By Christopher Wells
“I think it’s easy to describe relations between the Vatican and the Republic of Armenia,” said President Armen Sarkissian. “I think I can even describe that in two words: very good.” He added, “I’m not saying excellent, because I hope that we can do even better.”
President Sarkissian was speaking with Vatican Media in the Armenian Embassy’s new location close to the Vatican, following his visit on Monday with Pope Francis.
Sarkissian’s involvement in Armenian-Vatican relations goes back to the first days of independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when he served as the first Ambassador to numerous western countries, including the Holy See. “Back then I was a young scientist who had just become a diplomat, I was guided by a very wise, experienced patriarch [Catholicos Vazgen I] on how we could develop relations with the Vatican.”
Gratitude for Vatican support
He expressed his appreciation of the tremendous support the Vatican has shown for Armenia, noting, in particular, the visit of Pope St John Paul II to the country in 2001. “And every Armenian worldwide, and every friend of Armenia, will never forget that in 2015, there was a special Mass at the Vatican, devoted to the 100 years commemoration of the Armenian genocide.”
Impact of the papal visits
Asked about the impact of the visits of the popes to Armenia, President Sarkissian noted the “extraordinary personality” of John Paul II, “an historic figure” known to all. “Don’t forget, we are the first Christian state in the world; and that first Christianity is in the DNA of every Armenian,” he said. “So I think the visit of the Pope to Armenia was a huge event.”
The same was true for the visit of Pope Francis, he said, “for many reasons,” but especially for “what he stands for.” Pope Francis, he said, speaks “very openly” of principles and values. The human values Pope Francis stands for, he said, “are very important values in this very complex quantum world, where a lot of things are unpredictable and there are no stable ideologies or pillars of human behaviour, and there is so much uncertainty, and if you're weak with your soul the uncertainty takes you into nowhere.” He said, “Having a single leader that has a clear mind, [who] puts clearly human values, values that are common for everyone… gives hope to people.”
He added that for Armenians, during the recent war with Azerbaijan, “hearing the voice of the Holy Father and the Vatican was quite an encouragement.”
The continued support of the Vatican, he said, highlighted the value of the relationship with Armenia. “You know who is your friend in need and in difficulty, and in the support you have,” Sarkissian said. “And this continues… We highly appreciate the support of the Holy Father and the government of the Vatican during the difficult days that we were facing last year.”
The President emphasized the importance of enlarging and improving relations between Armenia and the Holy See in the areas of education, science, and culture. Pointing to a memorandum of understanding signed earlier that day by the Vatican and Armenia’s ministry of cultural education, he noted that, while the use of natural resources changes, human values of intelligence, knowledge, science, and culture remain.
This, he said, “is where we have to build up our relations between the Vatican and Armenia, between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church, and between Catholics all over the world and Armenians all over the world.”
President Sarkissian also recalled the “warm memories” of his personal relationship with John Paul II, noting the Polish pontiff’s kindness and attention to his family, even inviting him as ambassador to bring his children on his visits to the Vatican.
That kindness has continued with Pope Francis, the president said. “Today was great, because when we visited the Holy Father [Francis], I took both of my sons.” He explained that, after having met John Paul II many years ago as small children, it was “a wonderful experience them” to meet once again meet a Pope now that they were grown men with families of their own.
A man of prayer
“And it’s something very important for me,” the president said, “that despite all of the difficulties that I personally went through — cancer, illness, through other difficulties in my life — that the faith, faith in God, has helped me to be strong, and here I am, after many years, back again, now as the president meeting the Holy Father.”
President Sarkissian spoke about his own faith: “I'm one of those people that came to believe in God through life experience and science,” he said, rather than simply being born into the faith. It was in the former Soviet Union, where his mother practiced the faith in secret, that he came to his own faith in God, “through philosophy, science, astrophysics, physics, and quantum cosmology” – a journey to a “firm faith” that he said took some time.
Valuing what is good
“I’m one of those that pray before going to bed,” said President Sarkissian, “and I'm happy to say that my three grandchildren, they also pray. And that's wonderful because they go to bed and they thank God for wonderful things that happened to them during the day.” That, he said, is “valuing what is good in your life, and praying for those who are important for you.”
And, he revealed, “the same thing happens to me. So, I pray every night, and I pray for Pope Francis too. Every night.”