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Pontifical Divine Liturgy in Washington, DC

By Florence Avakian

On Saturday morning, May 9, some 3,000 attended a Pontifical celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  It was the largest gathering of the National Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial held in Washington, DC, from May 7 to 9.

The magnificent service was celebrated by His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, with a stirring homily delivered by His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.

Dozens of clergymen from the Eastern and Western Dioceses, the Eastern and Western Prelacies, and the Armenian Evangelical and Catholic denominations took part in the liturgy, aided by numerous deacons and a 200-voice choir representing Armenian communities from across the country.

The magnificent setting for the liturgy was the cavernous sanctuary of the National Catholic Shrine, with its soaring marble arches and dozens of stained glass windows-the largest Roman Catholic church in the North America.  Renowned for its neo-Byzantine and Romanesque architecture, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The service began with the ranks of Armenian priests slowly proceeding down the center aisle, followed by the two Armenian Church leaders, while the magnificent strains of the “Hrashapar” hymn filled the sanctuary.  Before the altar, framed by a huge mosaic of Christ that dominates the rear wall of the basilica, the two catholicoi took seats facing an endless sea of worshippers.

Call for Truth and Justice

The theme of the commemoration-to remember and honor the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, recently acknowledged as saints of the church-was echoed in the formal remarks made during the service-and certainly was paramount in the hearts of all the onlookers.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, warmly welcomed the assemblage with the words: “The blood of the martyred saints of the Armenian Genocide bears witness of the deep Christian faith of your people.”

Catholicos Karekin II in his message to the people noted that for 100 years, “our people have been receiving the blows of the denialist policy of Turkey regarding the Armenian Genocide.”  But “the truth and our call for justice resound throughout the world, and in the hearts of people.”

He continued: “By allowing this crime to go unpunished, the world witnessed new genocides, mass killings and bloodletting, which continue through the present day.”  He cited the issue of Artsakh, the challenges faced by the Republic of Armenia, and the struggles of the Syrian and Iraqi Armenian communities, which “all underscore the imperative to be unified.”

Catholicos Karekin II declared that “the recognition of truth and implementation of justice are needed not only for our people and our martyrs, but also for Turkey, to reconcile with its own history, to shake off its sins of past crimes.  It is also necessary for the greater family of nations and people, in order to build its reconciled and peaceful future on a foundation of justice,” he said to loud applause.

Faith and Homeland Melded Together

In a homily delivered with impressive authority, Catholicos Aram I said that “our gathering together of the two Vehapars, is a defining moment” in our contemporary history, testifying to the fact that “we belong to one faith, one homeland, one history, and one nation.”

“The demarcation line between our faith and our nation is inseparable, and no one can separate faith from our Armenian identity,” he said, paraphrasing the famous words of the Vartanantz saints.

“With thousands of Armenian churches, monuments and institutions still desecrated by Turkey, we are a people before the world who demand our legitimate rights.  This is a wakeup call to all people who believe in human rights,” he forcefully concluded.

To conclude the service, Maestro Khoren Mekanejian led the 200-voice choir, enhanced by singers from the acclaimed Hover Choir of Armenia, as well as the congregation in the singing of the “Hayr Mer.”  The Very Rev. Fr. Mamigon Kiledjian was the organist throughout the service.

Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the National Shrine, and the staff of the basilica generously supported every aspect of the liturgy, allowing the complicated undertaking of such a large service to proceed effortlessly.

The entire service was broadcast over the Catholic EWTN network, and livestreamed over the Internet.  Thousands of viewers across the country were able to watch in the proceedings, and chimed in their responses via social media.

To the strains of Yekmalian’s inspiring hymn “Oorakh Ler” (“Let Us Rejoice”), the attending clergy slowly proceeded up the center aisle.   Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I stopped frequently during the procession as the faithful rushed forward to kiss the cross in their hands, and to receive their blessings.

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