By Ann Schneible
During the first major Mass of his three-day visit to Armenia, Pope Francis said faith is not a thing of the past, like an artifact in a museum. Rather, it is kept alive through continuous encounters with Christ.
Faith “is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives,” the Pope said during his June 25 homily in the northwestern city of Gyurmi.
The pontiff warned against the temptation to reduce faith to something that belongs in the past, as if it “were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum.”
“Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all,” he said.
The Pope acknowledged the faith of the people of Armenia, the first country to embrace Christianity, and the site of a bloody persecution against Christians 100 years ago.
“He has remembered your faithfulness to the Gospel, the first-fruits of your faith, and all those who testified, even at the price of their blood, that God’s love is more precious than life itself,” he said.
Pope Francis delivered his homily during Mass at Vartanants Square in Gyumri, the main event of his second day in the country. The city had recently been largely rebuilt after a 1988 earthquake devastated the region, and killed tens of thousands of people.
Pope Francis made reference to the earthquake in his homily, in which he spoke on the theme of rebuilding.
“Yet we might also wonder: what is the Lord asking us to build today in our lives, and even more importantly, upon what is he calling us to build our lives?”
Drawing on this theme of rebuilding, the Pope challenged the faithful to consider not only what God wants them to build in their lives, but the foundation upon which they should build.
The pontiff suggested three ways of building a solid foundation: memory, faith, and merciful love.
Memory is recalling “what the Lord has done in and for us,” that “God has chosen us, loved us, called us and forgiven us,” Pope Francis said. “Great things have happened in our personal love story with him, and these must be treasured in our minds and hearts.”
The Pope also spoke about the importance of preserving the “memory of a people.”
“Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history.”
“As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence. He has not abandoned you. Even in the face of tremendous adversity, we can say in the words of today’s Gospel that the Lord has visited your people.”
“He has remembered your faithfulness to the Gospel, the first-fruits of your faith, and all those who testified, even at the price of their blood, that God’s love is more precious than life itself.”
The second way of building a foundation is with faith, Pope Francis said. He addressed the danger of reducing faith to something that belongs in the past, as if it “were a beautiful illuminated book to be kept in a museum.”
“Once it is locked up in the archives of history, faith loses its power to transform, its living beauty, its positive openness to all,” he warned.
Rather, faith “is born and reborn from a life-giving encounter with Jesus, from experiencing how his mercy illumines every situation in our lives,” the Pope said, which should be renewed daily by reading God’s word and praying silently “to open our hearts to his love.”
“We would do well to let our encounter with the Lord’s tenderness enkindle joy in our hearts: a joy greater than sadness, a joy that even withstands pain and in turn becomes peace.”
Francis challenged the faithful, especially young people, to respond when “Jesus calls us to follow him more closely, to give our lives to him and to our brothers and sisters.”
“Do not be afraid; tell him ‘Yes!’ He knows us, he really loves us, and he wants to free our hearts from the burden of fear and pride,” the Pope said. “By making room for him, we become capable of radiating his love.”
“Thus you will be able to carry on your great history of evangelization. This is something the Church and the world need in these troubled times, which are also a time of mercy.”
The third and final way of building a foundation is to foster “merciful love” towards neighbor, the Pope said.
“Concrete love is the Christian’s visiting card,” the pontiff said; “any other way of presenting ourselves could be misleading and even unhelpful, for it is by our love for one another that everyone will know that we are his disciples.”
“We are called above all to build and rebuild paths of communion, tirelessly creating bridges of unity and working to overcome our divisions.”
Pope Francis cited the first reading from Isaiah during the day’s Mass, which reminds the faithful how “the Spirit of the Lord is always with those who carry glad tidings to the poor, who bind up the brokenhearted and console the afflicted.”
“God dwells in the hearts of those who love him. God dwells wherever there is love, shown especially by courageous and compassionate care for the weak and the poor.”
“How much we need this! We need Christians who do not allow themselves to be overcome by weariness or discouraged by adversity, but instead are available, open and ready to serve.”
He called on people of good will to help others with not only words but also actions, and stressed the need for more just societies “where each individual can lead a dignified life and, above all, be fairly remunerated for his or her work.”
St. Gregory of Narek, who was declared doctor of the Church in 2015 by Pope Francis, is an example of learning how to be merciful despite our faults, the pontiff said.
“It is hard to find his equal in the ability to plumb the depths of misery lodged in the human heart,” Francis said. “Yet (Gregory of Narek) always balanced human weakness with God’s mercy, lifting up a heartfelt and tearful prayer of trust in the Lord.”
“Gregory of Narek is a master of life, for he teaches us that the most important thing is to recognize that we are in need of mercy,” the Pope said.
“Despite our own failings and the injuries done to us, we must not become self-centred but open our hearts in sincerity and trust to the Lord.”
In his remarks at the conclusion of Mass, the Pope extended a special greeting to “all those who with such generosity and practical charity are helping our brothers and sisters in need.”
The pontiff particularly recalled the hospital in Ashotsk, known as the “Pope’s Hospital,” which was established 25 years ago. This hospital, he said, “was born of the heart of Saint John Paul II, and it continues to be an important presence close to those who are suffering.”
Pope Francis’ June 24-26 to Armenia was organized following the invitation of Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, the nation’s civil authorities, and the Catholic Church.
The visit also comes a little over 100 years after the 1915 Armenian genocide, during which some 1.5 million Christians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, and millions more displaced.
Armenia has an ancient Christian legacy, being the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in 301.