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An Armenian As Pope? - A British Diplomatic Report on Cardinal Agagianian, 1958

Introduction and Annotations by ARA SANJIAN -This article was first published in Window Quarterly (Window view of the Armenian Church), Vol. V, No. 3 & 4, 1995; pp 11-13.

The Armenian Catholic Church marked in 1995 the 100th anniversary of the birth of arguably its most famous cleric, Cardinal Grigor Petros XV Agagianian (Aghajanian), only the second Armenian Catholic churchman ever to be elevated to the exalted office of Cardinal. (This honorary office is of human origin and has no particular theological significancee. It is conferred by the Pope alone. Cardinals assist the latter in the government of the universal Roman Catholic Church. The first Armenian Cardinal had been Catholicos Anton Petros IX Hassounian in 1880.) However, There are persistent rumours—which, because of Catholic traditions of absolute secrecy on matters relating to papal elections, cannot be confirmed officially—that Agagianian is unique in Armenian history for having had his name twice, in 1958 and in 1963, discussed seriously as a possible candidate in the papal elections. During the séance academique culminating the above-mentioned 100th anniversary celebrations, held in Kaslik (Lebanon) on 25 February 1996, speaker after speaker expressed open regret for him not having been given the opportunity to show his talents in that highest of offices in the Catholic Church. Direct mention was made by one speaker, Father Jean Tabet, the Superior-General of the Maronite Lebanese Order, to an article by the Italian journalist, Andrea Tornielli, published in the 12 December 1993 issue of the Italian Catholic magazine, 30 Giorni, in which the author had claimed that Agagianian had received a large share of votes in the 1958 conclave and that Italian military intelligence had mounted a slur campaign against him prior to the 1963 conclave by circulating a report that his 70-year old sister, Elizabeta Papikova, had ties to the KGB, the Soviet security service, and had made contact with the Soviet embassy during her visit to Rome in 1962 to meet her brother.

The future Cardinal Agagianian was indeed born in Akhaltsikhe (now inside the Transcaucasian Republic of Georgia) on September 18, 1895, when the town was still part of the Russian czarist empire. His Armenian Catholic ancestors were natives of Erzerum who, fleeing Ottoman persecution, had sought refuge in the Transcaucasus in 1829. Agagianian lost his father at an early age, but the Apostolic Administrator of Armenian Catholics in the Caucasus, Mgr Sargis Ter Abrahamian, fascinated by the young orphan’s unusual intelligence, took him under his patronage and, in compliance with her mother’s wish that one of her children become a clergyman, he appealed to Rome and succeeded in securing a place for the lad in the seminary of Propagation of Faith.

The young Agagianian set out for Rome in October 1906 and studied there for exactly twelve years. He was graduated at the age of 22 having majored in theology, canonical law and philosophy. His ability was so unquestioned that he was ordained a priest while he was still a student.

In 1919 he returned to the Caucasus as Curate of the Armenian Catholic St. Illuminator Church of Tiflis (modern Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). He was scarcely installed in his office when, because of his unusual administrative talent, he was appointed Pastor of Tiflis Catholics.

At the age of twenty-six, Agagianian accepted an invitation to assume the chair of Cosmology and the Seven Holy Sacraments at Urban College, his alma mater, as well as the directorship of the Armenian Catholic Levonian Theological Seminary in Rome. Soon, the establishment in 1921 of a Soviet regime in Georgia would make his return to his native land impossible. For fully sixteen years, Agagianian lectured in philosophy and theology. It was during this period that he also published three works: The Life of Father Komitas Keomourjian (in Italian); The Seven Holy Sacraments and The Holy Eucharist (both in Latin). The latter two were later used as textbooks for students. During the last years of his professorship, Agagianian also served as advisory member of the Congregation for Eastern Rites and the Committee for Codification of the Canon Law of Eastern Churches.

