The Origin of the Armenian Church
The origin of the Armenian Church dates back to the Apostolic age. According to the ancient tradition, which is well supported by historical evidence, Christianity was preached in Armenia as early as the second half of the first century by the two disciples of Jesus Christ, namely, St. Thaddeus (John 14:22-24) and St. Bartholomew (John 1:43-51).
During the first three centuries Christianity in Armenia was a hidden religion under heavy persecution.
It was at the beginning of the fourth century, 301 AD, that Christianity was officially accepted by the Armenians as the state religion. St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron Saint of the Armenian Church, and King Thiridates III, the ruler of the time, played a pivotal role in the Christianization of Armenia. It is a well known historical fact that the Armenians were the first nation to formally adhere to Christianity.
This conversion was followed in the fourth and fifth centuries by a process of institutionalization and Armenization of Christianity in Armenia.
St. Gregory the Illuminator became the organizer of the Armenian Church hierarchy. From that time, the heads of the Armenian Church have been called Catholicos and still hold the same title. St. Gregory chose as the site of the Catholicosate then the capital city of Vagharshapat, in Armenia. He built the pontifical residence next to the church called “Holy Mother of God” which then would take on the name of St. Etchmiadzin (meaning the place where the Only-Begotten Son has descended), according to the vision in which he saw the Only-Begotten Son of God come down from heaven with a golden hammer in his hand to locate the site of the new cathedral.
The Armenian Church played a highly magnificent role in the life of the Armenian people. The Armenian alphabet was invented by the Church (St. Mesrob Mashdotz, 43), the Armenian culture was flourished under the guidance of the Church. The Church also played a major part in landmark events of our history.
It became the defender of the human rights of its people.
In the sphere of theology, spirituality and literature and arts, many catholicoi, bishops and priests have made valuable contribution to the Christian thought, culture and civilization.
The history of the Armenian Church has been one of continuous and living martyrdom. However, creativity and evangelistic witness sustained the life of the Church in the midst of enormous storms and history.
– The Witness of the Armenian Church in a Diaspora Situation
– The Armenian Church Beyond the 1700th Anniversary
The continuous upheavals, which characterized the history of Armenia, the church center, the Catholicosate moved to different locations together with the political authority. Thus, in 485, it was transferred to the new capital Dvin; in the 10th century it moved from Dvin to Dzoravank and then to Aghtamar (927), to Arghina (947) and to Ani (992). After the fall of Ani and the Armenian Kingdom of Bagradits in 1045, masses of Armenians migrated to Cilicia. The Catholicosate, together with the people, settled there. It was first established in Thavblour (1062), then in Dzamendav (1072), in Dzovk (1116), in Hromkla (1149), and finally in Sis (1293), the capital of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia,
Armenians in Van, to right: Monastery of Varak
where it remained for seven centuries. After the fall of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia, in 1375, the Armenian Church also assumed the role of national leadership, and the Catholicos was recognized as Ethnarch (head of nation). This national responsibility considerably broadened the scope of the Church’s mission in the Ottoman Empire and in the Diaspora.
Two Catholicosates within the Armenian Church
The existence of two Catholicosates within the Armenian Church, namely the Catholicosate in Etchmiadzin (the Catholicosate of All Armenians or otherwise known as Holy See of Etchmiadzin), Armenia, and the Catholicosate in Antelias Lebanon (the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia or otherwise known as Holy See of Cilicia), is due to historical circumstances. In the 10th century, when Armenia was devastated by Seljuks, the majority of the Armenians left their homeland and came to settle in Cilicia, where they re-organized their political, religious and cultural life.
The Catholicosate, the headquarters of the Church also took refuge in Cilicia.
In 1375 the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed. Cilicia became a battleground for Seljuks, Mamluks and other invaders. In the meantime Armenia was having a relatively peaceful time. The deteriorating situation in Cilicia on the one hand, and the growing cultural and religious awakening in Armenia on the other, led the clergy of Armenia to elect a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin. The latter was the original seat of the Catholicosate, but it had ceased to function as Catholicossal See after 485. Thus, in 1441, a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin in the person of Kirakos Virapetsi. At the same time Krikor Moussapegiants (1439-1446) was the Catholicos in Cilicia. Therefore, since 1441, there have been two Catholicosates in the Armenian Church with equal rights and privileges, and with their respective jurisdictions.