday, Francis urged Christians to “race toward full communion,” and his remarks Sunday at the Divine Liturgy drove that appeal home.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity,” the pope said, quoting Psalm 133.
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” he said. “We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.”
The experience, Francis said, has clearly demonstrated mutual affection, as well as “our tangible longing for full communion.”
In essence, “full communion” means a common celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and while the Armenians and the Vatican have reached agreement on a wide range of issues since a dialogue formally began in the 1970s, they’re not quite there yet – in part because on the Catholic side,”full communion” also includes accepting the authority of the pope.
To listen to Francis on Sunday, the delay is not for any lack of desire on his part.
“May the Armenian Church walk in peace and may the communion between us be complete,” he said.
“May an ardent desire for unity rise up in our hearts, a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each,” he said.
The drive for unity, the pope suggested, has a special importance for the young.
“Let us pay heed to the younger generation, who seek a future free of past divisions,” he said.
On this Sunday, Francis said, “may we follow God’s call to full communion and hasten towards it.” Quoting a line from the Armenian liturgy about eliminating scandal, Francis added, “first of all the lack of unity among the disciples of Christ.”
He ended by asking Karekin “to bless me and the Catholic Church, and to bless our path towards full unity.”
That zeal for unity seemed to be largely shared by the pope’s Armenian hosts.
“During these days together with our spiritual brother, Pope Francis, with joint visits and prayers we reconfirmed that the Holy Church of Christ is one in the spreading of the gospel of Christ in the world, in taking care of creation, standing against common problems, and in the vital mission of the salvation of man who is the crown and glory of God’s creation,” Karekin said at the end of Sunday’s divine liturgy.
Such openness reflects the generally strong relations among various types of Christians in the country.
Not only do Armenians of all stripes take pride in having been the first Christian state, but memories of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks are still seared into national consciousness – massacres in which Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and other Christians suffered together.
As one Armenian cleric put it on Saturday, “When our people ask us what the difference is between the Apostolic and the Catholic Churches, to be honest with you, we often don’t know what to say.”
Yet for some time, many non-Catholics have been hesitant about unity with Rome on the grounds it would mean being swamped by a stronger, larger, and more powerful papacy. That would be an especially understandable instinct in a place such as Armenia, conscious of its small size and relative lack of global punch.
Anyone watching the scenes unfold over the last three days, however, likely would conclude that the result could be precisely the opposite: Churches and their leaders who otherwise have little voice or influence might find their visibility, and even their domestic standing, dramatically enhanced by proximity to the pope’s star power.
That, perhaps, was one final point Francis wanted to come here to make, not so much in speech but in deeds, about size not mattering: This is what unity with Rome looks like, and it doesn’t mean being pressed down but, rather, lifted up.