Catholicos St. Nersess the Great
St. Nersess was an Armenian Catholicos (Patriarch) who lived in the 4th century and was the great-grandson of St. Gregory the Illuminator. His father, Athenogenes, and his uncle, Bab, who were next in line for the succession to the Throne of St. Gregory, were laymen and had no desire to become priests. As professional soldiers, they showed no inclination to spirituality and their worldly behavior convinced the Armenian bishops that neither of them were suitable for the position of chief bishop.
Therefore, the church turned its attention to Nersess, the son of Athenogenes, to assume the position. St. Nersess had spent his youth in Caesarea where he married Sanducht, (presumably the daughter of King Diran) and they had a son, who later became the renowned catholicos, St. Sahag the Parthian, grandfather of St. Vartan Mamigonian. St. Nersess was a courtier and served as chamberlain of King Arshag II.
However, despite his secular background, St. Nersess was a pious Christian. His connection with St. Gregory the Illuminator impressed the royal magnates who held council with the king and they advised the king to persuade St. Nersess to become the spiritual leader of Armenia. A humble man by nature, St. Nersess refused their proposal, feeling unworthy of such an honor. The king dismissed his arguments and insisted that St. Nersess immediately be ordained a deacon, then priest, and ultimately chief bishop or Catholicos. He was ordained by Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea in 353 A.D.
St. Nersess’ patriarchate marked a new era in Armenian history. Previously, the Church had been identified, primarily, with royal family and noblemen; St. Nersess now brought the Church into a closer relationship with its people. St. Nersess immediately undertook his duties of the chief bishop, renovating old churches, founding new ones, and tending to the spiritual needs of his flock. In the early days of Christianity in Armenia, however, many of the people were not strong in their Christian practices. To that end, St. Nersess held a council of bishops in Ashdishad and introduced a number of reforms regarding divine worship, laws on marriage, and fast days in order to make the beliefs of the church more uniform.
St. Nerses also became known for his concern for moral purity and preserving the sanctity of marriage and family life. He built schools and hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the poor and the lepers, and he urged his people to maintain these institutions. Thus, St. Nersess has been described by many as the founder of Christian charity in Armenia and recognized as the clergyman who established the Church’s role as the guardian of the Armenian people in its spiritual, social, and educational aspects.
As a leader, St. Nersess also participated in the political life of his country and was among King Arshag’s chief advisors during the period 353-359 A.D. However, King Arshag’s adherence to the religious policy (Arianism) of his ally, the Roman emperor, a policy which conflicted with St. Nersess’ Christian Orthodox beliefs, necessitated removal of St. Nersess. He was exiled for nine years. When he returned, King Bab, Arshag’s son, reigned. The friction between them intensified during the next few years.
The religious differences, as well as St. Nersess’ condemnation of King Bab’s moral depravity, are cited as reasons for St. Nersess’ sudden, untimely death. At the king’s order, St. Nersess was poisoned in 373 A.D. He was buried in Til, near the tomb of his great uncle St. Arisdages. A cathedral built over the original grave site was destroyed in the 7th century. While the exact site is unknown, relics were discovered and distributed in the 13th century between the church in Erzinjan and the nearby village of Kee, where the Monastery of Dirashen stood. Another monastery near Til, Chukhdag Hayrabedats, also claimed to have discovered relics of St. Nersess in the second half of the 7th century.