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The Election of The CATHOLICOS PDF Print E-mail

Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian was scheduled to give a lecture at Sts. Joachim and Anne Armenian Apostolic Church on Thursday, September 16th on the Election process of a Catholicos.   Due to Hurricane Floyd, Fr. Krikor’s flight was cancelled.  As he could not be here to speak in person, Fr. Krikor graciously submitted the following article to our newsletter.


By Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian

The election of the Catholicos of All Armenians has always been a special occasion for the faithful children of the Armenian Church and the Armenian people in general.  This is due to the special authority and preeminence of the office of the Catholicos of All Armenians among the Armenians.   The occupant of that office is clearly more than the head of a sacred monastic brotherhood or the leader of a denomination and the presiding bishop of an ancient Church. Otherwise, the bishops of the Armenian Church under the jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin would elect one from among themselves, as they elected a locum tenens right after the untimely demise of His Holiness Karekin I, of blessed memory, and there would be no need for a National Ecclesiastical Assembly.

Historically the Catholicos of All Armenians was the universal overseer of the geographical entity known as Greater Armenia.  His title Catholicos—a Greek adjective meaning 'universal' and initially modifying the title 'bishop,' reflects the nature of the office whose authority extended over all the bishoprics of Greater Armenia and its neighboring lands.

However, the universal authority of the Catholicos of Greater Armenia does not derive solely from an electoral process carried out by local bishops, which was prescribed in AD 325 by the Holy Ecumenical Council of Nicea.   The fourth canon of that Council states that a bishop "should be appointed by all the bishops in the province." It also adds that regardless of the possible difficulty of meeting—such as travel or other hazards—"three [bishops] at least should meet together," to ordain a new bishop, after receiving letters of assent from the other established bishops and the consent of the metropolitan bishop in charge of the province, the new ordination may go forward.

The ordinance in the fourth canon of the Council of Nicea, which is the foundation of episcopal elections in the entire Christian Church, appears in a different form in the Armenian translation.  That translation was produced in the fifth century through the efforts of St. Sahak, St. Mesrop and their pupils, who are known to us today as the Holy Translators. In the Armenian version the fourth canon refers not to an electoral process but to a liturgical procedure during the ordination of a bishop, where at least three bishops must be present, and in which the Catholicos must be the one investing ‘the office’ and ‘the grace’ on the candidate.  The Armenian Church observes the fourth canon of Nicea as it appears in the Armenian translation and still implements it at episcopal and pontifical ordinations, that is to say, only in a liturgical context.

The practice of ordaining and anointing a pope, a patriarch, or any other kind of a chief bishop is unknown in the West as well as the East. The Latins, the Eastern Orthodox, and the other Oriental Orthodox neither ordain nor anoint their popes and patriarchs.  The practice of ordaining and anointing chief bishops is strictly Armenian and may seem unusual—sometimes even scandalous—to non-Armenians.  Also, the Armenians elect their catholicoi in a procedure which is very different from the general practice among the other ancient Christian churches.  In our tradition not only the bishops, but also clergymen of non-episcopal rank and laymen participate in elections and church councils.

First, let us look at the liturgical tradition.  We have authentic evidence from the beginning of the seventh century, that the Armenians ordained their catholicoi.  The earliest evidence for the anointment with Holy Chrism comes from the ninth century.  The liturgical practices and texts associated with the ordination and anointment ceremonies indicate that the Catholicos of All Armenians is not just a "first among equals" but the true successor of the Holy Apostles. The twelve bishops laying their hands on the head of the Catholicos-elect bears a special symbolism, since the extended hands of the bishops resemble the rays emanating from between the arms of an Armenian cross.   Also, the pouring of the Holy Chrism, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, on the head of the Catholicos is not only in commemoration of Aaron's anointment as the first High Priest of Israel (mentioned in Exodus 29 : 7), but also of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles in the Upper Chamber.  It is interesting to note that in Armenian miniature art, the tongues of fire mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles are frequently depicted as rays descending on the heads of the Holy Apostles. In like manner, the Holy Chrism is poured on the Catholicos' head during the consecration ceremony, since he is the successor of the Holy Apostles.  By virtue of his position as successor, the Catholicos is the intermediary through whom the authority of apostolic succession is passed down to the bishops, who are called coadjutors of the Catholicos.  We recognize and respect in the Catholicos of All Armenians the apostolic presence and authority in our midst; his ordination and anointment symbolize the authority and grace given from above.

