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Armenian Genocide Service

National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

How grateful I am to Bishop Vikan for the invitation to join you this evening. We now reflect together on one of the most tragic events of the 20th Century, the terrible slaughter of so many Armenians in what is aptly described as a genocide, one of a number of events in Armenian history that brought so many to martyrdom.

May I ask a question: were any of you present about 10 or 12 years ago when Catholicos Karekin I made his first visit to the Washington area? What a wonderful evening that was, and how privileged I was to be present and to help set in motion his request for a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome.

How many took part in the extraordinary, ecumenical service commemorating the visit of Catholicos Karekin II to Washington several years ago? That day lives vividly in my memory, and I was deeply honored to speak on behalf of the Catholic community in the United States at a service in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in which representatives of the member churches of the National Council of Churches participated, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, whose part in this evening’s program I deeply appreciate.

Last September, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian and Bishop Vikan Aykazian, who were of tremendous assistance to us three years ago on the occasion of that visit, escorted a significant group of American Catholic bishops and priests in a weeklong visit to Armenia. Our bishops came from throughout the United States, and the priests included Monsignor Robert Stern, General Secretary of our Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which has special responsibilities with respect to the Eastern Churches, and Father Ronald Roberson, who, when Catholicos Karekin I asked to see the Holy Father, responded to my request that he help to facilitate the meeting.

Among the highlights of our pilgrimage to Armenia, in addition to the meetings with Catholicos Karekin, was the somber visit to the monument to the Armenian genocide. We stood in respectful silence in the monument itself; we toured in stunned silence the nearby museum to view the maps, artifacts and photographs that made vivid for us what transpired when so many Armenians were compelled to set forth on a march of no return.

The website for “Armenian genocide” is filled with quotations from the newsmakers of the last century, from Adolph Hitler, who used the forgetfulness of people about what had been inflicted on the Armenians as an excuse for his own efforts to annihilate the Jewish people, to the American presidents of the latter part of the century, who were very pointed in their comments on the great sufferings of the Armenian people in the latter years of the second decade of that century.

Bishop Vikan kindly sent to me a book about the American reactions to the genocide. Our Ambassador to Turkey, Mr. Henry Morganthau, reported in detail on the tragic unfolding of events, and other Americans as well worked together to put the spotlight of public opinion on Armenia and on Turkey. It is clear that the Armenian genocide was much better known to the American public while it was occurring than some of the later genocidal efforts of the 20th Century.

(The other genocides, many of them remembered today, include at least these: the Ukrainian genocide of the 1930’s, when more than 10 million perished under Stalin; the horrors of the Holocaust, when Hitler tried his “Final Solution”; the Nigerian bloodbath, when tribal attacks upon the Ibos caused a million deaths; what occurred in Cambodia under Pol Pot; and the Rwanda terror of just ten years ago. There is the ongoing genocidal situation in Sudan, to which, thank the Lord, our own government and others are trying to resolve. In the year 2000, in my titular Church in Rome, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Michelangelo’s last major architectural project, a meeting of the English-speaking young people at World Youth Day took place. The first question was, “When are the developed nations going to do something about the genocide taking place in Sudan, my country? In some 15 years, more than two million have died.” I observed that the question was a good one, and that one problem for us in the developed countries was that CNN had not yet seen Sudan as a place from which to file reports. In fact, now the U. S. and other governments have taken interest in the issue of Sudan.)

The motion picture Ararat conveyed a measure of the heartlessness and pain, both in the genocide itself and in its aftermath, as a proud and self-reliant people struggled with new ways and new languages in new homes around the world.

When Pope John Paul II visited Catholicos Karekin II at Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia, in September, 2001, history was made: for the first time, the Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Catholic Church stayed in the home of the head of another church and together they published a common declaration. In this statement they recalled the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the religion of Armenia and gave thanks to God for giving them the “joyous opportunity to join again in common prayer, in praise of his all-holy Name.”

They spoke in praise of Saint Gregory the Illuminator and his collaborators and successors, who brought the gospel message “to not only the people of Armenia but to others in the neighboring countries of the Caucasus.” They said also, “Endowed with great faith, they chose to bear witness to the Truth and accept death when necessary, in order to share eternal life. Martyrdom for the love of Christ thus became a great legacy of many generations of Armenians. The most valuable treasure that one generation could contribute to the next was fidelity to the Gospel, so that, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the young would become as resolute as their ancestors in bearing witness to the Truth. The extermination of a million and a half Armenian Christians, in what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century, and the subsequent annihilation of thousands under the former totalitarian regime are tragedies that still live in the memory of the present generation. These innocents who were butchered in vain are not canonized, but many among them were certainly confessors and martyrs for the name of Christ.” (Common Declaration, September 27, 2001)

A couple of weeks later, during the meeting of our World Synod of Bishops to discuss the office of bishop in the Church, I heard Pope John Paul recalling his visit to Armenia in the course of a luncheon discussion. Next to me was the newest bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who had been part of the group offering Pope John Paul hospitality at Holy Etchmiadzin. Last year, he recalled our meeting as we visited him in his diocese, which had been so hard hit by the earthquake of 1988.

At that luncheon Pope John Paul asked me to describe the effects of September 11 in the place in which I serve. I responded that the event made us all aware of how fragile is our grasp on life and how much we depend on God and God’s mercy. The Holy Father then asked each of those at table for their reaction to the terrible events—this made for a stimulating and highly spiritual conversation.

During our visit to Armenia last year we heard and we saw also the determination of the Armenian Apostolic Church to continue its dynamic mission of evangelizing the society, and I was able to comment on the vitality of the Church in the course of several television interviews.

Here in the United States your Catholic neighbors want to be good neighbors and build here on the wonderful, close relationships your bishops have established with us. We look for your partnership in bearing witness to the sacredness of life, a gift of God, to the honored place of marriage and family life, so troubled in our American society, and to enhancing the role religious faith should have in shaping public policy. Under the latter heading, I am sure we are at one in our concern for the cause of peace, “the peace of Jerusalem” and the Holy Land, and the peace of the region, including Iraq.

Like you, your Catholic neighbors came here in search of freedom, especially religious freedom. In fact, the first place in the English-speaking world that had religious freedom by law was the Colony of Maryland. In 1634 the first Catholic colonists arrived and by 1639 their early General Assembly could enact what was a very specific piece of legislation, embracing just about every aspect of religious freedom. This freedom was lost with the so-called Glorious Revolution in England, when William of Orange came to the throne and eventually sent a Royal Governor to Maryland with orders for the strict enforcement of the anti-Catholic penal laws, depriving Catholics of the right to vote or hold public office, to be lawyers, teachers or doctors, and forbidding priests to celebrate the Eucharist publicly and to hold property.

Only with the American Revolution did freedom come, and our first bishop, John Carroll, and his cousin, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, worked in support of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Basilica in Baltimore, the first Catholic Cathedral in the United States, is such a sign of what occurred in Maryland that Pope John Paul II has described it as the “worldwide symbol of religious freedom.”

God grant that our service today may deepen in all of us our devotion to faith and freedom. May the Lord of all mercies be with the Armenian people in these difficult days for a country with such a history of Christian witness, even to martyrdom. May we draw upon the heroic examples of our separate pasts and pray for the grace of greater common witness to God’s gifts in our Churches. May the Lord who suffered, died and rose for us make us strong in ministering to one another His gift of peace.