NEW YORK — The eyes of much of the world were focused on America’s northeast corridor last week, as Pope Francis made his first pontifical visit to the United States. Among the millions of people anticipating his appearances in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, members of the Armenian Church community made special efforts to welcome the Pope with characteristic warmth and affection.
On Friday morning, September 25, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, took part in the papal prayer service at “Ground Zero” — the former site of the World Trade Center, now a place of “pilgrimage” honoring those slain during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. There, the Primate had an occasion to personally greet the Pope on behalf of the Armenian Church of America.
That afternoon, he attended the Pontifical Mass at Madison Square Garden. Archbishop Barsamian was one of only two non-Catholic religious dignitaries (the other was Archbishop Demitrios of the Greek Orthodox Church) who were specially invited by the city’s Roman Catholic hierarchy to be a part of the liturgical service.
Over the course of his ministry, Archbishop Barsamian has had a fruitful friendship with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with his student days at the Vatican’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. Since becoming Primate of the Eastern Diocese, he has worked closely with the successive Archbishops of New York — Cardinals O’Connor, Eagan and Dolan — as well as Catholic leaders of other major American cities.
He has also been instrumental in serving as an intermediary between the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin and the Vatican. Under the pontificates of Vasken I and Karekin I, both of blessed memory, Archbishop Barsamian was an influential force in arranging periodic interactions between the supreme leaders of the Armenian and Catholic churches. His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians, has appointed Archbishop Barsamian as Holy Echmiadzin’s representative to the Vatican, in which role Archbishop Barsamian was a key factor in arranging the 2001 visit of Pope John Paul II to Armenia, and in bringing together the Vatican Mass in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide in 2015.
Regarding the latter event, Armenians around the world found their hearts deeply touched on April 12 of this year, when Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In the company of Karekin II, Aram I and other Armenian dignitaries, the exquisite service in the Armenian rite saw the leader of the Roman Catholic Church offering prayers in memory of the Armenian martyrs of 1915, and expressing solidarity with the Armenian people in their historic struggles and continuing aspirations.