Preface to the “Next Step”
It is 25 years to the day that Fr. Vazken was born. Pretty much to the minute, too, 25 years ago I bent on my knees and received the apostolic transfer – through the laying on of hands – of the priesthood.
I would like to say that today is no different than any other day that I look at myself and ask the questions of worthiness, but it is an appropriate anniversary: One quarter of a century since I took off the old garment of Hovsep and became Father Vazken. If not different from other days, but it is an opportunity to put some thoughts in writing – to make them more than thoughts.
Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian, ordained me. It was on the 27th anniversary, to the date, that His Holiness, the venerable Catholicos Vazken I was consecrated as the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Nation. In recognition of that anniversary, the ordaining bishop renamed me Vazken.
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?
The church was the hope for the people. There was hope in the walls of the church, but I was watching that hope and seeing something false – people living for something that wasn’t there or couldn’t be there. Much like the early Zealots who saw Jesus as the liberator of the physical Jewish state, we too, were looking at the church as the liberator of the Armenian nation, but not willing to buy into it to the point of personal discomfort. Much like the Catholic Church which was targeted by one of her priests, Martin Luther, for selling favors in heaven, the Armenian church was and still is, peddling something which it doesn’t have a right to distribute and so, is lost in a struggle to define herself – to herself and to her children, the members of the nation.
Twenty five years ago, the Holy Chrism –the Miuron – dripped out of the beak of the golden dove. The archbishop chanted the hymn – “medzatzayn hunchmamp” – a loud proclamation was made. That Holy Miuron was smeared on my forehead in the sign of the cross as he gave me my new name. His voice cracked in a gesture that you would expect from a father giving his son the right to life.
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.
The Gospel passage on at my first Divine Liturgy – October 17, 1982 was from Luke 4. I had always taken that as my own personal mission statement. Only today did I notice –while listening to an old tape of my ordination – that this same passage was read during the Ordination Divine Liturgy as well.
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.”
This is my mission statement. I believe it to be the mission statement of the Armenian Church as well as the Church Universal. If we are the Body of Christ, then there is nothing more that needs to be said. We are committed to the same mission Christ proclaimed at the start of his earthly ministry.
Early in the game, I’m not really sure when the calling came to be a priest, but I do know that in High School – age 15 – I had written a paper for a guidance class where I outlined the process to become a priest. I wanted to a priest at the time, though it was as part of a multiple profession, after finishing med school. I even remember a guy named Mark who mocked me in class for my desire to follow this career path.
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.
The ordaining bishop, and I don’t think any other could do it as meaningfully or dramatically as Archbishop Vatché, when he seals the list of heretics with the words, “Anathematized and condemned are the group of heretics” who make up the “satellites of the Evil One.”
The drama needs to be there. It is the drawing card. Jesus was charismatic. He attracted not only by his works and person, but by his personality, his charisma. The human soul reacts to the suffering and the singing. In this sense, I feel my 25 years as a priest and the many years prior in the church have been blessed by an incredible cast of characters who laid the foundation for the faith. Unfortunately, gone are these superheroes of the church. These were the leaders that really took the church out of the ashes of the Genocide and brought us to the point where we’re at today.
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.
The path over the past 25 years has taken us through some strange areas that we would probably never have known if it weren’t for the priesthood. We’ve met people that have been great in the world and political landscape as well as people who made the world and the landscape great.
I remember when George Deukmejian ascended to the Governor’s office in California and Susan and I attended the inauguration. We offered the prayer for the governor at some event – I can’t remember what it was, but remembering that someone came up and thanked us for being the only Armenian priest attending governor’s inaugural events.
We watched Cupertino turn from apple orchard to an orchard of Apples and change the world through technology. I was the priest of the Silicon Valley. We brought together Armenians and non-Armenians in understanding and harmony. We carried the people the day after the Armenian earthquake and the uncertainty of our people’s future. We built a church in Silicon Valley and made it a model of Armenian Church life – where Armenians from every part of the world came and became one, under the umbrella of the Church as the Body of Christ. That church we built was later erected in stone, but the big church we built was the one of a group of people loving and respecting each other.
We moved to Pasadena to accept the challenge of a larger parish. How can we ever forget going into the church in Pasadena for the first time and finding only 35 elderly ladies present for the Liturgy. And we were told that this was a “good day” because the people were expecting to meet their new pastor. We took on the challenge. We got to see the workings of an Armenian School and our children went through the ranks. What an experience! And we expanded, built the school and laid the foundation for the new church. We also learned much about human nature and the extent to which unbridled egotism can go. We saw corruption up close and the dangers of a church which had lost sight of its mission as Christ’s Body.
