Dear Members of the National Representative Assembly,
I greet you all in the Love of the Risen Lord.
For the second time under unconventional conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are gathered to review the accomplishments of the great family of our Prelacy and to plan for the year to come. The work of our Prelacy since the beginning of the pandemic can be summarized in three words: Survival, Adjustment, and Creativity. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were those who thought that the global terror sounded like the end of ages. The alarming escalation of the death toll hung like a sword of Damocles upon us, terrifying all of us and causing us to deal with one goal, which was Survival. Thanks be to God, despite having zero experience in dealing with the challenges we faced, every individual and our entire community had to adjust themselves to the realities brought about by this forced change in our lifestyle. Whether we agree or disagree with Darwin’s theory of evolution, our survival became an existential experience, forcing us to not only survive and adjust to this unprecedented threat to our lives, but also to innovate and expand our creativity in dealing with the challenges which grew out of this pandemic.
On this occasion, I would like to give thanks and praise to our Almighty Lord for His Providential care in leading us through this poignant experience and for giving us the strength and vision to reorganize ourselves on all levels. While we pray for the souls of those precious lives who could not overcome this microscopic virus, we also must praise and give thanks to all those, at every level, who endangered their own lives to save the lives of others and, moreover, did their utmost to stop the spread of this voracious disease within our midst. On this occasion, on behalf of His Holiness Catholicos Aram I and our entire Prelacy family, I would like to particularly salute the work of Mr. Noubar Afeyan, born and raised in Lebanon before coming to this country, where, along with his colleagues, he has been an instrumental part in providing the world with an effective vaccine to counter this world threatening microscopic virus.
In addition to this pandemic, we, as Armenians, have suffered other blows during the past year. Chief among these blows was the shameful and illegal military attack and war initiated by Azerbaijan and Turkey against Artsakh and Armenia. As a worldwide Armenian community, and despite the financial and other aid we were able to provide, the failure of the international community to act decisively at this critical moment in our modern history raised again the shadow of an existential threat to our Armenian homeland and its people. As a Prelacy, we know that the work of our St. Nerses the Great office in Yerevan has continued to provide for those in need, but also know that our efforts in this regard to help and provide assistance to those who have become refugees as a result of this conflict will need to increase exponentially for the foreseeable future.
If the war in Artsakh and Armenia was not enough, the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut in August of last year, along with the pandemic, plunged Lebanon, where our Catholicosate is presently located, and our Armenian community within that country into an economic abyss and has led to political and social crises, which the Lebanese government has failed to effectively deal with to this day. The resulting collapse of the Lebanese pound, dropping from 1,500 to the U.S. dollar to today’s roughly 15,000 to the U.S. dollar has caused immense suffering among all who live in Lebanon, including, of course, our own Armenian community. Here again, our Prelacy is being called upon to assist those in need of the basic. We thank the Almighty Lord who has forged our granite will so that, despite these multiple crises, we did not fail to support our Homeland, the Cradle of Humankind, and our sister communities in the Middle East.
The commitment of our Prelacy community inspires me to unconditionally continue our mission of Service to those both within and outside of our Prelacy. While it is true that we were surrounded, attacked, and exposed to multiple threats during the past year, nevertheless we did not surrender, we were not crushed, and we did not lose our ability to deal with these deadly pressures, anxieties, and worries. This observation is neither poetic nor rhetorical, but it is the simple statement of a fact. Like gold, which obtains its brightness and value by being forged in the fiery furnace, likewise the fire of the pandemic and the sufferings of our brothers and sisters during the past year has motivated and re-energized us to explore and discover new ways and means for interaction, for caring and sharing, in order to renew our mission in Him who said I am the Resurrection and the Life.
At this critical juncture of our modern history, based upon all that we have been through this year, I would like to draw your attention to two major and parallel issues that are at the core of the strengthening and renewal of our mission as the Prelacy.
The first of these issues, which became even more evident because of the pandemic, is the imperative of strengthening our spirituality. Since the earliest days of the Armenian community in North America, due to the genocide, our faithful have been deprived of well-balanced spirituality in our religious teachings and daily lives. Too often, we have replaced teaching the power of the Resurrection through the Holy Cross with secular values. The concepts of homeland, ethnic culture, and village traditions have not only occupied our hearts and minds, but also captured our souls to the extent that our sermons and teachings, instead of being based upon the spiritual and theological bedrock of the Armenian Church, have focused on the forging of our national values rather than our Divine identity. An unintended consequence of the error of our ways, however well intentioned, has been the loss of a significant portion of our community who has looked to quench their spiritual thirst in other religious denominations.
Thanks be to the Compassionate God that in more recent decades the balance has gradually been reversed, as we seek to reaffirm the value of the golden rule to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to render unto God that which is God’s” (Mt. 22:21), to which the last two thousand years of Armenian history are a living testimony.
