A new doctor of the Church

On Monday the Vatican Press Office announced that the preceding Saturday Pope Francis had met in an audience Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints and during that audience the pope “confirmed the affirmative sentence of the Plenary Session of Cardinals and Bishops” of that congregation “regarding the title of Doctor of the Universal Church which will soon be conferred on St. Gregory of Narek, a priest monk, who was born in Andzevatsik (then Armenia, now Turkey) around 950 and died in Narek (then Armenia, now Turkey) around 1005.”

This was hardly the first time that this saint had been mentioned in recent times at the Holy See. Back on Feb. 18, 2001 St. John Paul II in his Angelus address referred to him as “one of Our Lady’s principal poets, the great doctor of the Armenian Church, St. Gregory of Narek.” Although the Polish pontiff used the term “doctor,” the Armenian monk did not formally hold that title at the time.

In that address the Holy Father reminded his listeners that “Armenia is thus considered the first nation to have embraced Christianity, even before it was accepted in the Roman Empire. In reviewing the 17 centuries of this people’s history, we note how martyrdom is a constant element in that history. On various occasions Armenians have had to pay with harsh suffering for their intention to remain faithful to their Christian identity, down to the tragic events at the end of the 19th century and in the first years of the 1900s. On this special occasion we wish to pay homage to the sacrifice of Armenian Christians, including those in the diaspora, who took the light of the Gospel with them and preserved all their Spiritual and cultural heritage.”

In Redemptoris Mater No. 32, St. John Paul II refers to this new doctor of the Church. “St. Gregory of Narek, one of the outstanding glories of Armenia, with powerful poetic inspiration ponders the different aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation, and each of them is for him an occasion to sing and extol the extraordinary dignity and magnificent beauty of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Word made flesh.”

St. Gregory’s prayer No. 80 begins with a hint towards Mary’s Magnificat. “Magnify your honor through me, and my Salvation will be manifested through you if you find me, Madonna, if you pity me, blessed among women, if you rescue me in my waywardness, Immaculate One, if you steady me in my doubt, repose, if you calm my anxiety, pacifier, if you show me the way from which I have strayed, praised one. You alone shall be on the pure lips of happy tongues.”

In a general audience on Oct. 18, 2000, St. John Paul again made reference to St. Gregory. “Let us express our desire for the Divine life offered in Christ in the warm tones of a great theologian of the Armenian Church, Gregory of Narek (10th century):  ‘It is not for His gifts, but for the Giver that I always long. It is not glory to which I aspire, but the Glorified One Whom I desire to embrace. It is not rest that I seek, but the face of the One Who gives rest that I implore. It is not for the wedding feast, but for desire of the Bridegroom that I languish’” (12th Prayer).

This 12th Prayer is also referred to as a “bedtime prayer.” It ends with this request to God: “Grant blissful rest like the slumber of death in the depth of this night through the intercession of the Holy Mother of God and the elect. Firmly close the windows of sight, sentient faculty of the mind, with impregnable fortifications against the waves of anxiety, the cares of daily life, nightmares, frenzy, hallucinations, and protected by the memory of your hope to wake again from the heaviness of sleep into alert wakefulness and soul-renewing cheerfulness to stand before You raising my prayerful voice in harmony with the Heavenly choirs of praise with the fragrance of faith, to You in Heaven, All Blessed King, Whose glory is beyond telling. For You are glorified by all creation forever and ever.”

Last year, in an address to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church who was visiting Rome on May 8, Pope Francis said, “We praise God in the words of St. Gregory of Narek, ‘Accept the song of blessing from our lips and deign to grant to this Church the gifts and graces of Zion and of Bethlehem, so that we can be made worthy to participate in Salvation.’”

St. Gregory was keenly aware of his (and our) need to be made worthy by God’s mercy towards us sinners. Online you can access the Book of Prayer he wrote (http://www.stgregoryofnarek.am/book.php). It is quite good to use during this time of Lent, in which we meditate upon Psalm 51. 

At the beginning of the book, in his “tenets of prayer,” St. Gregory explains that these prayers are “powerful salves for incurable wounds, effective medicines for invisible pains, multi-symptom remedies for the pangs of turmoil, for the passions of all temperaments, occasions for tears, impulses to prayer, prepared in response to the requests of the hermit fathers and the multitude in the desert, called the book of lamentations written by the monk Gregory of Narek Monastery.”

In Prayer 6 he confesses, “No less than pharaoh have I hardened my heart. No less blameworthy than the frenzied Israelite mob, have I rebelled against my Creator. No less than the enemies of God have I taken the battlefield, and I did not refrain from denying the Creator of all from nothing. I make waves like the turbulent sea during a storm, but I do not tremble, humbled by Your severe commandment, like the waves of the sea against the shore. My countless misdeeds are measured like mounds of sand.”

May this new doctor help us approach the Divine Physician for healing this Lent.

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