WASHINGTON (September 4, 2003) -- At the invitation of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, a delegation of Catholic bishops from the United States was in Armenia from August 27 to September 3, 2003. The delegation included Cardinal William H. Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore; Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California; Bishop Robert E. Mulvee of Providence, Rhode Island; Bishop Basil H. Losten of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut; Bishop Nicholas J. Samra, Auxiliary of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts; Bishop John J. Nevins of Venice, Florida; and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York. Accompanying the bishops were Msgr. Stephen Happel, Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington, DC; Msgr. Robert L. Stern, General Secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York; Rev. Ronald Roberson, Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB; and Rev. Humbert Oliveira. Joining the delegation in Armenia were Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in America, and Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Legate and Ecumenical Officer of the same Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church.
The occasion of the visit was the celebration this year of the 1700th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral in Holy Etchmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The visit provided an opportunity for the bishops to familiarize themselves with the continuing renewal of the Armenian Church after the end of the communist regime, to increase fraternal links between the two churches, and to foster contacts with the Armenian Catholic Church in the country.
The new witness of faith offered by the Armenian Church after the enormous suffering it has endured during the last century deeply impressed the delegation. This sad history was vividly brought to mind by a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) on August 28. Cardinal Keeler laid a wreath at the memorial and the delegation was given a tour of the museum nearby. This, along with information about the long decades of martyrdom at the hands of the communist authorities, brought into dramatic relief the resilience of the Christian faith of the Armenian people in the face of adversity.
The delegation was inspired by the efforts of the Armenian Apostolic Church to renew itself today under the leadership of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. Several encounters with His Holiness provided the delegation with an opportunity to learn about the strong vision he has for his church. His emphasis on providing religious education for the faithful and social services for the people, building new churches, recruiting and forming new priests, and fostering youth ministry, provide much hope for the future. Visits to the Vaskenian Theological Seminary at Lake Sevan, the Armenian Church Youth Center in Yerevan, monastic establishments, and various parish communities showed that even though it still has many needs, the Armenian Apostolic Church lies at the heart of positive developments in Armenian society and culture. The Armenian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere has been playing a key role in this process.
On August 31 the members of the delegation attended the Sunday Liturgy in the cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, which included the ordination of two new priests. The Catholicos invited Cardinal Keeler to address the assembled faithful at the end of the liturgy. The Cardinal joyfully acknowledged the strong steps taken by the Catholicos to provide for the renewal of his church, and recalled in particular the visit of Pope John Paul II to Armenia in 2001 when the Catholicos invited the Pope to stay in his own residence, and offered him the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist for the local Roman Catholic community at the Great External Altar in the garden of Etchmiadzin. Speaking of the dialogue between the Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, Cardinal Keeler said that the Catholicos had "advanced that dialogue in wonderful ways."
The delegation also had significant contacts with the Catholic community in Armenia. Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the Apostolic Nuncio to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, met the delegation at the airport when it arrived and remained with it during the first two days of the visit. On August 29, the delegation traveled to Gymri, in northwest Armenia, an area where tens of thousands lost their lives in the devastating earthquake of 1988. The country's small Catholic community is concentrated in this region which is still struggling to recover. The delegation was not able to meet with Archbishop Nerses Der-Nersessian, who was ill in the hospital. But it was able to visit the headquarters of Caritas Armenia, directed by Msgr. Anton Totonjian, and the Our Lady of Armenia Boghossian Educational Center, directed by Sr. Arousiag Sajonian. After long years of suffering the Armenian Catholic community is also showing strong signs of recovery. The delegation was particularly pleased to learn that both the Apostolic Nuncio and the local Armenian Catholic Church enjoy excellent relations with the Armenian Apostolic Church.
On August 28, Cardinal Keeler along with bishops Blaire, Hubbard, Mulvee and Nevins joined the Catholicos and Archbishop Barsamian for a private meeting with His Excellency Robert Kocharian, President of the Republic of Armenia. On the same day the entire delegation was received by Andranik Margarian, the Armenian Prime Minister. The delegation was able to learn about developments in church-state relations in Armenia from these encounters. These meetings and other engagements the delegation had in the country were covered extensively and positively in the Armenian media.
The delegation was also very grateful for a reception held in its honor by Ms. Vivian Walker, Charge d'Affaires at the United States Embassy to Armenia, on August 27, where it had an opportunity to meet with representatives of various religious groups in the country.
Cardinal Keeler and the other members of the delegation were especially grateful to the Catholicos for the gracious hospitality shown to them while in Armenia. They left the world's first Christian nation with a much better understanding of its current situation, with optimism for its future, and convinced that the fraternal bonds linking the Catholic Church and Armenian Apostolic Church were strengthened by the visit.