During the pandemic, I have made it a point to be with our people throughout our Prelacy by making regular visits to virtually all our communities. Whenever I would visit a parish, many in attendance would approach me to express their gratitude for our Prelacy churches initiating and continuing the live streaming of Badarak from most of all our parishes practically without interruption. Forgive me if I confess my surprise and gratitude for the heartfelt expressions of so many about the spiritual programs our Prelacy initially offered, including the daily Reflections of our pastors, as well as Bible studies and other spiritual lectures delivered through Zoom and other video technology. The positive feedback we received led us to multiply our initial online services with new ones, such as the “Faith and Family” program on Mondays led by Der Nareg and Der Vahan, “Praying with the People” on Tuesday evening in Armenian and on Thursday evening in English with the participation of our clergy, and the forthcoming “Basics of Our Faith” series which will be broadcast on Wednesdays in the coming weeks. In this way, our Prelacy has been able to provide spiritual nourishment to our faithful not only on Sundays, but also during the week.
We have also been blessed to have the services of Archdeacon George Leylegian, who voluntarily and wholeheartedly took the initial starting point of an online deacons’ seminar and, with his love, passion, and extensive knowledge of the Armenian church and its theology, has initiated a semester of online classes for our deacons on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, which teach not only the liturgical life, but also the uniqueness of the Armenian Church and its theology throughout the centuries. I know of no other program outside of our seminaries, which offers this depth of education to our deacons and altar servers. If we are to lay the foundation to encourage a new generation of highly educated clergy within our Prelacy, programs such as the one initiated by Archdeacon George are an important step in that direction.
Our ANEC Department has also taken advantage of video technology to offer courses in cooperation with the Armenian Department of the Gulbenkian Foundation, which help strengthen the ability of our Armenian School teachers to better teach our mother tongue, and by expanding the Siamanto Academy into a video format to make this program available to students beyond the New York metropolitan area and throughout our Prelacy. AREC too, by necessity, has also reformatted its Bible studies and Datev Program into a video conference format and, by doing so, not only attracted a wider geographic diversity of students within our Prelacy, but also attracted students from overseas. These are all tangible signs that, as a Prelacy, we are diligently pursuing an update of our educational programs on several different levels and we are equally working to bring these educational programs to our faithful, wherever they may live.
On the community level, it has been so inspiring to witness, against all odds, the wonderful collaboration between our Pastors, Boards of Trustees, and all auxiliary bodies within our parishes. While it is true that the pandemic caused the cancellation of several annual parish festivals and picnics, it is also true that the innovative measures taken by our community leaders in sponsoring virtual candle lighting, takeout bazaar, and other similar activities, and even drive- by Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter gift baskets, were not only creative, but a superb response to the realities faced by our communities. I was personally impressed by witnessing how our Boards of Trustees and Ladies Guilds, equipped with fewer people but with an ardent zeal and always with a spirit of joy and dedicated service, kept pace with the everchanging rules and regulations of our state and federal governmental authorities.
I am also glad to share with you that, despite the pandemic and the circumstances we have found ourselves in, we continue to attract qualified and highly educated candidates who are called to the ministry of our Lord as clergy. This past February, I was happy to ordain Deacon Roland Telfeyan, who was called to priesthood after a successful business career and two years of study both within our Prelacy and at the Catholicosate, as Der Garabed. He immediately accepted his calling and has begun his pastoral ministry as the shepherd of our St. Stephen’s parish in New Britain, Connecticut. I am confident that Der Garabed’s efforts will further strengthen this parish and continue the excellent work initiated by Der Aram and later by Der Vahan, both of whom travelled at least weekly to provide sacramental services to this parish. For his part, Der Vahan is now working as an outreach priest and routinely assists in Badarak and other religious services throughout our Prelacy as he is called upon to do so. It is my joy also to report that, after months of delay due to the pandemic, Der Taniel Manjikian has completed his orientation at St Stephen’s in Watertown and is now serving our Prelacy as the resident pastor of St. Gregory’s Church in Granite City, Illinois. We continue to look forward to re-energizing both the number and the quality of our pastors by bringing in new candidates from both within and outside of our Prelacy.
Last but certainly not least, while it is true that we have been deprived of being able to participate in person in various cultural events, there have been a number of new publications during the past year, which cater to the diverse needs of our community, including our annual diary, which was dedicated this year to the centennial of the exile of our Catholicosate from Cilicia, the volume “My Memoirs (1914-1921)” by the late Gurghen Sarkissian, in Armenian and English, “Intimacy with Nareg”, authored and published by Archpriest Nerses Manougian in Armenian and English, and “Let’s Chat 4,” written and published by ANEC with the ongoing financial support and generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Aram Semerdjian. I especially recommend, regardless of your age, that you obtain a copy of “Let’s Chat 4,” because this volume can help you deepen your religious and national identity by becoming more familiar with the monthly religious and other feasts we participate in throughout the year.