Agagianian was ordained bishop in 1935 and sent to Lebanon as Apostolic Vicar to the Armenian Catholic Convent of Bzommar. He was elected Patriarch of the Catholic Armenians and Catholicos of Cilicia in 1937, at the age of 42, and was elevated to the exalted rank of Cardinal by Pope Pius XII in 1946. He was recalled to Rome in 1960 and served during the next decade as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of Faith. He, therefore, had to resign as Catholicos-Patriarch of Armenian Catholics in 1962. Agagianian passed away in Rome on May 16, 1971.

This British diplomatic document, dated January 26, 1958, which—as far as this publisher is aware of—is being published for the first time, indicates that, with the ageing Pope Pius XIII increasingly suffering from poor health, the possibility of Agagianian being one day elected as Pope was also taken seriously by Sir Marcus Cheke, who served as British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at the Holy See from 30 May 1957 till his death in 1960. In this diplomatic report addressed to Edward Michael Rose, the Head of the Levant Department at the British Foreign Office in 1955-1958, Cheke describes a meeting he had with the Cardinal. Agagianian seemingly failed to impress the British Envoy fully, however, for although Cheke reported that Agagianian “certainly possesses some qualifications for such an elevation,” he also underlined that he could not say that “he discerned in him the aura of a future Pontiff”. Moreover, it is interesting that Mrs Barbara Miller of the British Foreign Office Northern Department, commenting on the said report, thought that whatever the Cardinal’s personal qualities might be, it was unlikely that he would be acceptable as Pontiff to the whole of the Sacred College of Cardinals, the senate of the Roman Catholic Church, enjoying the privilege to elect a new pope whenever the papal office becomes vacant. The Uniate movement,—which includes the Armenian Catholic Church,—believed Miller, was not by any means popular in the Roman Catholic circles.

This document is also useful in shedding light on some of the Cardinal’s views as regards international affairs during the tense Cold War years. It is preserved at the Public Recird Office in Kew, South-West London, in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office General Correspondence (FO371) file no. 133892 under the document reference number V1782/4.


                                                                                    British Legation to the Holy See,

Confidential                                                                                     Rome,

1015/1/58.                                                                               January 26, 1958.


Dear Michael,

      I paid a call yesterday on the Cardinal Agaganian, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenians, who customarily resides in Beirut. He is the head of the Armenian Uniat Church, and he is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to the present Pope by people who fancy that he may be destined to bring about a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the U.S.S.R. He was actually born on Russian soil. Others recall a prophecy made by Pius the Tenth, who seeing Agaganian when he was a student at the College of Propaganda Fide, put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and murmured that he was destined for high dignity, “perhaps the highest”.[1] I cannot say that I discerned in him the aura of a future Pontiff, but he certainly possesses some qualifications for such an elevation; he is clear-headed, his mind seems in perfect repose, and he speaks faultless English.

2.   I had hoped that the Cardinal would give me concrete information about the situation in the Middle East where he is a front-seat observer, but though he kept me for half an hour I have only the following to pass on you:—

3.   The Cardinal said he received no news whatever of the members of his Church,[2] who number 70,000, behind the Russian frontiers.

4.   As regards the world situation, he described himself as an optimist: as long as the West remained firmly united better times would come.

5.   He said he thought the Syrian Government would like to renew diplomatic relations with Great Britain but national pride prevented them taking the first step.[3]

6.   The Cardinal remarked that one of the most unfortunate things in the history of our times was that Russia’s anti-colonial propaganda should coincide with anti-colonial sentiment in America. He considered that the solution to the problems created by nationalist feeling among colonial peoples was to give them their independence, but not too fast. He spoke of Indonesia being a “mess”.[4] He then paid tribute to the stability and peace which the British Empire gave large areas of the world. As regards Russian intrigue in Middle Eastern countries he said it had two distinct facets: the one was the endeavour to seduce the sympathies of governments, and the other was to organize a party of violence among the mob. In this matter the Russians have copied the pre-war policy of the Nazis towards Danzig or Austria.

