The title Doctor of the Church is one of the most exclusive that the Church can bestow. It is granted to a saint because of his or her renowned holiness and also the significant contributions they made to the teachings of the Faith.
There have been only 36 Doctors of the Church, including such giants as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and Teresa of Ávila. But there are also more obscure but important doctors, such as Ephrem the Syrian.
A few months ago, Pope Francis named the latest doctor, and his choice was a 10th-century Armenian saint, priest, mystic, composer, astronomer, theologian and poet, honored as the first poet of Armenia and revered by Armenians as a “watchful angel in human form.” As usual with Pope Francis, his decision to accept the recommendation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that Gregory of Narek be named a doctor was a surprise, but it was also very much in keeping with his vision for the Church. Gregory’s teachings have been cherished by Armenians and countless others over the last millennium, and the pontiff is encouraging Catholics to learn from this jewel of Eastern Christianity. It was also a gesture to Eastern Christians who are suffering so greatly in the face of Islamic extremism.
In this issue, we celebrate the newest Doctor of the Church, with an article by Michael LaCivita (see Pages 6-8). Michael puts the life, and especially the Armenian background, of Gregory into helpful perspective.
Pope Francis truly reached out to the periphery, to all of the corners of the world, and presented us with a voice from 1,000 years ago. And what is Gregory of Narek telling us?
The words of Gregory are consonant with Pope Francis’ call to all Catholics to reach out to God in our brokenness with humble and contrite hearts. It is a plea for God’s mercy at a time when we prepare for the upcoming Year of Mercy. As Gregory wrote, “Hear the prayers of my embattled heart for mercy, when I cry out to you, ‘Lord,’ in my time of need.”
Gregory penned those words in his “Book of Lamentations,” a collection of 95 prayers in 366 chapters intended to express the sighs of a “broken and contrite heart” in a way that might be pleasing to God. It was the source of consolation and guidance for generations in times of immense suffering, especially in the aftermath of the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. Such was the love of the Armenians for Gregory that they traditionally slept with a copy of the “Lamentations” under their pillows.
I hope you enjoy getting to know him.
Matthew Bunson, Ph.D., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.