Saturday, April 11, 2015

Blessed Ignatius Maloyan, the Armenian Genocide, and Divine Mercy

On Sunday, April 12, Pope Francis will celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday by offering a Mass in remembrance of the 1.5 million Armenians murdered in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918, in what has become known as the "Armenian Genocide."

Among those killed in what has been called the "first genocide of the 20th century," was a bishop of the Armenian Catholic Church: Blessed Ignatius Maloyan.

Born in 1869 in Mardin, Turkey, Shokr Allah Maloyan was baptized into the Armenian Catholic Church as an infant. A good student and gifted linguist, he was sent by the local bishop to a nearby convent to begin studies for the priesthood. Ordained in 1896, he took the name Ignatius in honor of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. In November of that year, he was sent to Alexandria, Egypt, to serve as an aid to the Armenian Patriarch. Distinguishing himself for his learning and rhetorical skills, he became a popular speaker and was actively involved in dialogues with the Coptic Church. He was later appointed to serve as secretary to the Patriarch of Constantinople.     
     
Blessed Ignatius Maloyan

In 1911, he was consecrated archbishop of Mardin. He faced a shortage of priests, lack of financial resources, increasing political pressure from the Turkish government, and the realities of his own ill-health. With the outbreak of World War I, the Turkish government increased its pressure on the Christian community. By 1915, planning for the extermination of “internal enemies” had begun and Bishop Maloyan urged his people to be prepared for the worst while he himself made arrangements for the administration of the diocese in the event of his own disappearance. Aware of what was beginning to transpire, Pope Benedict XV tried to intervene but his appeals for peace were ignored; the vast majority of the Armenians who were killed were also Christians and included women, men, and children from every walk of life.
 
Arrested on June 3, 1915, he was taken with 1,600 other Christians on a forced march during which Ignatius was able to give absolution and improvise a last Mass. On June 10, those Christians who had managed to remain alive were murdered. Bishop Maloyan was taken into the desert where, after refusing to accept Islam, he was shot before being stabbed to death. His final words were: "I've told you I shall live and die for the sake of my faith and religion. I take pride in the Cross of my God and Lord." Bishop Ignatius Maloyan was beatified in 2001. His commemoration is celebrated on June 11.
 
Sadly, the Armenian Genocide is a point of controversy. It is illegal to talk or write about it in Turkey and many of the countries with strong diplomatic ties to that country (including the United States) have consistently chosen to ignore the realities of history. The present-day politics of diplomatic relations has trumped the truths of history and the value of human lives lost in acts of aggression.
 
As we think about the experiences of so many Christians in the Middle East today, it is important that we also remember the lives and witnesses of Bl. Ignatius and the millions who suffered in the massacre that began 100 years ago. 
 
It isn't by chance that the Pope has chosen Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday in the Octave of Easter) as the time to remember the Armenian Genocide. In recent remarks made to the Armenian Catholic bishops and faithful who have come to Rome for tomorrow's celebration, Pope Francis shared his hope that the Divine Mercy "might help us all, in love for truth and justice, to heal every wound and to hasten concrete gestures of reconciliation and peace among the nations that have not yet reached a consensus on the reading of such sorrowful events.” (During the celebration, Pope Francis will also officially declare the Armenian monk St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, an act which honors the significant theological and spiritual contributions of Armenian Christians to the broader Church.)
 
A fundamental aspect of mercy is our willingness to ask for and offer mercy to those who have hurt us. In her book, God's Tender Mercy, Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., reflects:
Strange, isn't it? We expect that God will show us mercy; but, too often, we show so little ourselves. We believe fiercely in capital punishment; we tolerate the thought of nuclear war; we suspect whatever is unlike ourselves. If heaven is based on the same punitive, violent, and segregating principles, we are all in trouble.
The strangest of all human phenomena, perhaps, is that we take God's mercy for granted for ourselves but find it so hard to be merciful ourselves. If there were any proof needed that God is completely "Other," this is surely it...
"It is often the most wicked who know the nearest path to the shrine," the Japanese proverb reminds us. Don't let anybody fool you: Goodness is as goodness does. Be careful who you call bad simply because the "good" people have named them so. God, it seems, is far less quick to judge.  
The point of all of this is that we have to be willing to forgive and move forward in reconciliation and peace, regardless of the cost. Even as we courageously name injustice and persecution for the evils they are, we also have to be willing to recognize that we are all made of the same "stuff," victims and aggressors alike. So, while we continue to pray for and support our brothers and sisters today - who are facing the same threat of extermination as Blessed Ignatius and the victims of the Armenian Genocide - we also have to have hope that justice will prevail and that hate can and will be turned into love. Christians don't have the right to ever write anyone off or believe that anyone is beyond God's mercy. In his Bull declaring the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (released today [April 11] in Rome), Pope Francis reminds us: "The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of one’s self. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy" (Misericordiae Vultus, 12).

As we remember those who have gone before and celebrate the Feast of Mercy, pray for the persecuted and the persecutor. Ask for forgiveness of your own sins and failings and for the grace to forgive others. Renew your own commitment to be a person of peace and justice.

A Prayer for Our Oppressors +
O God, who have laid down by your precept of charity
that we should sincerely love those who afflict us,
grant that we may follow the commands of the New Law,
striving to return good for evil
and bearing one another's burdens.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from the Roman Missal, Mass for Our Oppressors)

 
 

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