St. Gregory of Narek: Was the New Doctor of the Church a Catholic?

St. Gregory is the first Doctor of the Church to have lived outside direct communion with the Bishop of Rome.

A portrait of Gregory of Narek from a 1173 manuscript from Cilician Armenia; right: Gregory was based throughout his life at the monastery of Narek (Narekavank), seen here circa 1900. (Image: Wikipedia)

On February 21, Pope Francis announced his decision to make St. Gregory of Narek (950-1003) a Doctor of the Church. Once again, Pope Francis has caught us off guard and now many people are scrambling to figure out who St. Gregory was and what the implications of the new honor bestowed upon him are. One key question that is arising is: was St. Gregory a Catholic?

The short answer to this question seems to be no. He was a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is a non-Chalcedonian Church (sometimes referred to somewhat pejoratively as a Monophysite Church), because of its rejection of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.

However, the relationship of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Catholic Church is long and complicated. I would like to provide a brief overview to help us consider the implications of the new Armenian Doctor of the Church.

This is only a short overview of the relations between these churches, and I hope the reader will be encouraged to explore the issue further and also to discover the writings of St. Gregory of Narek.

Armenia: The first Christian nation

Armenians recognize St. Jude Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew as the first evangelizers of their nation. The territory of Armenia once stretched from the Ural Mountains southward across modern Turkey and even to northern Lebanon. Its first kingdom was established in the sixth century BC and remained mostly independent, even amidst the regional power struggle between Rome and the Persian Empire.

In about the year 301 Tiridates III, the king of Arsacid Armenia, proclaimed Christianity the official religion of his state, making Armenia the first Christian nation. According to the oldest accounts, Tiridates had imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator for the faith for 13 years before being healed by him. He then appointed Gregory as Catholicos, or head, of the Armenian Church. Following the adoption of Christianity, the Church forged the first Armenian alphabet, which was used for a translation of Scripture and for the Armenian liturgy.

The rejection of Chalcedon and initial reunion

For about 450 years, from 428 to 885 AD, Armenia lost independence to the Byzantine Empire and later to Islamic conquest. It was during that time that schism ensued between Armenia and the Catholic Church. Along with the churches of Egypt and Syria, Armenia rejected the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in the year 451. Though initially repudiated, Chalcedon was officially condemned by the Armenian Church in 554 at the second council of Dvin, when communion was officially broken between churches.

In the year 629, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was able to reach an agreement with Catholicos Ezra to reunite the churches. Unfortunately, in 651 at the Synod of Manzikert, the reunion was repudiated by the Armenians. The condemnation of montheletism (the heresy that Jesus Christ has only one will) at the Third Council of Constantinople only further distanced the Armenians.

Further reunion attempts

Though the Armenians had much more contact with the Byzantines, the Crusades brought Latin Catholics back into contact with the Armenians. In particular, the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, in modern-day Turkey, had favorable relations, and even a short ecclesial reunion, with the Crusaders.

Formal attempts at reunion with Armenians more broadly occurred at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Council of Florence in 1439, though these moves did not result in a lasting reunion. The Council of Florence contains a bull of reunion with the Armenians (November 22, 1439), which, not surprisingly, sought to enforce the Christological decisions of the earlier Councils, and to enforce conformity in practice with the Church of Rome. It outlined details on the seven sacraments, and prescribes actions such as mixing water with the wine during the Liturgy and the celebration of certain feasts. It optimistically praises the Armenians:

Rightly we hold that the Armenians deserve great praise. As soon as they were invited by us to this synod, in their eagerness for ecclesiastical unity, at the cost of many labors and much toil and perils at sea, they sent to us and this council from very distant parts, their notable, dedicated, and learned envoys with sufficient powers to accept, namely whatever the holy Spirit should inspire this holy synod to achieve.

The creation of the Armenian Catholic Church

Efforts at reunion with Rome were begun in Armenia by a group of friars (related to the Dominicans, according to CNEWA), called the Friars of Reunion. Groups of Armenians also were brought into the Catholic Church beginning in the 1630s within the borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire. This is in accord with the acts of union at Brest in 1595 and Uzhhorod in 1646, which were undertaken with groups of Eastern Orthodox in the same territories.

In 1755 Pope Benedict XIV wrote extensively on questions pertaining to Eastern Catholics, noting clearly that some Armenians were observing the unions of Lyons and Florence (On the Observance of Oriental Rites). In his mind, the former acts of union had had an effect. Earlier in 1742, he had created a Patriarch of Cilicia for Armenians based in Lebanon and appointed a former bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Abraham Ardzivian as first Patriarch. Bishops remained in Lebanon and were added to Constantinople and Armenia itself in 1850.

The Armenian Catholic Church was devastated by the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and the Church was suppressed in Armenia during the Communist regime. Numbers in 2008 placed the population of Armenian Catholics at just over 500,000.

