Without hope, there is darkness. With hope, there is endless light. This is the power of our faith according to the traditions of the Armenian church. I love our church because it was through the church that I built my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t always that way. At one point in my life, going to church felt like an endless obligation. It changed when I opened my heart and let the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ into my life. I found this in the Armenian church and am forever grateful for this foundation.
Many experienced the love of our church again this past weekend. The occasion was a joyous one as we attended the ordination of a young man to the priesthood. The candidate was Deacon Michael Sabounjian of the Holy Translators parish who completed his studies at St. Nersess and pastoral internships. I have known Michael since he was a young boy and have marveled at his spiritual and intellectual growth over the years. On Saturday, he was ordained and anointed to the priesthood by the diocesan Bishop Daniel Findikyan. Deacon Michael has been given the priestly name Haroutiun (Resurrection) and is assigned to the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in New Britain, Connecticut. Der Haroutiun will begin his 40-day seclusion of prayer this week. His priestly ministry begins in July.
The two-day event (Service of the Calling and Ordination/Anointing) was full of joy, inspiration and hope. On Friday evening, the Service of the Calling was held as the candidate was presented to the diocesan Bishop by his sponsor (his father Der Krikor Sabounjian). The worthiness to answer the “call” from God and his ability to meet the criteria of the Armenian church are reviewed through a series of prayers, readings and hymns. The following day’s service is for the actual ordination of the priest and the anointing with holy muron that is integrated with a soorp badarak.
I was honored and humbled to serve as the godfather (usually a lay person chosen by the candidate) which gave me a unique perspective of this remarkable mystery. An experience such as this gives us ample opportunity for prayer, meditation and thought. As I watched young Dn. Michael walk on his knees to the chancel and altar, I thought of this ancient sacrament of our church and the thousands that have preceded him in the last 17 centuries. My eyes welled with tears as I recalled the 5,000 priest saints murdered during the Genocide and how this ordination is contributing to a future that those with evil intent tried to prevent.
Der Haroutiun is a third-generation American-born Armenian who developed a love of God and embraced the Armenian church for its depth of Christian substance. I watched his proud mother and father who knew early on he had been granted gifts from the Lord and recognized their role to nurture them. Presiding over the deliberations was Bishop Daniel, who not only has the canonical responsibility for ordaining priests, but was Der Haroutiun’s teacher and mentor through the diocesan programs. There are no coincidences. God has a plan for all of us and for our church if we open our hearts to it. Bishop Daniel noted that this is the fifth priestly ordination he has presided over in his two years as primate. Some diocesan bishops may never have that opportunity. The presence of the seminary in Armonk, NY, which has been producing quality candidates, and the church’s immersion programs that help guide young searching minds, have altered the landscape of the Armenian church in America. This is a remarkable accomplishment with a continuous pipeline of those answering the call.
The service included the participation of several priests, many of whom are St. Nersess graduates supported by deacons who are current and future candidates. The sense of excitement in the sanctuary when combining the rituals of this ancient tradition with the present value of our clergy brought tears of joy to all in attendance. Seated in front of us was the now retired and highly respected clergyman Fr. Karekin Kasparian who joined his brothers. He was witnessing the replenishing of the ranks of an honorable vocation to which he has devoted a lifetime. The metaphor of the young and elder priests was another display of Christian love. In our faith, indeed there are no coincidences.
I also observed the continuous presence of clergy from the Prelacy. Despite the ongoing administrative separation, it warms my heart to see nearly every obstacle removed in local priestly relations. We are now at a point where priests from both jurisdictions have established public relationships of brotherly respect. Liturgical and sacramental activities are shared as our local parishes work together. In this northern Connecticut region, there are three Apostolic churches: one with the Prelacy in New Britain (St. Stephen’s) and two with the Diocese in New Britain (Holy Resurrection) and Hartford (St. George). In the last few years, a cooperative environment has emerged with many joint activities both liturgically and socially. Each church has recently received new priests with Der Voski in Hartford, Der Garabed in New Britain and of course, the newly ordained Der Haroutiun. The Christian love is evident and should make for an exciting future for this area in the coming years. All of this wonderful news was on full display through boundless joy as a priestly ordination was witnessed. Most of the walls built between the two dioceses have slowly been removed except for the jurisdictional boundaries that the local parishes cannot remove. It seems like the church in America has thankfully embraced the needs for Christian fellowship among the parish clergy and laity. This is manifested by not only ceremonial gatherings, such as on April 24, but through the emergence of close friendships among the clergy that have opened spiritual doors. The only areas that remain entrenched are with the Catholicoi who either because of ambivalence or control have not exercised their authority to unite our church in America. It is their responsibility and clear that the eastern US community is ready. We are impatiently awaiting your leadership.
The Armenian church worldwide and particularly in America has been heavily criticized for not adapting to the needs of a diverse diaspora. It is a debate that continues with urgency, but there is some good news that should be equally visible. My hope is that those who offer criticism of the church are motivated by their love of the institution and a sincere desire to see it strengthened. Both the Diocese and the Prelacy have made a concerted effort to increase the quality and quantity of parish priests to serve the community. The Prelacy priests primarily come from the renowned seminary at the Holy See in Antelias. They have always produced highly educated clergy and have been focused on the readiness of these priests to serve in America. Several American-born priests also serve the Prelacy. Diocesan priests either come primarily from the seminary in New York or from Armenia. There are several superb priests from Armenia in the Diocese that have adapted well to the American Armenian community. The work at St. Nersess is particularly exciting. The diocesan bishop is a scholar and teacher who has mentored many of the candidates. The seminary is led by the dynamic and infinitely organized Der Mardiros Chevian, who is also the “stage director” for the ordinations. If you are concerned about the future of the church, you should be excited about the progress in this domain. The church in America has operated several “immersion” programs that bring the youth together to grow their faith and build a Christian Armenian identity. These programs attract hundreds, and generally the seminarians started in those activities. They are immensely successful, and investing in them must increase.
As I stood in the sanctuary at the Holy Resurrection parish in New Britain, the chancel and altar were filled with clergy who are St. Nersess alumni, recently ordained priests and future candidates serving as deacons. It was a remarkably inspiring sight and reflects an area where the church has made substantial strides. The service was long and for some physically trying, but the feeling of spiritual fulfillment eliminated any fatigue. An ordination brings only supreme bliss. The experience at this ordination for the community and all those attending was the essence of what we seek from our church. Too often, we have a feeling of obligation when we go to church. You often hear, “I don’t get anything out of it.” Perhaps that’s the problem. We should go to church because we want to praise and thank our Lord by participating in the Eucharist. By giving, we receive. When we open our hearts, we learn how to receive joy by giving praise. All of this was present at the ordination of Der Haroutiun. I had the feeling that a great number of people left that church a bit changed in their perspective on life. This is what our beloved church can offer everyone.
In the long history of the Armenian church, generations of faithful candidates have joined the ranks of the clergy. It’s 2021 in America, but the ancient tradition remains the same. A young man received a call from God. He answered that call, was found worthy and was ordained with the ancient prayers of our church. He was anointed with holy muron that unites us with St. Gregory and now begins his karasoonk (40 days of seclusion and prayer). Our church lives because of our faith. This is such wonderful news that a new priest is among us.