Elected in 1995
His Holiness Aram I, the spiritual leader of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, was consecrated Catholicos on July 1, 1995, after serving as Primate of the Armenian Orthodox community in Lebanon for 15 years.
He was ordained a celibate priest in 1968 and earned the title of Vartabed (Doctor of the Armenian Church) in 1970. In 1979, after serving for one year as Locum Tenens, he was elected Prelate of the Armenian Orthodox community in Lebanon. The next year he received his Episcopal ordination. His tenure as Prelate of Lebanon coincided with the Lebanese Civil War—some of the most challenging years ever faced by the Armenian community of Lebanon. During this time and after, he reorganized parishes and schools, restructured and reactivated church-related institutions, and renewed community leadership.
Born in 1947 in Beirut, Lebanon, His Holiness is a graduate of the Armenian Theological Seminary in Antelias, Lebanon, and the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, Switzerland. He received his M.Div. from the Near East School of Theology, his S.T.M. jointly from the American University of Beirut and the Near East School of Theology, and his PhD from Fordham University in New York. He also holds several honorary degrees. His major areas of specialization are philosophy, systematic theology, and Near Eastern church history. A revised version of his doctoral dissertation was published by the World Council of Churches in 1992 under the title, Conciliar Fellowship: A Common Goal.
During the years of his Pontificate, he reorganized and revitalized the work of the Church, particularly in the areas of theological education, Christian education, publications, communications, cultural activities, and human rights. He completed several construction projects such as the Cilician Museum, Center of Archives and Manuscripts, residence for bishops and monks, a guesthouse, offices, a youth center, and housing for low-income families.
He made regular pontifical visits to all the Catholicate’s dioceses, creating a new dynamism in the relationship between these worldwide dioceses and the administrative center of the Church—the Catholicate in Lebanon.
During the past decade the Catholicos emphasized the Church’s outreach through social services, including caring for orphans, the elderly, and the disabled.
For many years His Holiness has lectured regularly on armenological, theological, and ecumenical subjects at the Seminary and Haigazian University in Beirut. He has also given numerous public lectures in various universities, academic and cultural centers, and at public events and international gatherings. He considers lecturing to and engaging in dialogues with students to be one of his most rewarding tasks.
In addition to hundreds of articles and reviews in Armenian, English, and French (some of which have been translated into Arabic, German, Spanish, and Swedish), His Holiness has published more than thirty books including:
- Nerses the Gracious: Theologian and Ecumenist, 1974, Beirut. (Armenian).
- The True Image of the Armenian Church, 1974, Antelias (Armenian).
- The Witness of the Armenian Church in a Diaspora Situation, 1978, New York (English).
- With the Will of Re-Building, 1983, Beirut (Armenian).
- With the People, 1989, Beirut (Armenian).
- Conciliar Fellowship: A Common Goal, 1992, Geneva (English).
- Orthodox Perspectives on Mission, 1992, Oxford (English).
- The Incarnation of the Gospel in Cultures: A Missionary Event, 1995, Beirut (English).
- Towards the 1700th Anniversary of the Christianization of Armenia, 1996, Antelias (Armenian).
- The Church and Ethnicity, 1996, Antelias (Armenian).
- The Challenge to be a Church in a Changing World, 1997, New York (English).
- Jesus Christ: The Son of God—the Son of Man, 1999, Antelias (Armenian).
- Church, Nation and Homeland, 1999, Antelias (Armenian).
- In Search of Ecumenical Vision, 2000, Antelias (English).
- L’eglise Face aux Grands d’efis, 2000, Antelias (French).
- The Armenian Church Beyond the 1700th Anniversary, 2002, Antelias (English).
- The Mission of Faith, 2003, Antelias (Armenian).
- Justice, Paix, Reconciliation, 2003, Antelias (French).
- The Christian Witness at the Crossroads in the Middle East, 2004, Antelias (English).
- Der Zor: A National Sanctuary, 2005, Antelias (Armenian).
- The Dignity of Serving, 2005, Antelias (Armenian).
- For a Church Beyond its Walls, 2006, Antelias (English).
- Pour un Monde Transforme, 2006, Antelias (French).
- Dialogue with Youth, 2009, Montreal, (English and French).
- Enriching Life with Values, 2009, Antelias (Armenian).
- St. Nerses the Gracious and Church Unity, 2010, Antelias (English).
- A Journey of Faith, Hope and Vision, 2011, Antelias (English).