Common declaration

On December 13, 1996, Pope St. John Paul II issued a common declaration with the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin I, which spoke of a common faith in Christ, which has been obscured by different linguistic expressions:

The reality of this common faith in Jesus Christ and in the same succession of apostolic ministry has at times been obscured or ignored. Linguistic, cultural, and political factors have immensely contributed towards the theological divergences that have found expression in their terminology of formulating their doctrines. His Holiness John Paul II and His Holiness Karekin I have expressed their determined conviction that because of the fundamental common faith in God and in Jesus Christ, the controversies and unhappy divisions which sometimes have followed upon the divergent ways in expressing it, as a result of the present declaration, should not continue to influence the life and witness of the Church today. They humbly declare before God their sorrow for these controversies and dissensions and their determination to remove from the mind and memory of their Churches the bitterness, mutual recriminations, and even hatred which have sometimes manifested themselves in the past, and may even today cast a shadow over the truly fraternal and genuinely Christian relations between leaders and the faithful of both Churches, especially as these have developed in recent times.

The declaration expresses the hope that the divergence of Christological language should no longer be an obstacle to seeking reunion. This is an important point in light of St. Gregory of Narek’s new honor as a Doctor of the Church.

St. Gregory of Narek

St. Gregory is the first Doctor of the Church to have lived outside direct communion with the Bishop of Rome. From the history of the relations between the churches and the common declaration, it seems that we should say that he belonged to a church that was apostolic and in possession of genuine sacraments. The question remains of his adherence or rejection of Chalcedon. I do not have any definitive evidence one way or another, but many people are claiming that St. Gregory upheld Chalcedon. Here is one example: “The hieromonks of the monastery of Narek, from among whom we have the remarkable mystic St. Gregory of Narek, are indisputably for the two natures in Jesus Christ” (citing J. Mecerian, La Vierge Marie dans la Littérature médiévale de l’Arménie [Beyrouth, 1954], 9).

St. Gregory has recently shown up a couple of times in Magisterial writings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, contains a reference to him:

Medieval piety in the West developed the prayer of the rosary as a popular substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours. In the East, the litany called the Akathistos and the Paraclesis remained closer to the choral office in the Byzantine churches, while the Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac traditions preferred popular hymns and songs to the Mother of God. But in the Ave Maria, the theotokia, the hymns of St. Ephrem or St. Gregory of Narek, the tradition of prayer is basically the same. (§2678)

Pope St. John Paul II also referred to him in his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater:

In his panegyric of the Theotokos, Saint Gregory of Narek, one of the outstanding glories of Armenia, with powerful poetic inspiration ponders the different aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation, and each of them is for him an occasion to sing and extol the extraordinary dignity and magnificent beauty of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Word made flesh.

With the formation of the Armenian Catholic Church St. Gregory received his first liturgical veneration within the Catholic Church on his feast day, October 13. He has not been officially canonized by the pope. Some have speculated that the declaration of Gregory as a Doctor of the Church might have served as an equipollent canonization (see more on this below). Others have simply stated that the recognition of the Armenian liturgy and liturgical calendar by the Catholic Church served as a confirmation of the cultus of saints in that rite.

However, Pope Francis is now giving St. Gregory a universal role in the Church. It is extremely interesting that a news story from Catholic News Service says, in the present tense, that St. Gregory “is remembered in the Roman Catholic Church Feb. 27,” but the Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli clarifies, using the future tense:

The cult of St. Gregory of Narek will be marked on 27 February in the Roman Martyrology. He will be defined as “monk, doctor of the Armenians, distinguished for his writings and mystic science.” The papal decision comes just weeks before Francis is due to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian massacre on 12 April in St. Peter’s Basilica.

As Gregory does not appear currently in the Roman Martyrology, or Butler’s Lives of the Saints (though this is certainly unofficial), it seems that a new feast day for the Latin calendar is forthcoming.

Equipollent or equivalent canonization

It should be noted that when Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Hildegard von Bingen as a Doctor of Church he used the process of equipollent or equivalent canonization, as she also had not been formally canonized. Even St. Albert the Great was canonized in this fashion when he was declared a doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. Pope Benedict used this process of canonization a few other times and Pope Francis has done so with even greater regularity, so much so, that Vatican Radio felt the need to explain the process:

When there is strong devotion among the faithful toward holy men and women who have not been canonized, the Pope can choose to authorize their veneration as saints without going through that whole process. … This is often done when the saints lived so long ago that fulfilling all the requirements of canonization would be exceedingly difficult.

From Andrea Tornielli’s commentary, referenced above, it seems likely that an equipollent canonization is forthcoming. Hopefully we will have clarification on this point soon. What is clear in the meantime is that there is a foundation for the equipollent canonization of saints in association with their being named a Doctor of the Church and there is a longstanding practice of celebrating St. Gregory of Narek’s feast day within the Armenian Catholic Church.

Update (Feb. 26, 2015): Thanks to the comments of readers, I have learned that the 2005 martyrology included not only St. Gregory of Narek on February 27, but also two other Orthodox saints, the Russians St. Stephen of Perm (1340-1396) and St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392). The only confirmation I have been able to find of this is in French on the website Societas Laudis: “Au monastère de Narets en Arménie, vers 1005, saint Grégoire, moine, docteur des Arméniens, illustre par sa doctrine, ses écrits et sa connaissance mystique.” In accord with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 355c, Mass can be celebrated for these saints on the days they are inscribed in the martyrology: “On weekdays in Ordinary Time, there may be chosen either the Mass of the weekday, or the Mass of an Optional Memorial which happens to occur on that day, or the Mass of any Saint inscribed in the Martyrology for that day, or a Mass for Various Needs, or a Votive Mass.” 

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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 73 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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