As the great-grandson of St. Gregory the Illuminator, he was heir to Armenia’s most exalted lineage, and possessed all the qualities of a great spiritual leader. Yet he resisted becoming a priest, and by some accounts only accepted ordination and advancement at the insistence of Armenia’s king.
The king may have had cause to regret it. For when the new Catholicos Nersess ascended to the Throne of St. Gregory, he turned away from matters of the royal court. To Nersess, the church was first and foremost the servant and defender of the people: he strove to make Armenia a more hospitable place for the weak and dispossessed, and for the cultivation of the wholesome virtues of common family life.
He built schools and orphanages; hospitals and shelters for the poor; monasteries and convents. At the bishops’ council of Ashdishad, which Nersess convened in A.D. 364, he instituted reforms in the church canons that placed Christian charity, moral cleanliness, sincere worship, marriage and childrearing at the heart of religious observance.
Nersess was also outspoken in defiance of Armenia’s impious leaders—and his unwavering moral integrity came at great cost. He was deposed from office; exiled from his homeland; eventually poisoned at the order of a depraved king. Nevertheless, his example of holiness and virtue left a lasting impression on the Armenian Church and people, who saw fit to canonize the reluctant catholicos, and name him “Nersess the Great.”
On Saturday, June 29, the Armenian Church will again remember this remarkable 4th-century figure during the Feast of St. Nersess the Great. Honor the day by performing an act of kindness for another living soul.
Above: St. Nersess the Great celebrates the Divine Liturgy, “Zhoghovatsu” (1672), Matenadaran, Armenia.
By Christopher H. Zakian