7.   On the whole, I got the impression that the Cardinal, like certain members of the Vatican Secretariat of State, believes that the best thing for the Western powers to do is to hang on, avoid war (and the more strongly armed and united they are, the less danger there is of Russia venturing on a war) and to wait for a transformation inside Russia, which he thinks will happen sooner or later.

8.   I lately read Mademoiselle Sagan’s[5] latest novel in which I found the phrase: “Elle savait déja qu’il ne sagissait pas de trouver une réponse, mais d’attendre que la question ne se posât plus”.[6] In their policy of hanging on and waiting for a problem to evaporate with time, it occurred to me that these words might serve as a motto for many Roman ecclesiastics I have spoken with. They remember the stupendous blows which the Papacy suffered at the hands of the armies of the French Revolution, and later the hostility of the risorgimento which was really a sequel to the same Revolution;[7] they see the Papacy enjoying today much of its ancient prestige, and they deduce that the Communist menace may one day blow over likewise.

                                                                              Yours ever

                                                                                          Marcus Cheke


M. Rose Esquire, C.M.G.,

            Levant Department, Foreign Office

                        London S.W.1.



An interesting account. On paragraph 8 another encouraging quotation is “Qui mange du Pape en meurt”.[8]

As to the Cardinal himself, whatever his personal qualities may be it does not seem likely that he would be acceptable as Pontiff to the whole of the Sacred College. The Uniate movement is not by any means popular in the Roman Catholic circles.

                                                                              B. Miller



[1] Propaganda Fide or the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of Faith (officially renamed, in August 1967, the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Missions or for the Propagation of Faith) was instituted by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. At first its jurisdiction was all-inclusive in the missionary field, but this was modified by Pius X (reigned 1903-1914) in 1908, and currently this Congregation designates and supervises Catholic missionary territory throughout the world, appoints directors to missionary regions, supervises certain missionary orders of religious character, and has limited judicial functions. In addition, it has exclusive jurisdiction over all the mission seminaries in the world. The Urban College of Rome, which trains foreign missionaries, was founded in 1627. The “prophecy” referred to by Cheke was reportedly made in 1908, when Pope Pius X was visiting young Catholic Armenian students studying for priesthood in the Levonian seminary in Rome during celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the foundation of that institution. According to another version of this “prophecy,” retold by Father Antranik Granian, the young Agagianian joyously laughed when the Pope asked jokingly: “Let us see who among you will become a bishop?” Seeing the young lad’s laughter, the Pontiff reportedly continued: “Do you smile? Do you like to become a bishop? I wish you become not only a bishop, but a Patriarch as well!” There is no mention of any prophecy regarding papacy in this version; see the trilingual (Armenian, Arabic and French) booklet, Grigor Petros XV Agagianian: Catholicos-Patriarch of Catholic Armenians and Cardinal of the Universal Church (1895-1971), published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Cardinal’s birth.

[2] i.e. the Armenian Catholic Church.

[3] Syria and Egypt had broken off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom in early November 1956 as a protest against the tripartite British-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt. Relations had not been restored when, just a few days after this report was filed, Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). Britain and the UAR restored diplomatic relations only on December 1, 1959.

[4] Indonesia’s independence had been recognised by the Netherlands, her former colonial master, in 1949. By the second half of the 1950s, however, the country was suffering from political in-fighting among different factions in its elite, leading in late 1956 and early 1957 to several abortive military coups and seizures of power in various provinces by military commanders opposed to the policies of the central government.

[5] Françoise Sagan is the pen name of the French author, Françoise Quoirez (b. 1935).

[6]i.e. “she already knew that she would be unable to find an answer, but was waiting so that the question would no longer be asked”.

[7] The Risorgimento (an Italian word meaning “rebirth” or “renewal”) is the name of the movement from 1815 to 1861 that marked the last phase in the evolution of Italy toward a modern and unified nation-state based on the principles of constitutionalism, secularisation, and economic development. TheRisorgimento was heavily influenced, inter alia, from the ideas of the 18th century European Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution of 1789.

[8] i.e. “he, who eats the Pope, dies|.



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