VATICAN CITY, JAN. 19, 2005 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II blessed a statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator which now stands in one of the exterior niches of St. Peter’s Basilica.
It is the first time that a statue of an Eastern-rite saint — in this case, the apostle of Armenia — has been placed among the founding saints that surround the exterior of St. Peter’s, according to the basilica’s archpriest, Cardinal Francesco Marchisano.
The ceremony, which took place today as the Pope was on his way to Paul VI Hall for the general audience, was attended by Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX of Cilicia of the Armenians, whose see is in Lebanon.
Nerses Bedros XIX leads approximately 10% of the Armenian Christians who live in his homeland and in the diaspora, and who are in communion with Rome.
Some 90% of Armenian Christians obey the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate, which separated from Rome after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
A key step was taken in 1996 to overcome this division, when John Paul II and then Patriarch Karekin I signed a joint declaration that resolved misunderstandings on the nature of Jesus.
Attending the ceremony were representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Armenian republic.
The statue of Gregory the Illuminator — also known as Gregory the Armenian — was sculpted by artist Khatchik Kazandjian, of Lebanese origin. He won a competition convoked by the Vatican and the Catholic Armenian Patriarchate.
The statue, 5.64 meters (18 feet) high and weighing 18 tons, is in Carrara marble and cost 250,000 euros ($325,000).
With this gesture, the Pope wished to culminate the celebrations for the 1,700th anniversary of the Armenian people’s conversion to the Christian faith.
According to Armenian tradition, Gregory, who was born around 250-252, miraculously cured Armenian King Tiridates III, who converted to Christianity in 301 together with all his court, making Armenia the first Christian nation.
The gesture of placing the statue at the basilica, said Cardinal Marchisano, “expresses marvelously” the “natural variety of the traditions and rites of the Church, which contribute to her spiritual enrichment.”