Most of us belong to the western or Latin rite of the Catholic Church, and we are not well informed about the Church’s eastern branch, except perhaps the Greek and Russian Orthodox. Still, these all possess a valid Mass, although they celebrate the Eucharist in a style different from ours, yet equally ancient.
Unfortunately, through the ages most of these churches have become estranged from the bishops of Rome. Ever since their break, however, efforts have been made on both sides to achieve reunion. While these efforts have not yet had great success, at least there are groups belonging to all of the eastern rites who are in communion with the popes, although they continue, of course, to offer Mass in their own traditional manner. Sadly, those easterners who have espoused reunion have often had to suffer for their devotion to Christian unity, even to the point of death.
One of the disunited eastern groups is the Armenian Church. It turned away from Rome after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451). The reason for the split was that the Armenians were thought to have denied that Council’s definition that there were in Christ incarnate two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Actually, the Armenians agree with the Council’s doctrine, as we have recently discovered.
Around 1707 there was a strong movement for church reunion in Turkey. Among its chief promoters was Ter (Father) Gomidas Keumurgian, a very able priest, and his wife. (The Armenian Church allows married men to be ordained.) Their success in winning Armenian Christians over to Roman reunion alarmed the Anti-Roman Armenians, who turned to the Turkish Moslem government for aid. When the French ambassador, in his political efforts to promote conversions, stupidly kidnapped the head of the separated Armenian Church and sent him to France to be tried as a heretic, Turkey launched a persecution against all “Franks” within its borders. They applied the term “Frank” not to Catholics or Frenchmen alone, but vaguely to all foreigners.
Father Gomidas was too prominent to escape notice. In Lent 1707 the government arrested him and condemned him to be a galley slave. Friends got him released then, but in November 1707 he was arrested for being a “Frank”. If the charge meant that he was a Latin rite Christian or a foreigner, it was untrue, as 13 out of 14 witnesses testified. What his separate Armenian enemies meant was that he was a “unionist”, and they cried out for his death.
Father Gomidas denied he was a “Frank”. He refused to eat or drink in prison, received the last rites, kissed his wife goodbye, and left a tip for his executioner.
Next day he was taken before Ali Pasha to hear his sentence. Ali was impressed by this calm, imposing priest. He therefore sought to save his life by telling him that if he became a Moslem he would be released. Gomidas, of course, refused to apostatize, so he was condemned to beheading. Two messengers and even his own sister Irene now urged him to save his life by sacrificing his faith. So did the executioner, before he lifted up the sword. But Father Gomidas stood firm. His wife and children watched him die.
The heroism of Blessed Gomidas was not wasted. It greatly impressed the local non-Catholic Greeks and Armenians. In the century that followed, the number of Armenians who came over into full communion with the pope increased so much that at Constantinople the terms “Catholic” and “Armenian” came to be considered synonyms.
Gomidas was beatified as a martyr in 1929. Again, the blood of martyrs had become “a seed”.
–Father Robert F. McNamara