Had I delivered my opening message to the National Representative Assembly with this theme, “Learning and Growing”, as originally scheduled for May 14 in Philadelphia, the content of my remarks would have been markedly different. The ensuing pandemic, which totally changed and threatened the course of our normal life, became a test of learning and growth by mobilizing our inner and dormant abilities to overcome it. As St. Paul eloquently states: “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5.4).
At first, when the lockdown was imposed, many people were frightened, and others were uncertain about how to meet the challenge of spending a full week in isolation. As the gravity of the situation unfolded, the impossibility became a reality of month after month of personal and community isolation. We thought that the entire system of our functionality would be paralyzed and could collapse, and yet we managed to learn a new way to thrive. There is no doubt that we have paid a high price in the loss of precious lives and in the downturn across the economy, and still there is a long way to go before this journey is finished. Nevertheless, the fact that we were challenged but not defeated is the solid reality that the losses were not in vain but laid the foundation for a new era.
With this understanding. I would like to share a few thoughts, which I have discerned from this pandemic. Humbly, I must confess that my intellectual and spiritual growth over the past six months, when compared with my six decades of life experience, is quite remarkable. Taking into consideration the time limit of our august Assembly, I would like to condense my thoughts with the following initials: DCI, which stand for Divine Guidance; Collaboration, and Innovation.
Divine Guidance: In retrospect, by recollecting our first experiences starting in March as we faced the global threat of this microscopic virus and on a daily basis as we were overwhelmed with often contradictory information, we witnessed the transformation of our most advanced healthcare systems and technology. Moreover, we were cautioned that everyone should consider themselves potential carriers of the virus; indeed, the gravity of our entire knowledge, and our very existence and beliefs were shaken. Within the atmosphere of this unprecedented uncertainty, we were more frightened than the first man, Adam, when he was watching the sunset and amid darkness was not sure what was going to follow. Thank God for His Providential care that eventually the sunrise prevailed and with tiny yet solid steps we were able to move forward. Thank God that, even though we were deprived of celebrating together Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, and all the following feasts together, nevertheless, He continues to lead us by hope in the Resurrection to discover a new dimension of the power of Faith over fear and in the face of uncertainty. I thank the Lord also for directing and enabling me, within the health agencies’ protocols, to travel by land and to personally visit our parishes to convey to them the message that the social distancing imposed by the coronavirus could never distance the Prelacy from our beloved communities, and to assure all of our faithful that together we would overcome the pandemic with the Prelacy’s Prescription: Prayer, Prudence and Patience.
Collaboration: It is often the case that disasters, rather than prosperity, will bring people closer to one another. The pandemic was not an exception to this phenomenon. In general, when we observe the gradual advance from the pandemic turmoil to a life that is returning to normal, collaboration stands as one of the major keys for our common success. The heroic sacrifice of the physicians, nurses, and medical staff who were and are on the front line of this invisible war; the public servants who provide our necessities and comforts; the officials in the many governmental agencies who are dedicated to supporting the scientists as they search for the cure for this virus; and the cooperation of the citizens in following the instructions; definitely, each and all have contributed an essential ingredient to success.
Likewise, during this pandemic the principle of collaboration in our Prelacy was more evident than at any other time. His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, after consulting with His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, instructed us temporarily to take unprecedented steps to revise our liturgical and sacramental life. Since the beginning of the lockdown, every Monday evening the Prelacy has scheduled a two-hour conference call with all of our pastors, updating our experiences throughout a poignant journey and always exploring new ways and means to secure both the spirit of our Church’s mission and the overall wellbeing of our congregations. On a regular basis we have been in communication with H.E. Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, Prelate of the Western Prelacy, and H.E. Archbishop Papken Tcharian, Prelate of Canada; also with His Grace Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, and His Excellency Varujhan Nersissian, Ambassador of Armenia to the United States, sharing our common concerns and solutions during this time. Prelacy Executive Council meetings as well as Prelacy Staff meetings have been held on a regular basis, securing a comparatively smooth transition. Our Pastors, in conjunction with local sister organizations, have been able to reach out those who were in need, most especially to our seniors who are living on their own.