We built up camps and youth movements. My heart was with the youth because deep down I am a kid. I couldn’t conform to adult life. And when our own kids came into the picture I was truly challenged to question, what is it that we’re giving them? How dare we presume that we’re giving them is any better than what they have? Jesus calls us to become like children and then, rather than pay attention to his words, we immediately want to clone our kids into replicas of us. Why? Have we really created a world that we should be so proud of? With wars, pollution and poverty, maybe its time to take a break and look at our children and say they deserve something better?
Secondly, the plight of the youth has always attracted me because they have always been excluded from any serious discussion of the church. It bothered me and still bothers me when I hear that phrase, “the children are the future of the church.” What does that mean? Its one of those church-clichés that rolls off of our tongue like the one about the “Ladies Society is the backbone of the church.”
Kids reacted and loved the church. The church saw growth on many levels. I always challenged myself to be the person Archbishop Vatché wanted me to be – a “restless” person. “A Christian is a restless person,” he said during his sermon on the day of my ordination. I took to heart his admonition from 25 years ago. Coupled with my belief and the songs that inspired me, I always felt it was better to “burn out than it is to rust” (Neil Young). So much of the church and the priesthood around me was and is rusting that I knew we needed to keep the wheels oiled so we can move forward. We have to be restless with our work and never be content with the status quo.
The last three to four years have been challenging. The new administration has tried to push me into a corner and contend that my priesthood is a local one. He’s tried to pigeon-hole me into the parish priest category, meanwhile, the plight of our youth is being handed over to social and political organizations. One of today’s Armenian papers, “Armenian Reporter” came out with an issue about the AGBU this week, filled with pictures and essays about the young people. It was four years ago that we started the Youth Ministry with a plan to reach out to and for the children: a plan that was only marred by the failings of human personality. It was a plan of educating children through the Sunday School system, having them work through the summer camp program and populating the parishes through service-outreach in their ACYOs. It was a plan that was ordained by my bishop but dismantled by the new administration. Guised under the banner of an “unnecessary program” in our diocese, “After all,” the new Primate expressed to the 2004 Diocesan Assembly, “Every church that I go to is filled with you.”
In a sense, we don’t want to cry over spilled milk, but on the other hand, this is more than a carton of liquid, it’s the writing on the wall that troubles me and the end is coming sooner than we thought.
This year we examined many dimensions of “forgiveness” and how many times have I thought about forgiving the church administration for what it has done, but its not mine to forgive. The destruction is to the entire Church. And that is what is unforgivable – the denying of the work of the Holy Spirit!
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.”
The Next Step begins on the premise that we, the Armenian Church, are not an island. We have needs and we have resources that can be shared with others. It is based on the principles of “In His Shoes” a concept that our kids taught us. To be Armenian and an Armenian Christian means that you have to rise from the mundane. There is more to being Armenian than language. There are parrots that speak Armenian, there are professors who have mastered the language, but that does not make them Armenian! Being Armenian is much more than some words put together.
Many times the non-Armenians are fascinated by our foods. We even get a good chuckle out of it when people attend our churches for the quality of food. A practice we have adopted from the Greeks. “The best shish-kebab is served at St. Michaels.” “You know, St. Gabriel uses real butter in their pilaf.”
Imagine where Christ’s ministry has come if these are the measuring sticks by which we’re defining the church. The Next Step demands that we stand true to the calling given to each of us – after all, we are all members of Christ’s body. It is the calling of the Church as defined in Luke 4 by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is to bring the good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and let the oppressed go free. It is my calling because 25 years ago the Spirit of the Lord visited me through the Holy anointing.
I choose to call this next step, “Armenian Orthodoxy.” In other words, what is at the heart of our faith? What if we can strip away SOME of the politics and SOME of the egos, can we maybe find the heart of the faith? Can we find the Next Step of where the Armenian Church can go? Where do we, as first, second, third and fourth generation Armenians define ourselves in relation to our Creator and one another? Where and how can we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
This is the Next Step.
Twenty five years came and went. I know today is just a day on the calendar. Hopefully with God’s help, it can be the day we take the next step toward Armenian Orthodoxy.
26 September 2007