Saint of the Day – 30 September – Saint Gregory the Illuminator (c 257 – c 331) – “Apostle to Armenia” and “Father of Armenia”- Bishop, First Patriarch of the Armenian Church, Missionary, Wonder-worker – born Grigor Lusavorich in c 257 and died in c 331 of natural causes. Also known as Gregory the Enlightener. Patronage – Armenia.
The life of Saint Gregory was first recounted in a biography dating to c 460 and the more or less contemporary History of the Armenians by Agathangelos. The saint’s was born in and around Parthia between 239 to 257. He was the son of Anak Partev the Parthian, who, being in the pay of the rival Sasanian Empire in Persia (224-651), infamously murdered the Armenian king Khosrov of Kadj. The Lusavorich family was both wealthy and influential but they were all wiped out by the revenging relatives of Khosrov. Fortunately for Gregory, he, the sole survivor of the purge, was whisked away by his nanny to the safety of Cappadoccia.
Gregory was raised as a Christian and attended a Greek Christian school. On returning to Armenia, Gregory gained a position as a palace functionary at the court of the Armenian king. There he protested the pagan religion of the period and refused to participate in its rites. The reigning monarch was Tiridates IV (Trdat III or IV), or Tiridates the Great as he would become known and he had the troublesome Gregory imprisoned, tortured and thrown into the terrible Khor Virap prison at Artashat. Known as the “pit of oblivion,” nobody ever returned from Khor Virap.
When out hunting, Tiridates often behaved like a beast, hence the legend that he was transformed into a boar. A King, who was loved by his people and especially his sister, Khosrovidought, tried in vain to return him to his senses. Khosrovidought had a dream, seeing Gregory coming out of the dungeon and healing her brother! This was especially ironic, as the illness had only manifested itself following the king’s orders to murder a group of Christian nuns who had fled persecution in Rome. Khosrovidought told the people at the Court of her dream and revealed that Gregory was living and was the only man in the world who could cure the King. As Tiridat’s condition worsened his courtiers went to the pit and to their great surprise heard a feeble “yes” to the question: “Gregory, are you still alive?” For St Gregory had been in the pit for 13 years! They lowered the rope and out came a man with a long beard and soiled clothes. But his darkened face was wrapped in an aura of light. After dressing him properly,they took him to the presence of Tiridat. Moved by a powerful force which he could not control, Tiridat knelt down before his prisoner. Gregory, putting his hands on the King’s head, prayed for him. There,upon Tiridat was cured and became a new man. He said to Gregory: “Your God is my Go, your religion is my religion.” Gregory lifted him up and embraced him. From that moment, until their death, they remained faithful friends and worked together, each in his own way for the establishment of the Kingdom of God in Armenia, beginning in the year 301.
Gregory first converted the people in the capital city and in its neighbourhood. There were no bishops or clergymen left in the country, because of the severe persecutions by Tiridat. Thus, Gregory could not find people in holy orders to baptise the neophytes. Gregory himself was still a layman. Therefore, the Royal Council decided to send Gregory back to Cæsarea to be ordained as a Priest and then Bishop of Armenia.
Armenia did became a Christian state and it was a momentous moment in the country’s history as the historian RG Hovannisian here explains:
“The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its history. It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an intrinsic character, as clear to the native population, as to those outside its borders, who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.”
Armenia thus became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
As soon as Gregory returned to Armenis as the first Bishop (Katholikos) he set about formally establishing the Christian Church. Tiridates gave Saint Gregory up to 15 provinces of territory to establish the Armenian Church. The old pagan temples were torn down and the sites were converted to Christian ones and the whole nation was obliged to embrace the new faith. Churches and monasteries sprang up everywhere, including at the Khor Virap, Gregory’s home for so long, which was eventually converted into a monastery. The Armenian aristocracy quickly followed the royal family’s example and many noble families converted to Christianity.
Later in life, Gregory retired to the seclusion of the cave of Mane in northwestern Armenia where he lived as an ascetic. Gregory died there of old age around 331. The former bishop’s remains were buried at Tordan on the Euphrates River in the western province of Daranaghik, although later his bones would become prized relics in various churches across the country.
St Gregory governed the Armenian Church for about 25 years. He diligently worked for the internal organisation of the Church. His descendants carried on his work, notably his younger son Aristakes, who, known for his asceticism, was the next bishop and who attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 as St Gregory was too old.
Many Churches were built in his honour but perhaps the most celebrated was the cathedral at Ani built by the great architect Trdat for King Gagik (1001-1010).
He is commemorated as a Canonised Saint by all the ancient churches of the East and of the West, including the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. The Armenian Church has set aside three holy days in honour of St Gregory, commemorating three of the main events of his life – firstly, his sufferings and entrance into the dungeon, secondly, His release from the dungeon and the conversion of Armenia to Christianity, thirdly, the discovery of his relics.
On St Pope John Paul II’s historic trip in 2001 to Armenia to mark the 1700th of the conversion of the Armenian nation to Christianity, he became inspired by a visit to Khor-Virab where Saint Gregory was confined. As a result, a statue of Saint Gregory the Illuminator now stands (unveiled on 19 January 2005) in the Vatican’s last remaining niche along the walls of Saints leading to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Almost 2,5 metres tall, it is situate at the site where visitors wait to climb the cupola. Thousands of visitors now wait under the gentle gaze of St Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia. See the Statue below.
On 26 June 2016, Pope Francis visited Armenia and made a special pilgrimage to the Church and Monastery, where St Gregory’s pit was located. It is here, in one of the Armenian Church’s most sacred places, that Francis concluded his trip. After being welcomed by the Monastery’s superior, the he and the Pope made their way down the small stairs to the room where St Gregory had been held in captivity for 13 years. There, they lit a candle in veneration. They then entered the adjacent chapel in procession and prayed in Armenian and in Italian. Finally, the Pope and Abbot Karekin went out onto the terrace overlooking Ararat and released two doves, in the direction of the Biblical mountain, which is now beyond the border in Turkey.