With the cooperation of our Pastors and Boards of Trustees we were able to maintain the stability of respective communities as we paved the way toward a gradual reopening of our churches. With our schools’ Principals we have been able to provide the essentials of our Armenian culture to our youngest generation. With the help of our domestic media, and media abroad, we have been able to communicate timely advice and to promote a positive spirit in confronting the pandemic. Yes, all these and more are part and parcel of a miraculous word, collaboration, which has become more dynamic nationwide, especially as we have been most recently challenged by the catastrophic explosion that took place on August 4th in Beirut, Lebanon. Armenians dispersed all over the world have stood together and expressed their solidarity spiritually, morally and financially. I am pleased to inform you that, with the spontaneous collaboration of our parishioners and friends, as of today we have raised a total of $316,984 [Editor’s note: as of September 12, 2020] to reach out to our brothers and sisters to provide relief and aid in the process of healing. Our contribution is transferred via the Catholicosate to the Lebanon Central Coordinating Committee headed by Archbishop Shahe Panossian, Prelate. We pray that in due time, with God’s blessing and our collaboration, the scars will begin to disappear and the country of the cedars will celebrate renewed peace and life and bring their positive input for the progress of the global family.
Innovation: The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” has become the byword in our pandemic experience. As with other institutions, innovation has become the driving force to update plans, programs, and activities throughout the Prelacy. The Prelacy, with all her churches and parish organizations, within a short period of time, has striven to cope with this unprecedented situation and to respond efficiently to the needs of our people. Our Pastors, to their credit, provide daily reflections along with live streaming every Sunday of the services and the Badaraks as well as the lighting of candles or offering special prayers for the deceased or the sick. Bible Studies, lectures, reading of Bible stories as well as passages from Armenian literature for children, the Siamanto Academy and Datev Institutes’ online courses for teens —all these programs, and more, have been reorganized within new parameters to meet the needs of our people. If I were asked in the beginning of this year to describe the word “zoom,” following the dictionary definition, I would have answered “to focus on a subject to examine more closely”. Since last March, however, Zoom has become the best means for our meetings with the Executive Council, clergy, staff, board members, principals, and today with our NRA delegates.
Having been forged within the positive outcome of the pandemic, we look forward with a more positive spirit and a clearer view. During the second year of my tenure, soon we will enjoy the ordination to the priesthood of a new candidate born and raised in America. Our Departments of Christian Education, National Education, and Communication have launched new projects, and with innovative collaboration will elevate the spiritual, academic, and technological objectives in our various communities. We pray and hope that God will enable us to implement the many new projects that have been planned for the coming year.
In concluding my remarks, I would like to thank the Almighty Lord for His Providential care in leading us to learn and to grow, not only in times of peace and prosperity, but also in times of tribulation and uncertainty. I extend my filial gratitude to His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, who directed us in this difficult period of turmoil. My deepest thanks and appreciation to my colleagues: to the Religious and Executive Council members for their unconditional collaboration; to the Prelacy staff for their superb dedication; to our Pastors who wholeheartedly carry the heavy yoke under the dispensation of God’s commandment of love and service; to the NRA members and boards of trustees who vigilantly continue their care over their respective churches and maintain the integrity of our communities; to our sister organizations for their support toward our common goal. I would like also to thank our parishioners and friends by making the following confession: during the pandemic, once every week when I used to visit the Prelacy to collect the mail, I was deeply moved to receive the appreciated envelopes of support sent by our trustees as well by our beloved parishioners and dear friends. I always stopped to read their names, one by one, and the clear voice of Catholicos Khoren I, of blessed memory, clearly echoed in my ears, “Son, in the coming years of service, through your experience, you will realize that you are serving a gold-hearted people,” and raising my tearful eyes to heaven, offered the genuine prayer which poured from my heart and faith with the magnificent words of our Badarak’s chant: “Թագաւոր երկնաւոր զեկեղեցի քո անշարժ պահեա, եւ զերկրպագուս անուանդ քում պահեա ի խաղաղութեան; Heavenly King keep unshaken your Church, and keep in peace the worshipers of Your holy name.” It is true that God works in mysterious ways through each of us and for each of us.
May God protect the world from visible and invisible viruses, enemies, and powers. May He keep Christendom and the Armenian Apostolic Church unshaken, and the worshipers of His Holy Name in peace.