The origin of the Armenian Church dates back to the Apostolic age. According to the ancient tradition well supported by historical evidence, Christianity was preached in Armenia as early as the second half of the first century by the two disciples of Jesus Christ, namely, St. Thaddeus (John 14:22-24) and St. Bartholomew (John 1:43-51). During the first three centuries Christianity in Armenia was a hidden religion under heavy persecution.
It was at the beginning of the fourth century, 301 AD, that Christianity was officially accepted by the Armenians as the state religion. St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron Saint of the Armenian Church, and King Thiridates III, the ruler of the time, played a pivotal role in the official Christianization of Armenia. It is a well recognized historical fact that the Armenians were the first nation to formally adhere to Christianity. This conversion was followed in the fourth and fifth centuries by a process of institutionalization and Armenization of Christianity in Armenia.
St. Gregory the Illuminator became the organizer of the Armenian Church hierarchy. From that time, the heads of the Armenian Church have been called Catholicos and still hold the same title. St. Gregory chose as the site of the Catholicosate then the capital city of Vagharshapat, in Armenia. He built the pontifical residence next to the church called “Holy Mother of God” (which in recent times would take on the name of St. Etchmiadzin, meaning the place where the Only-Begotten Son has descended), according to the vision in which he saw the Only-Begotten Son of God coming down from heaven with a golden hammer in his hand to locate the site of the new cathedral to be built in 302.
The continuous upheavals, which characterized the political scenes of Armenia, made the political power move to safer places. The Church center moved as well to different locations together with the political authority.
Thus, in 485, the Catholicosate was transferred to the new capital Dvin. In the 10th century it moved from Dvin to Dzoravank and then to Aghtamar (927), to Arghina (947) and to Ani (992). After the fall of Ani and the Armenian Kingdom of Bagradits in 1045, masses of Armenians migrated to Cilicia. The Catholicosate, together with the people, settled there. It was first established in Thavblour (1062), then in Dzamendav (1072), in Dzovk (1116), in Hromkla (1149), and finally in Sis (1293), the capital of the Cilician Kingdom, where it remained for seven centuries. After the fall of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia, in 1375, the Church also assumed the role of national leadership, and the Catholicos was recognized as Ethnarch (Head of Nation). This national responsibility considerably broadened the scope of the Church’s mission.
The existence of two Catholicosates within the Armenian Church, namely the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin (the Catholicosate of All Armenians), Etchmiadzin-Armenia, and the Catholicosate of the Graet House of Cilicia, Antelias-Lebanon, is due to historical circumstances. In the 10th century, when Armenia was devastated by Seljuks, many Armenians left their homeland and came to settle in Cilicia where they re-organized their political, ecclesiastical and cultural life. The Catholicosate also took refuge in Cilicia.
In 1375 the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed. Cilicia became a battleground for hostile Seljuks, Mamluks and other invaders. In the meantime Armenia was having a relatively peaceful time. The deteriorating situation in Cilicia on one hand and the growing cultural and ecclesiastical awakening in Armenia on the other, led the bishops of Armenia to elect a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin. The latter was the original seat of the Catholicosate, but it had ceased to function as Catholicossal See after 485. Thus, in 1441, a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin in the person of Kirakos Virapetsi. At the same time Krikor Moussapegiants (1439-1446) was the Catholicos of Cilicia. Therefore, since 1441, there have been two Catholicosates in the Armenian Church with equal rights and privileges, and with their respective jurisdictions. The primacy of honor of the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin has always been recognized by the Catholicosate of Cilicia.
During World War I (1915-1918), one and a half million Armenians were massacred by the Turks. In 1921, when the French forces evacuated Cilicia, a second wave of massacres ordered by Kemalist Turkey took the lives of another three hundred thousand Armenians. The rest of the Armenians were forced to leave their homeland and found refuge mostly in Syria and Lebanon. The Catholicosate in Sis was robbed and ruined by the Turks. Catholicos Sahak II followed his flock in exile.
After wandering in Syria and Lebanon, in 1930, he established the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon. Thus, a new era opened in the history of the Catholicosate with the organization of Dioceses and the founding of a new theological seminary. The Armenian people spread all over the world looked at the Catholicosate with new hopes and expectations.
In order to fulfill the great task now entrusted to the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in the Armenian Diaspora, Catholicos Sahak II, already advanced in age, asked the help of Archbishop Papken Gulesserian, who was enthroned as Coadjutor-Catholicos in 1931. Soon a printing press was established in Antelias, a monthly review under the name of HASK (Ear of Corn) started to get published regularly, together with a number of religious, educational, historical and philological publications. The Coadjutor-Catholicos Papken I passed away in 1936, after five years of intensive and fruitful activities.
Archbishop Bedros Saradjian, Primate of the Armenians in Cyprus, was nominated Vicar-General to Catholicos Sahak II. By the donation of Simon and Mathilde Kayekjian, the property of the Catholicosate was purchased from the American Near East Relief organization, which 1922-1928 had run an Armenian orphanage in the same place where the Catholicosate was located in 1930. The Cathedral was built through the donation of an unknown benefactor, whose name, Sarkis Kenadjian, was announced only after his death. A Chapel in memory of the one and a half million Armenian martyrs, as well as a residence for the Catholicos and a new Seminary building were constructed one after the other. Catholicos Sahak died in 1939. He was succeeded by Catholicos Bedros I, who passed away the following year.
The election of the new Catholicos took place in 1943 and the Primate of the Armenian Church in North America, Archbishop Karekin Hovsepiantz, was elected Catholicos. During his pontificate (1945-1952), the Catholicosate flourished primarily in the area of cultural activities. Catholicos Karekin I, being a great scholar, encouraged the higher studies in the Seminary and gave impetus to Armenological publications and conferences. The scope of the work of the Catholicosate was considerably widened.
Four years elapsed between his death and the election of his successor, Catholicos Zareh I Payaslian (1956-1963), the first graduate of the Seminary of Antelias. Catholicos Zareh I was an experienced church leader, having served as Primate of Aleppo (Syria) for sixteen years. During his short reign, the service of the Catholicosate was extended to various communities in the Diaspora who had been in desperate need of spiritual care for many years and the Seminary was given particular attention. His personal insights and saintly life had a determining influence on all and especially the seminarians who entered the service of the Church. The relations of the Catholicosate with other churches and states of the Middle East were strengthened. In 1962, the Catholicosate became a full member of the World Council of Churches and sent observers to the Vatican Council II. His close associate, Archbishop Khoren I Paroyan, the Primate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon, succeeded him in 1963.
Under the pontificate of Khoren I, the Catholicosate went through an era of achievements in various domains. Through his strenuous efforts the Catholicosate reached financial stability; the terrain of the Catholicosate was expanded and new constructions came to meet the growing needs of the Catholicosate. In 1977, Catholicos Khoren wished to have an assistant.
Archbishop Karekin II Sarkissian, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the USA, was elected Coadjutor-Catholicos. Although 18 years of his pontificate were difficult years in Lebanon because of the civil war, Catholicos Karekin II succeeded to elevate the Catholicosate of Cilicia to a new level of witness and service. He improved the printing house, restarted the publication of the annual “HASK Armenological”, established the Christian Education Department, organized seminars on contemporary issues, and enlarged the scope of the ecumenical involvement of the Catholicosate. In April 1995 Catholicos Karekin II was elected Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.
In 1995, Archbishop Aram Keshishian, the Primate of the Armenian His Holiness Aram I Church in Lebanon, was elected Catholicos by an Electoral Assembly composed of 185 clergy and lay delegates.