The ninth-century vardapet (and later Catholicos) Mashtots, the editor of our Book of Rituals, refers to the Catholicos as "the chosen of God," "the anointed of God," "the vicar of Christ," a reference which is also to be found in the letters of the eleventh-century sage Grigor Magistros.  Mashtots also adds the following comment: "as long as the cloak of holiness covers him [the Catholicos], and he is honored with the high calling of God, he is the vicar of God by virtue of his apostolic office."

The universal authority of the Catholicos of All Armenians is consequently derived not from his election alone, but from his ordination, anointment, and above all of these from his universal acceptance by all the Armenians.

The election of a bishop or a priest to the throne of chief or universal bishop of Armenia, pastor and successor to the Apostles is indeed a serious matter.  We have no idea how chief bishops were elected in Armenia prior to St. Gregory the Illuminator.  Our knowledge about the early elections in the fourth century is limited to information acquired from two historical works in Armenian, both of them composed in the 460s.  One of them, the History of Agathangelos, is our major source in Armenian on the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, the other, the Epic Histories attributed to a certain P'awstos Buzand, contains important historical material on the fourth century kingdom of Armenia.  From the evidence in these works regarding the electoral process in early and mid fourth-century Armenia, it is clear that certain fifth-century practices were projected back to the early and mid fourth century.  We must remember that after the fall of St. Sahak the Parthian from the pontifical throne in 428, the Persian government denied the Armenian Church the right to hold pontifical elections.  Instead, the Persian court appointed its own candidates as catholicoi.  These were occasionally clergymen of non-Armenian origin.  There is reason, however, to believe that the Armenians held secret elections.   That is how St. Mesrop Mashtots became locum tenens after St. Sahak's demise, and how Catholicos Hovsep, Catholicos Giwt and perhaps even Catholicos Hovhannes Mandakuni were elected.  None of these, however, could acquire official recognition from the royal court of Persia.

Under such dire circumstances, the Armenian fathers of the second half of the fifth century would have viewed the election of St. Gregory and his successors as the foundation stone of the Armenian electoral tradition.  They portrayed that tradition as an ideal procedure the memory of which should be preserved for implementation in more favorable times.  In that respect, the History of Agathangelos played a more important role than Pawstos' Epic Histories, since the latter was considered a profane piece of writing and was presumably dismissed by the church.

In the History of Agathangelos, the details of the election of St. Gregory the Illuminator unravels before the eyes of the reader.  The following events connected with that election are especially noteworthy:

A gathering of all the armed forces of Armenia takes place at King Trdat's order;

The assemblage takes place in the royal capital, the city of Vagharshapat, which is modern Etchmiadzin;

The time-frame is shortly after the conversion of King Trdat and his armies;

The leaders of the armed forces—namely the magnates, prefects, provincial governors, dignitaries, notable leaders and nobles, princes and freemen, judges and officers"—present themselves to Trdat, and the king holds a council with them.  It is at this council that King Trdat proposes making Gregory the pastor of Armenia.  Though not stated by Agathangelos, the magnates and the entire army presumably give their approval to the king's proposal.

Agathangelos' account of the gathering is reminiscent of a similar gathering, which would have been within the memory of the author of the History of Agathangelos and his contemporaries.  That event had taken place in 444—twenty years before the composition of the History.  For a historian living in the difficult circumstances of the post-Vartanants period, the Council of 444, which met in Shahapivan, an army camp near Vagharshapat, would have served as a model for all councils.  Some of the unique aspects of that council were:

Its concern with canonical issues, as it adapted the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in particular to the Armenian realities;

The participation of clergymen and laymen; the different classes of laymen remind one of the participants in King Trdat's council;

The fact that the council met at the army camp near Vagharshapat where the Armenian nobles and their contingents gathered every year on Navasard 1, the Armenian New Year;

The learned presumption that this council was held in secret, without the consent and knowledge of the Persian government;

My own guess that St. Hovsep Yeretz, one of the leaders of the Vartanants war, was actually elected Catholicos in this council, but was not given recognition by the Persian court and was not permitted to be raised to the episcopal rank.

