Saint Bartholomew is commemorated on August 24th. I knew that Bartholomew was one of the 12 apostles, but I did not know he was the patron saint of the Armenians until I learned it from a cab driver in Los Angeles.
It happened this way. I had arranged for a cab to pick me up early in the morning, and as we were leaving the driveway the driver asked me, “Is that a religious house?” I said it was, and immediately came a second question, “Is it Christian?” I answered again that it was.
At this point I did not want a non-stop interrogation, so before he could speak again I asked him, “Are you a Christian?” He replied, almost indignantly, “Am I a Christian? I’m an Armenian”, and his tone of voice said, “That means super-Christian”. He then went on to give me a history lesson on how the Armenians became Christian.
Armenia was a small country wedged between two empires, the Romans and the Persians. The Armenians did not want to belong to either, and wanted to find something to distinguish them from their big neighbors.
They had heard about the new religion in Palestine that claimed it was from God, and that its Founder had been raised from the dead. So they sent messengers to Jerusalem to bring someone to teach them this new religion.
The Apostle Bartholomew was the one sent to teach them, and he became their patron saint. Armenia was the first country to ask for missionaries to teach them Christianity, and in 301 A.D. was the first country to make Christianity the state religion.
The Armenians remained faithful to the Christian faith, though there were problems in Church teaching as the Latin language began to replace the Greek. At the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) there were disputes about doctrine because the Greek speakers did not accept the Latin terms, and the Latin speakers did not accept the Greek terms.
The result was that they each went their separate ways, and so it remained for many centuries. Then in 1973 the Armenian Pope Shenouda III went to visit Pope Paul VI. On May 10, 1973 the two religious leaders issued a statement declaring their shared faith. They recognized that “the differences between us were nourished by non-theological factors”, and proclaimed their resolve to be able to preach the Gospel together.
Long before this, the Armenian Church went through a dark and difficult period. By the 15th century Armenia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire which meant it was under Islamic rule. At first the Turks were tolerant of other religions, but things changed when the Empire began to decline and external enemies were threatening.
The Empire joined the side of Germany in World War One against Russia and the West. The Armenians were considered as friendly to the Russians and internal enemies of the Empire. This led to a process of re-locating the Armenians away from the border, to the Syrian desert and other remote places where they would be less of a threat to their Turkish masters.
The resettlement program began in the Spring of 1915, and it devastated the Armenian population. Hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, sick and healthy, were moved with no advance notice, and with no provision made for their transportation or feeding. Thousands died on the journey, and the Armenians estimate that more than one million people perished during the resettlement period.
At the end of World War I in 1918 many Turkish officials were tried for the loss of Armenian lives in the resettlement program, but the main leaders evaded justice by fleeing the country. Armenians throughout the world chose April 24th as the day to commemorate this sad episode of their history when so many innocent Armenians needlessly perished.
Armenia’s troubles did not end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, on March 4, 1922 Armenia was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where it remained for almost 70 years. Then with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, Armenia became fully independent in 1991.
Armenian immigration to the United States began in the 1890’s as a result of the persecution of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The immigrants settled mostly in New England, with Boston as their center. A second wave came in the 1970’s due to unrest in the Middle East. These settled mainly on the West coast with Los Angeles as their center.
My cab driver was probably one of these immigrants. I appreciated him taking the opportunity to teach me about the Armenian people and their first Christian teacher, Saint Bartholomew.
It began with a newspaper article from the Philippines last week. The title of the article was, Sometimes the Catholic Church Falters Badly. The writer, Maribel Ongpin, was referring to current issues, like the RH Bill in the Congress of the Philippines, and the elephant Mali in the Manila Zoo, on which the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) had made pronouncements. She warned the hierarchy that they must be well informed in making their pronouncements or they will just repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The past” was in the 1950’s when she was a schoolgirl. She remembers two issues. One was ballet dancing, which the bishops of the Philippines suddenly decreed was forbidden to all Catholics. There was no papal bull, no dogmatic teaching, no theological argument. Ballet was just banned.
The other issue was the reading of two books of the Filipino patriot José Rizal. The two books, Noli Me Tangere and Filibusterismo were required reading for students in college. The hierarchy opposed this requirement because the books contained criticism of the Church in the Philippines during colonial times.
Ongpin pointed out that with the passage of time ballet was quietly restored, and the two books became acceptable, without any of the dire consequences which the hierarchy had predicted.
I remember the crisis well, because I had just arrived in the Philippines at the time of the bishops’ protest. I had never seen ballet as a threat to faith or morals, so I presumed the prohibition must have been for purely Filipino reasons. I also read one of the books (my first reading of a book in Spanish), and found it so ordinary I wondered why it was considered objectionable.
Ms Ongpin was making the point that she thought the bishops should be adequately informed to pronounce on the current issues, or they might end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
That story about the past brought to my mind another national hierarchy blunder at an earlier time. The country was Austria, and the year was 1938. Hitler’s Germany was in an expansionist mood, and the prime minister of Austria saw his small country as a likely target. He planned a plebiscite to block a possible take-over, but the day before the plebiscite the German army occupied Austria.
The Cardinal archbishop of Vienna welcomed the German occupation, thanking God it had taken place peacefully, and urging Austrian Catholics to support the new authorities. Some days later the entire Austrian Catholic hierarchy issued a pastoral letter supporting the Cardinal.
To me this was incomprehensible. With my Irish background, long resentful at being occupied by a neighboring country, I could not imagine that Church leaders would welcome the take-over of their country by a more powerful neighbor. Was this just another instance of bishops, acting outside the area of their competence, making a big mistake?
The answer came many years later when I found Gordon Zahn, an American professor and peace activist who in 1963 produced a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. Gordon Zahn (1918-2007) was a co-founder of the peace movement Pax Christi. He was a conscientious objector in World War II.
After World War II, he went to Europe to study how the peace movement in Germany had fared under Hitler. He found that after Hitler took over, the peace movement disappeared practically overnight. So he changed the focus of his study to how German Catholics responded to Hitler’s wars.
To his surprise he found that the German bishops’ wartime statements generally urged Catholics to loyal obedience to the legitimate authority, or more specifically rallied them to the defense of the German people and the Fatherland as a Christian duty.
Published in 1963, this book was an embarrassment to some of the German bishops still in place, who by this time were depicting themselves as staunch opponents of Hitler during the war. There were some who said it was just impossible to oppose the Nazi regime, but that also was challenged in another book published by Zahn in 1964.
This book was titled In Solitary Witness, and told the story of Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter was a young Austrian farmer, with a wife and three young children. He was also church sexton and attended daily Mass. When called up to active duty in a war which he considered unjustified, he asked to be excused and refused to serve. For this he was imprisoned, and in 1943 he was executed.
In researching his book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, Gordon Zahn met Jagerstatter’s wife Franziska, who was able to show him letters and testimonies her husband had written to her from prison. Inspired by these documents Zahn was able to write and publish Jagerstatter’s biography In Solitary Witness.
The publicity given to Franz Jagerstatter by this book led to the introduction of his cause for sainthood. On October 27, 2007, 64 years after his death, he was declared “blessed”, the final stage before being declared a canonized saint.
So the train of thought is this: a Philippines columnist, to Filipino bishops, to Austrian bishops, to American Catholic layman, to German bishops, to Austrian Catholic layman. Out of all these people, one is chosen for sainthood, a young Catholic layman. Cardinal Newman reminds us that the faithful laity twice saved the early Church from error when the bishops were divided in their teaching. The Church today is suffering from failures at different levels. She once more needs the help of the faithful laity to find healing and renewal for the wounds of the recent past.