New Pope, New Hope

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a moment of confusion reigned in the Roman Catholic Church, because the Papacy is a lifetime position and his resignation only had one precedent — a millennium ago.

But, soon jubilation returned with the election of a new pope, Francis I.

When Cardinal Aghajanian was alive, the conclave of Cardinals by-passed him, because at that time, only Italian members of the clergy were eligible to the throne of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But, since his passing, a pope from Poland was elected, followed by one from Germany and now the latest one is from South America. This week, Pope Francis I will become the 266th pontiff occupying the Throne of St. Peter.

But why should the new pope’s election interest or excite the members of other churches, including the Armenian Apostolic Church?

To begin with, excitement and media hype are contagious. Second, the papacy has a political power extending far beyond the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Although gone are the days when popes and cardinals in Europe had absolute power over individuals through the Inquisition courts; the Catholic clergy, very much like the Nazi and the Communist systems, controlled the thinking of individuals members and the accusation of heresy was a death knell for its victims.

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But still popes have moral power today, which also can translate into political power, if necessary.

Part of the excitement in the Armenian community is derived from the fact that the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires has interacted with the Armenian community in Argentina and has made powerful statements about the Armenian Genocide. To reinforce the relations with Armenia and the Armenians, President Serge Sargisian and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II have flown to the Vatican to participate in the installation ceremonies of the new pope, along with six sovereign rulers and 31 heads of state and many religious leaders.

This is a very constructive political move building upon the existing bond with the new pontiff.

It is reported that Pope Francis I, seven years ago, urged Turkey to unconditionally recognize the Armenian Genocide during the commemorations marking the 91st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Buenos Aires. Then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio urged Turkey to recognize the Genocide as the “gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey against the Armenian people and the entire humanity.”

It is also reported that he had been instrumental in placing a Khatchkar (cross stone) in Buenos Aires’ Metropolitan Cathedral. He has welcomed and met Catholicos Karekin II in Argentina and participated in a number of ecumenical services with the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Armenians have to be appreciative of the pope’s valiant stand on the issue of the Genocide. But, by the same token, we have experienced many instances when people switch opinions upon attaining positions of power. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, shamelessly have disavowed their earlier principled positions. We may even question the evasive formulation of People John Paul II during his visit to Armenia, where instead of calling a spade a spade he reverted to the Armenian term Medz Yeghern, which is not exactly genocide (tseghaspanoutiun). He was not a politician and one would question his ruse to avoid a moral issue frontally. In fact, he caused more damage to the issue of Genocide recognition than good. The first casualty, is, of course President Obama’s imitation of the pope, hiding his previous moral spine behind the word that the pope had used in a diversionary tactic.

With all his charisma and his contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Pope John Paul II did not avoid the controversy of kissing General Galtieri of Argentina, who along with President Jorge Rafael Videla, were the perpetrators of Argentina’s Dirty War, which claimed 30,000 lives along with many more maimed in torture chambers.

As we stated earlier, the papacy has also political clout in the real world. That is why President Christina Kirchner of Argentina was one of the first heads of state to rush to the Vatican to plead with the pope to intervene on behalf of her country with Great Britain, over the issue of Malvinas Islands, known to the British as the Falkland Islands off the Argentine coast.

Although the new pontiff had been at odds with Mrs. Kirchner and with her late husband, President Nestor Kirchner, before her, over some social issues, it remains to be seen if the pope will keep his word and help Argentina’s cause.

While still in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis I had stated that Britain had “usurped” the Malvinas from Argentina.

It looks like the war of words over these islands is intensifying since the discovery of oil in the coastal regions of these islands. The political sideshow is coinciding with the papal celebration.

It is also ironic that Great Britain, which has brazenly denied the right of self-determination to the people of Karabagh, has also organized a referendum in March on the sparsely-populated islands — mostly transplants from the British Isles — to declare that the people of the Falklands have a right to self-determination and they have overwhelmingly voted to stay with Britain.

Pope Francis I has demonstrated over the years that he stands for the poor people. He is characterized by personal humility and doctrinal conservatism, although some questions have been raised about his inaction during the era of Argentina’s brutal dictatorship.

It looks like he is the pontiff most familiar with the plight and history of the Armenian people and we can bank on that in developing our church’s relations with the Vatican. Armenia very recently appointed a new ambassador to the Vatican, Mikael Minasyan, the president’s son-in-law, with the purpose of further developing relations with the Vatican.

With the election of the new pope, comes new hope. Pope Francis can certainly make a difference in reiterating his position on the issue of genocide and avoid the detours that characterized Pope John Paul’s visit to Armenia.