- Taking the Church to the People, 2011, Antelias (English).
- Witness & Renewal: A Call for Renewed Engagement, 2012, New York (English and Armenian).
- Issues and Perspectives, 2013, Antelias (English)
He strengthened ecumenical relations and collaborations by establishing a special department for this work with a full-time director, developing close personal relations with world church leaders, organizing important ecumenical meetings and events, and chairing and lecturing at international conferences and events in different regions.He has maintained relationships on an international level with heads of states, political and religious leaders and representatives of international organizations.His Holiness recalls his earliest encounter with the Ecumenical Movement with these thoughts: “My personal ecumenical journey began with ‘The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,’ as a young seminarian at the Theological Seminary of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, in the early 1960s. For the first time in my life I came to witness how people from different churches gather to pray and reflect together, and seek together the unity of the church. This very fact of togetherness struck me profoundly. It left a tremendous impact on my life at this early stage of my theological formation. Simply, I fell in love with ecumenism, with this ‘strange’ movement that brings people together in one place and in all places. I started reading ecumenical periodicals and books with great interest and followed the ecumenical news and developments. When I was a student, ecumenism was for me a sort of academic interest. After I was ordained as a minister, it became a way of life, a quality of being Christian in the world today.”Since that auspicious beginning, His Holiness has been active in inter-church dialogue, relations, and collaborations. In 1972 he was appointed as the Catholicate’s representative for ecumenical relations. He served in this position until 1995 and represented the Church at major theological and ecumenical conferences, assemblies, and consultations in different parts of the world.
His ecumenical involvement reached its zenth when in 1983 he was elected to serve as a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the Vancouver Assembly. This was followed by his election as Moderator of the Central and Executive Committees at the Canberra Assembly in 1991, the highest position of this global fellowship of churches, which comprises more than 350 churches from different confessions, cultures, nations and regions. He became the first Orthodox and the youngest person to be elected to the position of Moderator. After serving as Moderator for seven years, His Holiness was unanimously re-elected at the Harare Assembly in 1998. The re-election of His Holiness, which was based on his “strong leadership, firm commitment, theological knowledge, and administrative experience,” was unprecedented in the history of the WCC.
As a strong supporter of inter-religious relations, dialogue and cooperation, His Holiness has played a significant part in promoting common values, mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence among religions.
The question of administrative unity in the Armenian Church in North America is a major concern of His Holiness, who has written,
“Having spent a few years as a university student in the United States, I know how complex and urgent this problem is. It must be seen in its proper context and dealt with in a realistic and unbiased way. The Armenian Church is one; it has never been and will never be two. We must be careful not to confuse the existence of four Hierarchical Sees with the unity of the Church. At a certain period of our history, due to special circumstances, two administrative centers (Diocese-Prelacy) have emerged within the same Armenian Church in the United States and Canada.
“On various occasions I have articulated my view that this abnormal situation must be normalized in the course of time. The approaches and methodologies employed thus far to remedy the actual situation have proven to be counter-productive. Change of heart, mutual trust and understanding happen only through sincere dialogue and close collaboration, sustained by mutual trust and touching all aspects of our community life, is essential for the unity of the Church. The church of Christ is the people; structure, clergy and liturgy are only expressions of it. Unity should emerge in a natural way in the life of the people; and the way it is articulated and eventually shaped must fully correspond to the expectations of the people. Unity cannot be imposed on the people. Unity is a process that must start now.”
In his first sermon as Catholicos at his consecration on July 1, 1995, His Holiness made a heartfelt plea for this sacred cause noting that times are changing and “Our people in Armenia and the Diaspora urge us to develop closer collaboration at all levels and in all spheres of our common life. Our church calls us to embark on a process of re-evangelization and nation-building: challenges that we have to face together. Unity is a gift of God; it is also a call. Let us not lose this golden opportunity for the sake of our church and people. Let us respond to this call of God in courage, in humility and in faithfulness to our forefathers and our common goal.”
