New Armenian Catholic patriarch pulled from retirement to take the reins

By Elise Harris

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Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan, Armenian Patriarch of Cilicia. Photo courtesy of the Armenian Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg in the USA and Canada.

In a rare move, the Armenian Catholic Church has pulled their new patriarch out from retirement to take on the role as their new head. Church leaders cited his energy and authority as necessary when dealing with current issues, particularly those in the Middle East.

Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan was elected Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians July 24. He succeeds former patriarch Nerses Pierre XIX Tarmouni, who died June 25.

The patriarch is head of the Armenian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope. The Church uses the Armenian rite, and is estimated to have 1 million followers.

“The patriarch was born in 1934, which makes him 80 years old, and in November he will be 81. However, you have to know this person to be able to understand why he was elected,” Fr. Thomas Garabedian told EWTN News July 28.

“When he talks he talks with authority. He has the charisma to have people listen to him and to appreciate what he’s saying to them. He’s a person that when he talks to you, he convinces you.”

Fr. Garabedian, chancellor for the Armenian Eparchy of Our Lady of Nareg in Glendale, praised the new patriarch for his organization, discipline, spiritual devoutness, and energy, despite his advanced age.

“At 80 years old … the physical vigor he has is of someone who is in his 50s or 60s,” Fr. Garabedian said.

“He wakes up early and goes to bed a little late, so his whole day is filled with work. It’s really somebody who is very well disciplined and authoritative who we needed at this one juncture of our life in the Armenian Catholic Church.”

Born in Aleppo, Patriarch Ghabroyan had been retired for two years prior to his election last week. He had been ordained a priest of the Institute of Patriarchal Clergy of Bzommar in 1959, at the age of 24. In 1977 he was ordained a bishop and appointed the Armenian Apostolic Exarch of France.

He stepped down as the Armenian Eparch of France in 2013, however his election as patriarch now pulls him out of retirement.

Patriarch Ghabroyan will be installed at the Armenian monastery of Bzommar in Lebanon, the official seat of his patriarchate. However, due to practical reasons and the fact that most of the 12,000 Lebanese members of the Church live in Beirut, 20 miles away, the patriarch will likely spend the majority his time there, Fr. Garabedian explained.

In attendance at the ceremony, which will take place Aug. 9, will be the Vatican’s ambassador to Lebanon, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia.

The decision to elect someone as patriarch who has already gone into retirement is “very uncommon,” Fr. Garabedian noted, though he added that discussions ahead of the synod that elected him gave clues as to what the bishops were looking for.

Fr. Garabedian explained that in the Armenian Catholic Church, the synod convenes each time the bishops meet to discuss and make decisions on current issues, and a general synod is typically held once a year.

All but two of the 15 members of the Armenian synod of bishops were present in Lebanon to elect the patriarch. Under the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, the bishops are given 15 days once the synod begins to select a new patriarch, who must be elected by a two thirds vote.

Should the synod fail to elect a new patriarch within the 15 days, the matter is then turned over to the Holy See, who selects a person to fill the role.

Patriarch Ghabroyan is “definitely the man for the job,” Fr. Garabedian said, noting that he has the skills needed to meet the current challenges the Armenian Catholic Church faces.

The first of these challenges, he said, is the crisis in the Middle East.

“The Middle East today is not the Middle East of 10 or 20 or 30 years ago … there is a sense of loss in the Middle East as far as the Christian community is concerned. People in these countries don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Bombs, killings, ISIS, all these situations.”

He also pointed to the high number of refugees pouring out of Syria due to its civil war, which he called “the most dramatic situation of any country today on earth.”

With roughly 2 million of those refugees now in Lebanon, “you need a patriarch who is first of all able to lead his faithful in this very dire situation,” as well as to manage the internal life of the Church, the priest said.

Current internal issues the Armenian Catholic Church faces are how to distribute a diminishing number of clergy, how to regain those who have left the Church, as well as managing relations with Armenia.

In Armenia, 93 percent of the population belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church – an Oriental Orthodox Church from which the Armenian Catholic Church was formed in the 18th century.

“We have a very large Armenian Catholic community in Armenia – how do you cooperate with the Armenian [Apostolic] Church without making them feel that you are there to proselytize, when in reality you are there only to take care of the spiritual needs of your faithful?”

These are all topics Fr. Garabedian said the new patriarch will be able to handle with his diplomatic skills, his ability to fund raise, and his devout spiritual life.

“He’s a great administrator, so I think with his administration and his diplomacy and also with his spiritual life, I think those could be three things he could use to make things happen.”

Pope Francis sent a letter July 25 congratulating Patriarch Ghabroyan on his election, and granting him full ecclesial communion with Rome.

He noted how the patriarch’s election comes at a time when the Armenian Catholic Church is facing new difficulties and challenges, particularly in the Middle East.

However, with the light of faith in the Risen Christ, “our outlook on the world is full of hope and mercy, for we are certain that the Cross of Jesus is the tree that gives life,” the Pope said.

“I am sure that Your Beatitude, in communion with the venerable Synod Fathers, with the help of the Holy Spirit and with evangelical wisdom, will know how to be the 'Pater et Caput,” (Father and Head), the Good Shepherd to that part of the People of God entrusted to you.”

Francis called on the intercession of the Armenian martyrs and St. Gregory of Narek, whom he recently declared a Doctor of the Church, to intercede for the patriarch, and entrusted his new ministry to the protection of Mary, the Mother of God.

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