The election of Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I took the world by surprise, charming Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his plain demeanor and unpretentious manner of relating to people, bringing simplicity to a Church with a 2,000-year history that is worth its weight in gold.
For Argentine-Armenians, his election is particularly significant, and has been moving. Many of them have seen him in person, and not a few have spoken with the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics all over the world. Monsignor Bergoglio, an easy man to approach who used public transportation in Buenos Aires at the time he was the city’s archbishop, was a close friend of the Armenian community and the Prelate of the Armenian Church in Argentina, Archbishop Kissag Mouradian.
On April 23, 2004, at a special mass he celebrated in Buenos Aires’ Metropolitan Cathedral, Archb. Bergoglio said, “We are united in the pain of a Genocide, the first one in the 20th century, which now powerful empires try by all means to silence and cover up… We pray that the Lord frees us from all this and gives us freedom.”
Two years later, during the celebration of an ecumenical liturgy presided by Cardinal Bergoglio and Archbishop Kissag at the Buenos Aires Cathedral, during the 91st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 2006, the priest who is now the Pope said, “Today we pray for this nation who is still deprived of human rights.”
Most Armenians in Argentina, like the majority in the nation, welcomed the election of a fellow countryman at the helm of the Catholic Church, not only out of national pride but also because of what they see as a virtuous man, austere to a fault.
For Archbishop Kissag, these have been heady days. “Our friendship with Cardinal Bergoglio mainly started in the years 2004, 2005 and grew especially on the 95th anniversary of the Genocide, when a khachkar (an Armenian stone cross) was placed in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral,” Archbishop Kissag said. “He had told me he wanted to be buried beneath that Armenian khachkar,” he added, expressing his hope that his friend, now as Pope Francis I, will help in achieving progress for recognition of the Genocide.
Archbishop Kissag highlighted the importance placed by Bergoglio to the Armenian Church’s apostolic nature. “He felt reverence that Armenia had been evangelized by Thaddeus and Bartholomew, on which his respect for our Church’s independence was founded.” That led Cardinal Bergoglio to invite his Armenian peer to inaugurate Armenian altars at two Buenos Aires Catholic temples; one for St. Thaddeus at Our Lady of Mercy Church –one of the oldest in the city– and another one for St. Bartholomew at the church with the same name.
In a country where decades of setbacks have intensified a streak of cynicism, Pope Francis’ election was greeted with sincere joy. Most Armenian-Argentines were elated to see a friend of the community be named at the head of the Catholic Church.
“What I felt was a mixture of very pleasant surprise and double emotion, as an Argentine, and because he seems he simple person, close to the neediest people,” said Nadin Alacahan, an Argentine-Armenian businesswoman in Buenos Aires. “And then I remembered he was one of the leading figures who lent his support and collaboration with all the Genocide recognition work, which made me feel that with someone like him we are closer to solving conflicts, that our voices be heard and the world knows what happened.” Nadin added, “It seems there will be more direct communication with God.”
Graciela Kevorkian, Armenian Relief Society World Central Committee member, expresses similar feelings. “There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ election is an unprecedented event that has mostly impacted Argentine society generally, rekindling the spirit of Catholicism in the country,” she said. “In the Armenian community of Argentina we have had the privilege of sharing many events with him at the time he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, especially the Masses in remembrance of April 24, during which he has always expressed his support and understanding, with sincere words and reaffirming the memory.”
Rejoiced as she was, Ani Maraşlian, a mother of two whose grandparents were from Kayseri and Ayntap, expressed a note of caution. “Turkey is changing, it’s true, but I don’t think the Pope will be able to persuade the country to recognize the Genocide,” she said. “Then again, he is a man who knows our history, the suffering of our nation, perhaps he may contribute to a rapprochement, and then again, if Pope John Paul II helped bring down the Berlin Wall, why wouldn’t we have faith in Pope Francis I?”
Eduardo Karsaclian remembers how Armenian Catholicos Karekin II during his visit to Buenos Aires in 2004 was profoundly moved by Bergoglio’s humility, who took the bus to the Armenian Church and bowed to kiss Karekin’s ring. “I don’t think any Catholic cardinal had kissed his ring,” Eduardo says.
He believes this turn of events may impact the Armenian Church as well, in Argentina and elsewhere. As Armenian Catholic Mekhitarian School and Argentine Catholic University alumnus who is familiar with the Church of Rome, he believes the new air Pope Francis I brings to the Holy See will also have their impact on the Armenian Church, to which he and his family belong. “One way or another, this renovation will have its impact on the relationship Armenians have with their own Church,” says Eduardo, Armenian Studies Lecturer at Salvador University, which belongs to the Jesuit congretation in Buenos Aires. “The question is: Is the Armenian Church ready for that? Will they still be more concerned about bricks than people?”
According to historian Vartan Matiossian, "Cardinal Bergoglio's election as Pope has special significance for the Armenian-Argentine community." Vartan, now living in New Jersey, says, "The new Pope has always encouraged strengthening both inter-religious and ecumenical relations, including between the Armenian and the Catholic Churches, whose relations have deepened notably under Bergoglio," he said, adding that the newly anointed pontiff's call for Armenian Genocide recognition is part of his humanistic outlook.
