Creating inspirational memories for our children

This is the season of Thanksgiving in the United States. Aside from overeating and football games, it is an opportunity to reflect on what we are thankful for. We should always be grateful for our loved ones, friendships, professional success and health. It has been particularly difficult to remain positive this year after the horrifying atrocities in Artsakh. Our lives are dependent on hope. Its absence enables darkness where light once existed. This is our current challenge, as we struggle to absorb the impact of our latest tragedy. As many have stated, there is no time for brooding, as the lives and security of thousands of our brethren are at stake. While we may be consumed with human emotion, it is important to always seek hope. 

The most sustainable source of hope is, of course, our faith. The good news of our Lord has the power to wash away darkness and bring joy into our existence. This year, Armenians in the eastern United States have been blessed to receive His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, during his pontifical journey in November. This is his first of a two-part visit, which will be completed with a second trip in 2024. His Holiness is the latest of an outstanding group of clerical leaders from the Cilician See. He was mentored by the iconic Karekin I of blessed memory and has provided stellar leadership in both Armenian and ecumenical circles. 

A pontifical visit is a special time for the faithful to receive the blessing of their spiritual leader. Catholicos Aram I is well known in the Prelacy community going back to his younger days in the early 1970s when he completed an advanced degree in the United States. Due in large part to our unfortunate chronic administrative division in North America, he was relatively unknown for many years by our fellow Armenians who are affiliated with the Etchmiadzin dioceses. In 2015, during the united centennial commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, he captivated thousands with his public addresses at various events, mostly notably in Washington, D.C. As the barriers of our division are slowly removed, the global Armenian nation has become more familiar with this renowned leader of our church. 

His Holiness Aram I is greeted by the children of St. Sarkis Church in New York on November 17, 2023 (Photo: Armenian Church Catholicosate of Cilicia)

During his current pontifical visit, he has focused on parishes in the mid-Atlantic region, New York and Connecticut. It is gratifying that many diocesan clergy have attended the religious and social events connected to his visit. I have high expectations and had hoped that His Holiness would conduct a Hrashapar service at the diocesan St. Vartan’s Cathedral as a sign of our eternal unity. Nevertheless, we should all be pleased with the brotherly love expressed between all our clergy. During the Artsakh invasion and deportation, a united prayer service was held at St. Stephen’s in Watertown followed by a public gathering at the local community center. Both events were well attended, and many clergy from the Prelacy and Diocese led the prayer service. Of particular note was the presence of His Grace Mesrob Parsamyan, the Primate of the Eastern Diocese. This was a wonderful statement of unity in a time of crisis. Bishop Parsamyan, who was in town for other activities, could have easily elected to pass on the service. Instead he focused on our common cause for Artsakh, pan-Armenian Christian love, and the responsibility of the church to provide leadership. Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian of the Prelacy has made many similar examples of leadership in New York with the diocese. We are blessed to have two open-minded leaders of our church.

During the activities of the Vehapar’s visit, I have looked for the role and presence of our youth. In each community, two young people would greet the Vehapar with our wonderful tradition of the bread and salt. Watching the young people interact with His Holiness as greeters, performers or while serving their parishes, I was reminded of the impact these visits can have on our young generation. In 1957, the group of churches that had been “unaffiliated” due to the division had petitioned the Great House of Cilicia for affiliation. This was a difficult and courageous decision. The prospects for reunification were poor, and these parishes were growing but in need of sustainable infrastructure. Catholicos Zareh I of blessed memory sent the then Prelate of Lebanon, Archbishop Khoren Paroyan (later Catholicos Khoren I) to America to observe and organize. He traveled to every community with escorts from each parish. 

Our parish in Indian Orchard, St. Gregory the Illuminator, was to receive then Archbishop Paroyan at the Massachusetts Turnpike exit while he was traveling from the Worcester church. My father was a relatively young deacon and leader of the community. He was a part of the reception group and also an early supporter of the Prelacy. In those days, each Turnpike exit had a parking lot at the toll gates. My father asked me, or more likely told me gently, that I would present flowers to the Prelate and offer a short greeting. I was six years old and petrified. When the Archbishop arrived and stepped out of the vehicle, I was amazed by this impressive man, with his clerical hood and flowing black garments. He carried a staff and had a natural warm smile that would move his beard. On my father’s cue, I went up to him, presented the flowers and offered a three sentence greeting. It was windy that day, and he embraced me as I got lost in his swirling robes. I can still feel the velvet texture on my cheek. I felt so special at that moment. When he returned years later as Vehapar, he remembered me and let me try on his pontifical ring. On that day in the late 1950s, my lifelong love of our church and a special respect for our clergy began in its infancy. This week, I have prayed that other young people will be inspired by the visit of Catholicos Aram. As we age, in whatever capacity we serve our community, it is our responsibility to mentor and motivate others. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a six-year-old kid feel special. The late Vehapar understood the importance of his visit that year, not simply in meeting with the lay leadership, but in inspiring the youth as a foundation for their lifelong faith.

This past weekend our parish, Holy Translators, celebrated a dual anniversary. It is the 20th anniversary of the parish’s consecration and the 25th anniversary of the holy ordination of our pastor, Rev. Fr. Krikor Sabounjian. During the Holy Badarak, 14 young men served on the altar. They represented acolytes and subdeacons who were mentored by Der Krikor over the last several years. Several are away at college or have professional lives in other cities, but they returned to honor the man who inspired them. This is one of the beauties of our church, where several generations form a bond based on their love of God. The Primate Bishop Parsamyan joined the community for the weekend’s celebratory activities. He is a young man in his early forties, and I marveled at how he interacted with the young and elders with ease. Each individual conversation in a crowded room was unique, and those of us on the receiving end appreciate the integrity of his attention. The ability of our church leaders to build impactful relationships with our youth is at the top of my list of qualifications. It is gratifying to know that our church in this region is led by two individuals with the humility and love to effectively communicate with our children, young professionals and young parents. 

When our church leaders internalize the impact they can have on young people, the probability of sustainability is reasonably high. As they get older, service enters into the equation to define an identity and cement the bond.

Our presence in the church is about relationships with our heavenly Father and those who serve His church. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but my encounter with the Catholicos many years ago opened a lifelong path that I followed. We must constantly encourage the youth. Our grandson, Krikor, is four years old. His sister Anoush and our extended family worship at the same parish. Similar to many kids his age, he had his eyes on the fellowship food table. While standing near the table and waiting for Der Hayr to bless the food, a simple but beautiful experience occurred. Der Hayr asked Krikor to stand next to him while he offered a prayer. Krikor complied, because he feels a kinship to Der Hayr, as they have the same first name. After Der Hayr concluded the prayer, he asked Krikor to say “Amen” and cross himself. Young Krikor felt special and wanted. Connecting our children to church is not complicated. It requires repetitive attendance, so that our children feel that attending church is a part of their routine. It gets more complex when they are older, but not when building a foundation. When our church leaders internalize the impact they can have on young people, the probability of sustainability is reasonably high. As they get older, service enters into the equation to define an identity and cement the bond.

It gives me such joy to witness young couples who bring their children to church regularly. They were taught well and understand that spirituality is a part of family life. There is no substitute for attendance and participation. Likewise, only those with wisdom can provide the inspiration of making a child feel a special connection. The best community leaders realize that at some point their role is less about active management and more about using their acquired knowledge to inspire others. I will always remember that exact location on the Mass. Turnpike parking lot where my journey began. Whether it is a pontifical visit, community celebration or a regular Sunday, let’s find ways to gift our youth that special experience that will inspire them for a lifetime. It is the best investment we will ever make.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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