Having played a major role in the 1700th anniversary commemorations in 2001, His Holiness turned his attention beyond this anniversary and towards a renewed Armenian Church. “It is an immediate task for the Armenian Church to embark on a carefully planned internal reform process. As a nation we find ourselves facing new events, developments and challenges. It is a must to determine our priorities. It is necessary to find the right path of our life.”“I believe,” he says, “that the Armenian Church cannot and should no longer ignore the imperatives of the changing times. It must not only react; it must become proactive. This is no longer a question of choice; it has become an urgent necessity. This is no longer an abstract or abstruse concept, but an issue of existential nature and scope. In fact, renewal is a sine qua noncondition for any church that is committed to carry on its witness responsibly and efficiently in the present world….“The Armenian Church is facing critical questions, acute concerns and multi-faceted problems. They must be addressed seriously and realistically according to a clearly established agenda. The Church cannot wait in a vacuum. It is already behind the times.”Another area of concern expressed by His Holiness is the Liturgy. He says, “I have heard a lot of criticism, particularly from the youth, concerning mainly the language of the liturgy. This is a valid concern. Our liturgy needs basic reformation in its various aspects and manifestations. It must be understood and communicated to everybody. Any step in this direction must be taken carefully. Otherwise, we may jeopardize the integrity and specificity of the Armenian liturgy….
“…The reformation of the Armenian Church ought to be conceived essentially as a renewal process. Such a goal requires a holistic and integrated approach. This means that one has to take into account the liturgical traditions and practices and the very ethos of our liturgy as it has been developed in the course of history, on the one hand, and the concrete realities and special conditions of our time, on the other hand. On this basis clear criteria and well-defined methodologies and procedures must be set. Only by establishing an all-embracing approach and systematic treatment will we avoid the sorts of arbitrary decisions and provisional arrangements that presently characterize liturgical practices in many of our dioceses and parishes.”
Commenting on the continuing debate about the language of the liturgy, His Holiness states that in his opinion Classical Armenian must continue to be the basic language of the liturgy. “This is the language in which we have communicated with God for centuries, by which we have created our spiritual and moral values, and have articulated our theological perceptions. It is through Classical Armenian that we have kept our cultural heritage. Classical Armenian is an essential ingredient of our spirituality. We cannot simply keep it in the treasury of our history. However, the biblical readings, the sermons and major prayers may be performed in modern Armenian, and even in English or in French as the necessity requires. In doing this we should bear in mind that the goal of liturgy is to create spirituality, which helps a Christian enter in communion with God. Spirituality transcends language barriers.”
His Holiness is firm in the belief that the liturgy must become “more communicative and participatory, more simple and attractive.” He believes that special liturgies for the youth and children must be developed, and moral and ethical questions related to church and society must be clearly defined and articulated with guidance. “We cannot just leave them alone in the midst of the tensions and ambiguities of the world…. If we fail to do this, our youth will leave the Armenian Church and seek answers to their burning questions in different groups and movements.”
Convinced that the Armenian Church will become a church of the Third Millennium only through renewal, His Holiness’ focus and attention is firmly on these goals, including renewal of clergy and parish life, organization of youth ministries, development of social services for the growing and diverse needs of the faithful, expansion of Christian education, and the reinforcement of the family unit, which His Holiness says “is the foundation of any society.”
“The Church has the great task and urgent responsibility to re-Christianize our life. It must take Christian faith beyond its liturgical expressions and institutional confines. The Christian faith should become a living reality in the daily life of each Armenian. The Armenian Church must not become merely the custodian of the Christian faith; it must become the messenger of the Gospel of Christ.”
In his first encyclical issued on October 14, 1995, on the occasion of the Feast of the Holy Translators, His Holiness said:
“The Armenian Church became the fountain of Armenian rebirth. It was there that ‘the people sitting in darkness saw the great light’ (Isaiah 9:2). The Armenian nation took that light and mixed it with her inner feelings and dreams, with her crises and concerns, with her entire being. And with the strength of Christ’s cross and resurrection, the Armenian Church led the Armenian nation from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life. The Armenian Church is called to carry out the same mission for spiritual renewal and national rebirth, especially today, in view of the emerging new circumstances, new concerns and needs in our lives. Therefore, the Armenian Church that is called to lead our people toward rebirth must first be renewed herself, with her life, diakonia and mission.
“The Armenian Church must be renewed through a process of inner evangelism. The meaning of the church’s existence is fulfilling the evangelical mission commissioned by Christ. The church is not a self-centered and self-fulfilling institution. She is a community of men and women anchored on Christ’s life and mission. Hence, the church becomes a true church only when she remains faithful to her God-given mission, namely by spreading and translating Christ’s Gospel into life.”
Without any doubt, the vision and commitment of His Holiness has made the Catholicosate of Cilicia of the Armenian Church a living center of reflection, dialogue and action—a center that is prepared to take the challenge of renewal earnestly and valiantly.