There are dissonant voices as well. Florencia Tateossian, an Armenian-Argentine official with UN Women in New York, said she didn’t care that the new Pope was Argentine, but she did care about the impact and importance his election and nationality had at the same time negotiations were under way on the conclusions of UN’s Commision on Status of Women on elimination of all types of violence against women. “The Vatican –observer member at the UN– made every effort to change the language and prevent progress related to violence against women, especially on violence practiced against women outside of marriage, women’s rights on reproductive and sexual health, and access to abortion for rape survivors: this is where attention should be focused on, and not whether the Pope is Argentina or Rwandan,” Florencia said, voicing her private views and not those of the organization where she works.
The Church of the Poor
Still, for artist Anahid Zacarian, “the Pope’s assumption is a great political and social opportunity because the poor now have a referent, and that’s very important for education and development.” As an Armenian-Argentine, her emotions were more intimate, and deep. “As an Armenian, I am aware of humility and neglect, I know what it is.”
But then she adds, in an experience that combined her Armenian roots with her Argentine identity, “We had studied about it, we had read about it, heard about it, but I couldn’t experience it in my own flesh until I mingled with siquri Indians in Jujuy,” a province in northern Argentina. In a procession with the siquris at a 4,000 meter altitude, Anahid says, “I felt the genocide, the neglect, the loneliness… and I couldn’t stop crying and didn’t understand why, until I researched the metagenealogy,” she says, in reference to a new discipline, inaugurated by Chilean-French film-maker and author Alejandro Jodorowsky, which studies the impact of ancestors’ lives in ours. “That’s why, as an Armenian in Argentina, I support the Pope of the Poor, the Church of the Poor.”
The Pope’s election caught Elizabeth Kavlakian, an Argentine-Armenian businesswoman now living in New Jersey, by surprise. “I was stuned, I never expected the Church to break with its past opulence and name someone an austere person, you hear stories every day about his humble lifestyle,” she said. “I now expect the Church to have a fundamentally different role to the one it has had in the past, to teach by the example.”
Elizabeth, an Armenian Roman Catholic whose paternal grandparents were Genocide survivors from Marash and the maternal ones from Ayntap, believes the Pope will make a difference not only for Argentines, Armenians or any other group. “It will transcend nationalities, he will be a Pope for everyone”.
The Church’s preferential option for the poor resonates with Adrián Lomlomdjian, president of the Armenian Cultural Union and member of the Argentine Communist Party, but that is where coincidences end.
“Acting in consequence with our thoughts and our struggle for decades, we consider believers –whether Christian or any other religion’s– fundamental components in the national and social liberation processes underway in the five continents,” Adrián said. “But the structure is something else, especially the Vatican’s historically conservative and part of the most concentrated imperialist and capitalist power, with whom it contributes by "numbing the masses"; in other words, it helps the poor in their poverty, but it doesn’t prompt them to rebel against the causes that generate their state of almost ‘eternal marginalization’.”
He also says that Cardinal Bergoglio’s express support for recognition of the Armenian Genocide did not move him to equally support the Palestinian cause or the recovery of more than 400 babies that were taken from their parents during the military dictatorship’s repression in Argentina in the 1970’s and were given to other families.
Chávez, Bergoglio, God
Adrián also mentions that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death at a time he had become a figure of reference for Latin American projects for the construction of Socialism through different paths was followed, in a matter of days, by the election of the Argentine Pope, which has triggered an entire arc of reactions from rejoice to wariness and suspicion.
Canan Kaya, Turkey’s DHA correspondent in Argentina, while saying the Pope was a little timid during the dictatorship, is still a progressive man. “I don’t believe the official Church one day will support gay marriage or abortion, but among them I believe Bergoglio is the most preferrable and good.”
Writer and poet Ana Arzoumanian also builds her analysis around the death of Chávez. “The death of Chávez bared in Europe the need and the appearance of an icon,” she says. “A worn Europe, with fallen vital signs, received the image of Chávez in Latin America as a dawn of energy, Latin America was brimming with an air of novelty… I think the Church was able to capitalize that legacy: What could be better than ‘enthroning’ a Latin American Pope at the helm of an institution that represents the idea Europe has about what’s the West and the civilization created by it?”
She sees shrewdness in the choice by the Vatican of an Italian couple’s son –Pope Francis’ both parents were born and raised in Italy– saying it’s not only a matter of biological descent, but a policy. “My first reading is that the Church chooses to bring to Europe a new image with a Latin American face –that’s it’s shrewdness– but which deep down represents its own values –and that’s an even bigger shrewdness.
Ana threads carefully on the new pontiff’s relationship with the Armenians community of Argentina. “Jorge Bergoglio urged Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide… a Pope’s name change it’s not only sacred in nature but also refers to the theory of the ‘two bodies of the king’: there is a man –Jorge– who from now on will be Francis.” That, she says, “speaks of continuity and dissociation: two bodies, one king.”
These last two months, dramatic changes in Archb. Kissag’s circle of friends have left him wondering. “My friend Nurhan was named the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem,” he says, in reference to Archbishop Nurhan Manougian, named to that post, one of the highest in the Armenian Church, in January. “My other friend has just been enthroned Pope, and I keep thinking, what does the Lord have in store for me?”
"Agos," March 23, 2013