Archbishop Vatché introduced me to the congregation for the first time as Fr. Vazken and explained that a Christian is not “merely a follower of Christ. A Christian is a restless person… He will endure hardships, criticisms and danger because of his faith.” He went on to explain that the Catholicos Vazken was that type of man and that the name was fitting for me.
It is in this context that I was ordained. I never understood the priesthood as something easy. In fact, while most kids move toward adulthood there’s a period of rebellion and mine came in a different context. It was rebellion against the establishment. I left everything in knew in the United States to go to Armenia to study at the Seminary of Etchmiadzin. The year was 1977, during the cold-war era. I was in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, studying. Away from family and friends – a hardship brought upon myself by virtue of the profession I had selected.
It was kind of freaky, now that I think about it. It just didn’t make sense, by the standards that people have for the Armenian priest. Why would I get a degree from USC and not pursue some type of business/profession that had some obvious social and monetary rewards attached to it? Why would anyone leave the comforts of the US and go to a country which had so many question marks attached to it? Where mail didn’t get to us for a month and that, only after it had been searched and censured? Where phones didn’t connect within the city, and definitely not across trans-Atlantic lines? Where, in case of an emergency, a ride home might take days, if not weeks? And the guilt of leaving two grandmas that were reaching the end of their lives? Where there would be no movie theaters to go to, because there were no girlfriends to take? It just wasn’t the thing a 21 year old USC graduate would do.
And on top of it all, for what? To be a member of a brotherhood that was as mysterious as the language I didn’t speak? An ancient faith inside the shell of antiquity, looking for definition. A people in the aftermath of the Genocide, searching for meaning and turning to this ancient church, which had no apparent answer to her people’s prayers. Nevertheless the church was the last of the hold-outs. There was no where else to turn. I saw it and see it today as the salvation of our people as a people. It is within this nationalistic framework that I defined the church, but not as the end of all of our woes. In other words, if we were to find salvation for the Armenian nation, we needed to first and foremost find salvation for the people that made up the nation. A nation (the collective) can only be as good as its people (the parts), correct?
He gave me the chalice and the right to consecrate the Holy and Pure Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the living and the dead. He tied the belt around me and passed along the apostolic authority to tie or loose sins here so that they may be tied or loosed in heaven.
It has been 25 years since that date. Since the day I came on my knees and proclaimed my fidelity to the Armenian Church and her Orthodox teaching I was joined always in spirit and in body by my soul mate, Susan. My ministry quickly became ours.
Luke 4 (NRSV)
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Every anniversary of my ordination I listen to the tapes from my ordination. In particular I am fascinated by the sounds and prayers of the service on calling, on the night prior to the ordination. There I am “grilled” by the ordaining bishop with questions about my sincerity and willingness to take on the difficulties of the priesthood. “Do you promise,” he asks, “to take on the challenges of being a servant of Christ and not trade them for the comforts of this world?” He asks my sponsors, Fr. Arshag Khatchadourian and Fr. Levon Apelian –both monks of the church at the time (dzayrakoyn vartabed)- if I had the training and the upbringing to be a priest? I always wondered what secrets they knew that would allow them to answer in the affirmative, but they each would qualify their answers by saying, “to the best of my knowledge.”
I am brought to tears many times while listening to the tape, because of the language of that particular service. It is so simple and compelling. The archbishop goes through a list of 159 heretics who would otherwise be long-forgotten by us, if not for us! In other words, the only people who remember these heretics is us, ironically, as we recount their heresy and then pronounce them as anathema. I think to myself, how wonderful if others could understand this beautiful language. How often we find the excuse of language for not understanding our service, when in reality it is our unwillingness to listen with our hearts that is the problem.
In that group, I knew and watched so many priests and bishops who were all ‘larger than life.’ The priests who were my pastors (no particular order): Fr. Dirayr Dervishian*, Bishop Aris Shirvanian*, Fr. Sam Aghoyan*, Bishop Yeghishe Simonian, Abp. Torkom Manoogian, and Fr. Torkom Saraydarian, Abp. Yeghishe Derderian, Abp. Tiran Nersoyan, who invited me to New York to take on the task of the editing the St. Nersess Theological Journal, Abp. Shnork Kaloustian, Catholicos Vazken I, Abp. Asoghig Ghazarian, Fr. Isahag Ghazarian*, Fr. Shahe Semerdjian*, Fr. Shahe Altounian* and of course, Archbishop Vatché (*attended my ordination). There is a generation among these priests that is no longer there – no longer accessible. It is sad when you look around among the ranks of the clergy, the brains and intellect may be there, but the spirit is missing. There was a generation of powerhouses that we’re missing today.
And so… the Next Step…
There has to be a Next Step, otherwise we will rust. The next step is just as dangerous as the first step, but it was for this that I was ordained, it is the restlessness that burns inside of me that pushes me to the “Next Step.”