Mekhitarists

The Mekhitarists (Armenian: Մխիթարեաններ, Mkhit'areanner, also spelled Mechitarists) are a monastic order of the Armenian Catholic Church founded in 1717 by Abbot Mekhitar of Sebaste. They are best known for their series of scholarly publications of ancient Armenian versions of otherwise lost ancient Greek texts and their research on classical and modern Armenian language. They follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.

The congregation was long divided into two branches, with the respective motherhouses being in Venice and Vienna. In July 2000 they united to form one institute.[1]

The island of San Lazzaro, with the monastery and the church of Mekhitarists.

Their eponymous founder, Mekhitar of Sebaste, was born at Sebastia in Armenia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1676. He entered a monastery,[2] but was concerned about the level of culture and education in Armenia under Turkish rule at that period, and sought to do something about it. Contacts with Western missionaries led him to become interested in translating material from the West into Armenian and setting up a religious order to facilitate education.

Mekhitar set out for Rome in 1695 to make his ecclesiastical studies there, but he was compelled by illness to abandon the journey and return to Armenia. In 1696 he was ordained a priest and for four years worked among his people.[2]

In 1700 Mekhitar went to Istanbul and began to gather disciples around him. Mechitar formally joined the Latin Church, and in 1701, with sixteen companions, he formed a religious order of which he became the superior. They encountered the opposition of other Armenians and were compelled to move to the Morea (Peloponnese), at that time Venetian territory, where they built a monastery in 1706.[2] At its inception the order was seen as an attempted reform of Eastern monachism. Jesuit priest Filippo Bonanni wrote of the arrival of two Armenian monks, Elias Martyr and Joannes Simon, sent by Mechitar to Pope Clement XI to offer the most humble subjection of himself and convent (Ut ei se cum suis religiosis humillime subjiceret). At that time, there was no mention of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Pope Clement XI gave his approval to the order in 1712. The monks began a foundation in Modon with Mechitar as abbot.[3]

On the outbreak of hostilities between the Turks and Venetians they migrated to Venice, and the island of San Lazzaro was given to them in 1717. This has remained the headquarters of the congregation to this date; Mechitar died there in 1749, leaving his order firmly established.[2]

The order became very wealthy from gifts. The behaviour of the Abbot Melkhonian caused a group of monks to leave in disgust and elect their own abbot, first at Trieste and then in 1810 at Vienna. They also established a printing press. The work of printing of Armenian books was by this time of great financial importance and the Venetian Republic made considerable efforts to encourage their return, but in vain.[4]

In 1810 all the other monastic institutions in Venice were abolished by Napoleon, but the Mekhitarists were exempted by name from the decree.

Lord Byron visited the monastery on 13 November 1816, a Wednesday. His companion John Cam Hobhouse left this account of the visit:

Byron and I then went in [a] gondola to [the] establishment of St Lazare. It was some time before we were let in – the brothers were at prayer, but when we walked into their church one of them bowed out and most courteously showed us about. Unfortunately the key to the library was not to be found – the keeper of it was out. We saw the neat galleries and little chambers of the fathers, with Armenian letters over them. Our conductor showed us a man’s dictionary of Armenian and Latin – told us there were about forty frati and eighteen pupils, some few from Armenia, but mostly Constantinople. One has been in London and talks English. The youths learn Latin, all of them, and some Greek – also German and French some – and all Italian – English will now be taught.

Those who please of the pupils enter the order (they have revenues on the mainland). Zanetto said Napoleon despoiled them, but our conductor contradicted this, and said that he gave a decree from Paris saving this brotherhood from the fate of the other monasteries on account of their patriotic labours for their countrymen. We saw their press, where eight men are employed, when we saw them on an Armenian Testament. They are now on a translation of Rollin. Their average is four books a year. They are all for the use of the Armenian nation, and all printed, as our guide said, in the literal (literary/classical) Armenian. They are shipped for Constantinople, and there sold.

The dining-hall set out there looked like a Cambridge dining-hall – and the establishment is about 100 years old founded by one [Mechitar], whose picture is in the refectory. It did our hearts good to see the place. We are to return and see the library. They are all Catholics.[5]

While the Mekhitarists live under the Rule of Saint Benedict, they are considered their own religious order separate from the Benedictines, similar to the Cistercians, hence they are not considered a congregation within the Order of Saint Benedict.[3]

The main abbeys are San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice and the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna. 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 were established in Austria-Hungary, Russia, Persia and Turkey — fourteen in all, according to early 20th century statistics, with one hundred and fifty-two monks, the majority of whom are priests. While not large for an order hundreds of years old, its extension was necessarily restricted because of its exclusive devotion to persons and things Armenian.[3]

In 1911 they had fifteen establishments in various places in Asia Minor and Europe with some 150 monks, all Armenians; they used the Armenian language and rite in the liturgy.[2]

After a novitiate of two years, monks take the usual religious vows, along with a fourth vow — "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 an engraving, the Mekhitarists would be undistinguishable from a friar of the Order of St. Augustine, except for his beard.[3]

The Mekhitarists at first followed the rule attributed to Saint Anthony, but when they settled in the West modifications from the Rule of Saint Benedict were introduced. The use of the Rule of Saint Benedict represented the introduction of Western monasticism into the East, where up to this time a monk had no duty or vocation but to fill his place in the monastery and save his soul in the cloister, having broken off all relations with the outside world and had no idea of performing any works other than his choir duties, prayers, fastings, and the monastic observance. Under the Rule of Saint Benedict, a monk would be expected to devote himself to some useful work and take some thought of his neighbour. This adoption of the rule was desired by Mechitar and his monks, having a 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 with the Catholic Church. At the same time, it also offered security against lapsing into the apathy and inactivity associated in the Eastern mind with the life of the cloister.[3]

Missionaries, writers and educationists, devoted to the service of their Armenian brethren wherever they might be found, such 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 centres 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.[3]

Mechitar is credited for the initiating 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.[3] This provided modern Armenian with a literary connection to its ancient past and literature.

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.[3]

Artist, Ariel Agemian, illustrated the "Imitation" and contributed several major portraits of Mekhitarist Monks and religious scenes. He is also known for documenting the Turkish Massacre from his own recollections.[citation needed]

At one period, in connexion with their Vienna house, there existed an association for the propagation of good books, which is said to have distributed nearly 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.[3]

At San 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 Mekhitarists 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.[3]

Principally by means of the Mekhitarists' innumerable periodicals, pious manuals, Bibles, maps, engravings, dictionaries, histories, geographies and other contributions to educational and popular literature they have served Catholism among the Armenian nation.[3]

The following are the most valuable of their contributions to the common cause of learning. Firstly 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 edition of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. The publication of these works is due to the famous Mekhitarists Dom Pascal Aucher, who was assisted in the last of them by Cardinal Mai. Pascal Aucher (Harut'iwn Awgerian: 1774-1855) also became Lord Byron’s tutor in Armenian, and his "spiritual pastor and master". He translated Paradise Lost into Armenian (1824). To Aucher also we are indebted for a German translation of the "Armenian Missal" (Tübingen, 1845) and "Dom Johannis philosophi Ozniensis Armeniorum Catholici (AD 718) Opera" (Venice, 1534).[3]

Two original historical works may also be noted: "The History of Armenia", by P. Michel Tschamtschenanz (1784–1786) and the "Quadro della storia letteraria di Armenia" by Mgr. Pl. Sukias Somal (Venice, 1829).[3]

Amongst their countrymen the influence of the monks has been not only directive in the way of holiness and true service to God and the 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 saviours 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.[3]