I bring up the council of Shahapivan to emphasize the point that the fifth-century writers who described our earliest electoral traditions would have had that particular assembly as a model before their eyes.  And the Council of Shahapivan, considered by some as one of the earliest Armenian Church councils, stands out in the history of the Christian Church for its clerical as well as lay participation.  If laymen could participate in a council that set canons, they certainly must have had a voice in the election of the chief justice of the land—who was non-other than the Catholicos.

In a country with its own unique feudal social structure such as Armenia, the church had to adapt itself to the ways of the land, just as in the West it had adapted to the socio-political structures of the Roman world.   In Armenia the church needed not only the support of the king but also that of the feudal lords in order to establish its authority over the people.  After the fall of the Armenian Arshakuni dynasty in 428, the Armenian Church, already a feudal institution by now, turned more and more to the support of the Armenian nobility and gentry, since the feudal families continued to exist and prevail under foreign rule.

The origins of lay-participation in the affairs of the Armenian Church can be dated back to the fourth century when Armenia was an independent kingdom under the Arshakuni dynasty.  The fact that the Armenian kingdom was never a centralized, absolute monarchy made it necessary for the kings to depend on the contingents of the feudal clans, and to consult regularly with the high-ranking hereditary princes and the nobility in political, legal as well as religious affairs. Otherwise the authority of the king would be restricted only to the royal holdings.  In a fragmented socio-political order such as this it was realized that the Church could play an important role, especially as a force that could unite under the aegis of the monarchy the feudal contingents and the clans in control of the different districts.  This kind of a socio-political expediency was obviously responsible for the development of an unusual electoral procedure, so unlike those employed in the Roman Empire.  According to the Armenian tradition, the chief princes of the different clans, clan bishops, important clergymen of lower rank and members of the lower nobility got together to elect the chief bishop of Greater Armenia and conduct the affairs of the church.  The essence of this procedure was formed in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries and proved very useful, especially after the fall of the Armenian kingdom in 428 and the gradual fragmentation of Armenia.  The Catholicos, elected by people from all over the different parts of Armenia, stood out as the embodiment of the oneness of the national church of Armenia.

It is wrong to say that the Armenian Church adhered to democratic principles even in ancient times.  The participation of both clerical and lay orders in the elections merely ensured a universal acceptance of the Catholicos' authority.  The accounts of the different elections and councils indicate the participation of bishops and representatives of different classes and people of various ranks: princes, cadets of feudal houses, important priests, members of the lower gentry—and perhaps even the lower classes, who stood in silence and gave their consent. This kind of class consciousness can still be seen liturgically in the episcopal ordination ceremony in our church, when representatives of different classes of people are required to present themselves in order to attest to the character of a candidate.

It is obvious that elections held over a period of sixteen or seventeen centuries could not always follow a strict pattern.  Circumstances, adversities, oppressive governments and emergency situations forced the Armenians to adapt the ancient principles to the prevailing situation.  Yet the old principles were, at least formally, observed even in situations when catholicoi were de facto appointed by kings, princes or predecessors.  The general principles such as an electoral process, ordination, anointment and particularly a universal acceptance by all quarters, were observed throughout history.  Otherwise confusion could easily set in and the individual, even if properly elected, would not be recognized as the head of the Church.

Being elected Catholicos of All Armenians in this day and age is a very challenging proposition, since the republic of Armenia is a burgeoning nation, and the Catholicate of All Armenians has an important role to play in the development of Armenian Christianity in Armenia.  This new role must still be defined, since the republic of Armenia is new and the Catholicate of All Armenians has never functioned within the context of a democratic Armenian region for any extended period.  The period of the first republic was too short a time for any lasting effect.  Yet the fact that the Catholicos of All Armenians is the only high official in Armenia elected by the representatives of the entire Armenian people, this places him in a unique position to help the Armenian Church and the fatherland, for:

he must lead us as a church and a Christian people into the 21st century;

he must champion the cause of the physical and spiritual salvation of his people;

he must make provisions for the physical and especially spiritual welfare of his people;

he must pull together the scattered flock around the Holy See and the nucleus of a fatherland;

he must promote a high moral standard among the Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora;

he alone must be the architect of the role he wants to play in history.

The inevitable question after all of this is: "Who among the bishops has the kind of  stamina necessary to fill such a high position?"   The question is irrelevant if we consider that the throne of St. Gregory has the mysterious power to turn even a humble candidate into a great Catholicos.  History can provide many examples.  We must be well aware that God has always been with us, and that He has never abandoned His people in the past.


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