St Nersess was an Armenian Catholicos (Patriarch) who lived in the 4th century and was the great grandson of St Gregory the Illuminator. His father, Athenogenes, and his uncle, Bab, who were next in line for the succession to the Throne of St Gregory, were laymen and had no desire to become priests. As professional soldiers, they showed no inclination to spirituality and their worldly behaviour convinced the Armenian bishops that neither of them were suitable for the position of chief bishop.
Therefore, the church turned its attention to Nersess, the son of Athenogenes, to assume the position. St Nersess had spent his youth in Caesarea where he married Sanducht, (presumably the daughter of King Diran) and they had a son, who later became the renowned Catholicos, St Sahag the Parthian, grandfather of St Vartan Mamigonian. St Nersess was a courtier and served as chamberlain of King Arshag II.
However, despite his secular background, St Nersess was a pious Christian. His connection with St Gregory the Illuminator impressed the royal magnates who held council with the king and they advised the king to persuade St Nersess to become the spiritual leader of Armenia. A humble man by nature, St Nersess refused their proposal, feeling unworthy of such an honour. The king dismissed his arguments and insisted that St Nersess immediately be ordained a deacon, then priest, and ultimately chief bishop or Catholicos. He was ordained by Archbishop Eusebius of Caesarea in 353 A.D.
St Nersess’ patriarchate marked a new era in Armenian history. Previously, the Church had been identified, primarily, with royal family and noblemen; St Nersess now brought the Church into a closer relationship with its people. St Nersess immediately undertook his duties of the chief bishop, renovating old churches, founding new ones and tending to the spiritual needs of his flock. In the early days of Christianity in Armenia however, many of the people were not strong in their Christian practices. To that end, St Nersess held a council of bishops in Ashdishad and introduced a number of reforms regarding divine worship, laws on marriage and fast days in order to make the beliefs of the church more uniform.
St Nerses also became known for his concern for moral purity and preserving the sanctity of marriage and family life. He built schools and hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the poor and the lepers, and he urged his people to maintain these institutions. Thus, St Nersess has been described by many as the founder of Christian charity in Armenia and recognised as the clergyman who established the Church’s role as the guardian of the Armenian people in its spiritual, social and educational aspects.
As a leader, St Nersess also participated in the political life of his country and was among King Arshag’s chief advisors during the period 353-359 AD. Upon Nersess’ initiative, a National Ecclesiastical Council was convened in Ashtishat in 354 AD.
However, King Arshag’s adherence to the religious policy (Arianism) of his ally, the Roman emperor, a policy which conflicted with St Nersess’ Christian Orthodox beliefs, eventually necessitated the removal of St Nersess. He was exiled for nine years. When he returned, King Bab, Arshag’s son, reigned. Due to the conflict in their beliefs, the friction between the King and St Nersess intensified during the next few years.
The religious differences, as well as St Nersess’ condemnation of King Bab’s moral depravity, are cited as reasons for St Nersess’ sudden, untimely death. At the king’s order, St Nersess was poisoned in 373 A.D. He was buried in Til, near the tomb of his great uncle St Aristakes (Arisdages). A cathedral built over the original grave site was destroyed in the 7th century. While the exact site is unknown, relics were discovered and distributed in the 13th century between the church in Erzindjan and the nearby village of Kee, where the Monastery of Dirashen stood. Another monastery near Til, Chukhdag Hayrabedats, also claimed to have discovered relics of St Nersess in the second half of the 7th century.
For his devout activity, Nersess the Great is also called the “Illuminator of Hearts”.
S Nersess is always commemorated with his associate Bishop Khad (Khat). Like Nersess, Khat, a native of the village of Marak near Karin (modern Erzurum) was a married man and had two daughters. He had been St Nersess’ pupil and deacon. Ultimately he rose to the rank of bishop and was placed in charge of two districts, Pakrevant and Arsharunik. Through the marriage of his daughters, he was associated with the noble Abahuni clan. During St Nersess’ tenure of office, he was designated as supervisor of the poor and the charitable institutions founded by his mentor. The latter, in his absence, entrusted him with the care of church affairs, officially naming him his vicar. Khat faithfully carried out his ministry.
Like Nereses, Khat was also an adamant supporter of orthodoxy against the royal court, which adhered to the heretical teachings of Arius. For this reason, he was in conflict with the king, who tried to bribe him, to no avail, since Khat distributed the gifts bestowed on him among the poor. King Arshag had him driven from the royal camp and ordered his men to stone the bishop. He was spared the ordeal of a painful death thanks to his Abahuni clansmen, related to him through marriage. One of his sons in law, Asurk, succeeded to his episcopal rank and office, presumably after his own wife’s demise.
Khat is not a martyr, but his sufferings at the hands of King Arshag make him a confessor.
By the Very Rev. Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, adapted from his volume, “The Holy Feasts of St. Gregory the Illuminator” (St. Vartan Press, 2002).