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Armenian Benedictines, founded by Mechitar in 1712

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Mechitarists , Armenian Benedictines, founded by Mechitar in 1712. In its inception the order was looked upon merely as an attempted reform of Eastern monachism. P. Filippo Bonanni, S.J., writes at Rome, in 1712 when the order received its approval, of the arrival of P. Elias Martyr and P. Joannes Simon, two Armenian monks sent by Mechitar to Pope Clement XI to offer His Holiness the most humble subjection of himself and convent (ut ei se cum suis religiosis humillime subjiceret). There is no mention, at the moment, of the Benedictine rule. The monks, such as St. Anthony instituted in Egypt (quos St. Antonius in Aegypto instituerat), have begun a foundation in Modon with Mechitar (Mochtar) as abbot.

After two years’ noviceship, they take the usual vows, with a fourth in addition—”to give obedience to the preceptor or master deputed by their superior to teach them the dogmas of the Catholic Faith“. Many of them vow themselves also to missionary work in Armenia, Persia, and Turkey, where they live on alms and wear as a badge, beneath the tunic, a cross of red cloth, on which are certain letters signifying their desire to shed their blood for the Catholic Faith. They promise on oath to work together in harmony so that they may the better win the schismatics back to God. They elect an abbot for life, who has the power to dismiss summarily any of his monks who should prove disorderly. They wear the beard, Oriental fashion, and have a black habit—tunic, cloak and hood. In the engraving attached to the description, the Mechitarist would be undistinguishable from a regular hermit of St. Augustine, except for his beard. When, however, Pope Clement XI gave them his approval, it was as monks under the rule of St. Benedict, and he appointed Mechitar the first abbot. This was a great innovation; nothing less than the introduction of Western monasticism into the East. There, up to this time, a monk undertook no duties but to fill his place in the monastery. He admitted no vocation but to save his soul in the cloister. He had, in theory, at least, broken off all relations with the outside world. He had no idea of making himself useful to mankind, or of any good works whatsoever save his choir duties, his prayers, his fastings, and the monastic observance. He belonged to no religious order but was simply a monk. Now, as a Benedictine, he would be expected to devote himself to some useful work and take some thought of his neighbor. It is clear, from P. Bonanni’s description, that Mechitar and his monks wished this change and had already adopted the Western idea of the monk’s vocation. The adoption of the Benedictine rule, theref ore, was merely a recognition of their desire to devote themselves to apostolic work among their schismatic brethren, to instruct their ignorance, excite their devotion and bring them back into the communion of the one true Catholic and Apostolic Church. And it was also a security that they would not afterwards lapse into the apathy and inactivity associated in the Eastern mind with the life of the cloister. It is not quite accurate to speak of them as a Benedictine “Congregation”, though it is their customary description. They are a new “Order” of monks living under the rule of St. Benedict, as distinct from the parent order as the Cistercians, Camaldolese, Silvestrines, or Olivetans. Hence we do not find them classed among the numerous congregations of the Benedictine order.

Missionaries, writers, and educationists, devoted to the service of their Armenian brethren wherever they might be found, such were and are these Benedictines of the Eastern Church. Their subjects usually enter the convent at an early age, eight or nine years old, receive in it their elementary schooling, spend about nine years in philosophical and theological study, at the canonical age of twenty-five, if sufficiently prepared, are ordained priests by their bishop-abbot, and are then employed by him in the various enterprises of the order. First, there is the work of the mission—not the conversion of the heathen, but priestly ministry to the Armenian communities settled in most of the commercial centers of Europe. With this is joined, where needed and possible, the apostolate of union with Rome. Next there is the education of the Armenian youth and, associated with this, the preparation and publication of good and useful Armenian literature.

The parent abbey is that of St. Lazzaro at Venice; next in importance is that at Vienna, founded in 1810; there is a large convent and college for lay-students at Padua, the legacy of a pious Armenian who died at Madras; in the year 1846 another rich benefactor, Samuel Morin, founded a similar establishment at Paris. Other houses are in Austria-Hungary, Russia, Persia and Turkey—fourteen in all, according to the latest statistics, with one hundred and fifty-two monks, the majority of whom are priests. Not a great development for an order two hundred years old; but its extension is necessarily restricted because of its exclusive devotion to persons and things Armenian. Amongst their countrymen the influence of the monks has been not only directive in the way of holiness and true service to God and His Church, but creative of a wholesome national ambition and self-respect. Apostles of culture and progress, they may be said, with strict justice, to have preserved from degradation and neglect the language and literature of their country, and in so doing, have been the saviors of the Armenian race. Individually, the monks are distinguished by their linguistic accomplishments, and the Vienna establishment has attracted attention by the institution of a Literary Academy, which confers honorary membership without regard to race or religion.

In every one of their many undertakings their founder, Mechitar, personally showed them the way. To him they owe the initiative in the study of the Armenian writings of the fourth and fifth centuries, which has resulted in the development and adoption of a literary language, nearly as distinct from the vulgar tongue as Latin is from Italian. Thus the modern Armenian remains in touch with a distinguished and inspiring past, and has at his service a rich and important literature which otherwise would have been left, unknown or unheeded, to decay. Mechitar, with his Armenian “Imitation” and “Bible“, began that series of translations of great books, continued unceasingly during two centuries, and ranging from the early Fathers of the Church and the works of St. Thomas of Aquin (one of their first labors) to Homer and Virgil and the best known poets and historians of later days.

At one period, in connection with their Vienna house, there existed an association for the propagation of good books, which is said to have distributed nearly half a million volumes, and printed and published six new works each year. To him also they owe the guidance of their first steps in exegesis—the branch of learning in which they have won most distinction—and the kindred studies of the Liturgy and the religious history of their country. At S. Lazzaro he founded the printing press from which the most notable of their productions have been issued, and commenced there the collection of Armenian manuscripts for which their library has become famous. To any but members of the order the history of the Mechitarists has been uneventful, because of the quiet, untiring plodding along ancient, traditional paths, and the admirable fidelity to the spirit and ideals of their founder (see Mechitar).

It has been principally by means of the Mechitarists’ innumerable periodicals, pious manuals, Bibles, maps, engravings, dictionaries, histories, geographies and other contributions to educational and popular literature, that they have done good service to the Armenian Church and nation. Following are the most valuable of their contributions to the common cause of learning. First, there is the recovery, in ancient Armenian translations, of some lost works of the Fathers of the Church. Among them may be noted “Letters (thirteen) of St. Ignatius of Antioch” and a fuller and more authentic “History of the Martyrdom of St. Ignatius”; some works of St. Ephrem the Syrian, notably a sort of “Harmony of the Gospels” and a “Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul”; an exceptionally valuable edition of “Eusebius’s History”. The publication of these works is due to the famous Mechitarist Dom J. B. Aucher, who was assisted in the last of them by Cardinal Mai. To Aucher also we are indebted for a German translation of the “Armenian Missal” (Tubingen, 1845) and “Dom Johannis philosophi Ozniensis Armeniorum Catholici (A.D., 718) Opera” (Venice, 1534). Two original historical works may also be noted: “The History of Armenia“, by P. Michel Tschamtschenanz (1784-6) and the “Quadro della storia letteraria di Armenia” by Msgr. Pl. Sukias Somal (Venice, 1829).


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