St. Gregory Ashtishat

(A.D. 240?-332?)

Most of the readers of this column, if asked where Armenia is located, would be at a loss to give an answer.

Lying between the Black and Caspian Seas, Armenia touches on both Turkey and Iran. But at other times Armenia covered a larger area; and the Armenians, bitterly persecuted throughout their existence, have scattered around the world.

Armenian Christians are mostly Eastern Orthodox, numbering about 3.5 million. Since the last century, however, the Catholic Armenians have had their own patriarch, whose seat is in Beirut. They number perhaps 140,000. In 1981 a missionary diocese was established for the 38,000 Catholic Armenians in the United States.

Both Orthodox and Catholic Armenians honor as the effective founder of Armenian Christianity, St. Gregory the Illuminator, whose life spanned the late third and early fourth centuries. If local histories of the Christian origins of nations tend to be confused, the story of Christian Armenian beginnings is especially short on facts and long on fancies. Here, however, in brief, is what appears to be the biography of St. Gregory of Armenia.

Armenian tradition says that Gregory was the son of a prominent nobleman named Anak. Anak assassinated the Armenian King Chosroes I. The boy, at least, was saved from death at the hands of the royal avengers by being raised at faraway Caesarea in Cappadocia. Having received there a Christian education, he returned to his nation intent on preaching the Catholic faith, at that time professed by relatively few of his countrymen.

The future saint carried out this mission to the pagan Armenians with zeal and courage, says the story. He even ventured to destroy the heathen temple at Ashtishat. For this he was imprisoned by the irate King Tiridates. It was a long and hard incarceration, but he survived it and was finally released. Resuming his interrupted apostolate, he converted even the king himself, and had the joy of seeing Christianity declared the faith of the nation.

As a result, he was named bishop of Ashtishat around 315 and was consecrated by Archbishop Leontius of Caesarea. Carrying his efforts still further, Bishop Gregory went on to convert the kings of Caucasian Iberia, Lazes and Albania.

For the continuance of the Church’s work, he consecrated as bishops two sons that he had from his marriage as a layman. Towards the end of his life he retired to a hermitage in the desert. Unfortunately, since one of his bishop-sons was also married, the bishops who followed him continued to be chosen from the same family. After a century, that type of succession was finally straightened out. The episcopate is not an inherited office.

The Armenian Rite liturgy, while basically the same as all Masses, differs in many respects from both the Latin Rite, which we follow, and the Greek Rite, followed by the Greek and Slavic rites, both Catholic and separated. In the Armenian Rite, there is a special prayer of faith in the Holy Trinity. When the great first ecumenical council was convoked in A.D. 325 to define that Christ is truly divine, St. Gregory had sent his son and successor, St. Aristakes, to represent him. Bishop Aristakes brought back home the text of the Creed we all use in the Mass today, which defines that the Son is “one in Being with the Father.” When the old Illuminator read it, he is said to have uttered the words of praise that the Armenians have used ever since after the singing of the Creed at Mass:

“As for us, we praise Him who was before time, worshipping the Holy Trinity and the one Godhead of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and throughout all ages!”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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