All these and other achievements since the start of the pandemic have literally renewed in me the power of prayer as given to us by St. Nerses Shnorhali, in which be beseeches the Lord, “Christ, Living Fire, inflame in me the fire of your love.” Yes, this pandemic has separated us physically, yet at the same time, whether driven by fear or by a dormant authentic need to re-establish our relationship with our heavenly Father, it has rekindled in us our Faith and genuine love.
As for the second major issue, I would like to briefly analyze our existential journey on this continent since the turn of the twentieth century. The earliest arrivals, whether pre- or post-Genocide survivors, while caring for their family and community, always looked back to the Homeland, initially with the intention of returning and later, after world events made their return impossible, with deep nostalgia. For decades, their priority was to reach out and lend their assistance to their Armenian brothers and sisters, which they did to such an extent that they deprived themselves of Armenian educational and other social institutions in the United States while they were morally and financially supporting the establishment of schools and other institutions throughout the Middle East and overseas. Similarly, in later years, when our community in North America saw the developing situation in the former Soviet Armenia, our community again did its utmost to provide financial and other assistance to help our brothers and sisters in need, initially with the Karabagh movement, then in response to the devastating earthquake in Armenia, followed by the establishment of the newly independent Third Republic in Armenia and the liberation of the territories in Artsakh.
Unlike other Christian denominations, particularly in comparison to our Coptic and Syriac Orthodox brother and sisters who settled in this country after our arrival and have established their own monasteries, schools, nursing homes, and retreat centers, our own people have done little in the way of building educational and other institutions, which are so necessary to strengthen and sustain our roots in this land. Today, there are very few Armenian day schools or senior living facilities which have been established within the jurisdiction of our Prelacy and no day schools beyond the 8th grade. We have failed to establish ourselves in many large metropolitan areas where many of our faithful have settled. As a result, today both the Prelacy and the Diocese reach only a small percentage of the total Armenian population located in the Eastern United States. The stark reality is that many who should be part of our community have been removed from their ancestral roots and Armenian identity.
Within this retrospective overview, I sincerely question whether we as a community have achieved the objective of forming a strong and vibrant Armenian community, a community which is based upon its depth of educational, religious, and social institutions, rather than on nostalgia and emotion. No doubt that our Homeland is irreplaceable as part of our worldwide Armenian identity with our overseas sister communities. Yet, the question remains as to how we define ourselves within the abundance of this country. Are we sojourners or are we an inseparable part and parcel of these United States, where the first seed was planted at Jamestown in 1619 by Martin the Armenian before the United States was even formed? If our choice is to establish ourselves as a strong and vibrant Armenian community within these United States, then we MUST act accordingly to realize our choice before it is too late. Without diminishing the importance of our Outward Mission to aid our Armenian brothers and sisters throughout the world and especially in Armenia and Artsakh, it is also imperative that we reorganize and revitalize the imperative of our Inward Mission by building our infrastructure in this country on all levels: religious, educational, social, cultural, or political. A dynamic and visionary Armenian-American Community with common goals and shared values guarantees not only her own strength, but also the strength of the Armenian Nation both in the Homeland and throughout the world. The message of our patron saint, St. Gregory the Illuminator, who said that, for those who are unshakable in their Faith, neither dungeons nor pits nor threats of death can weaken our immunity as Armenian Christians, remains as true today as some seventeen hundred years ago. Stated perhaps more simply, the time to act is now!
In closing, I would like to thank the Almighty Lord for His Providential care in energizing and revitalizing us in our mission during this most difficult year. I extend my filial gratitude to His Holiness Catholicos Aram I, who provided me with his fatherly advice during this period of turmoil. I express my deepest appreciation to my colleagues on both the Religious and Executive Councils for their unconditional support and collaboration; to the Prelacy staff for their superb dedication; to our Pastors who constantly convey their love to our people through their service; to our National Representative Assembly delegates and Boards of Trustees who vigilantly continue to care over their respective churches and who maintain the integrity of our community; to our sister organizations for their valuable cooperation, as well as to all of our Pillars, parishioners, and friends for their unending support. On a personal note, let me again thank all those who responded so generously to my year end appeal and to our Prelacy’s relief efforts in Armenia, in Artsakh, and in Lebanon.
While we pray that this pandemic will disappear soon, nevertheless, its positive side effects will continue to motivate our future programs for the growth of our community at large. May God bless and protect us from all visible and invisible viruses, heresies, enemies, and powers throughout this world, may He preserve unshaken our Armenian Apostolic Church and Nation; and keep in peace, mutual respect, and harmony all who reside on this magnificent planet.
Prelate, Eastern United States of America