“Each year about 35 deacons graduate from our seminaries,” said Father Mkrtich. “I’m proud to say our church is one of the oldest in the world and one of the youngest, too.”
In their early 30’s, Fathers Mkrtich, Gevork and Vasken are among the first wave of post- Soviet graduates from Armenia’s two newly opened seminaries. Liberally educated with study experiences abroad, these young priests are direct beneficiaries of the reforms initiated by the current catholicos, Karekin II, who hopes to ordain a knowledgeable and cultivated clergy.
Karekin II has also established church-sponsored youth centers, where youngsters engage in after-school recreational and vocational training programs.
“One of the most important things His Holiness has done is arranging for the history of the church to be taught in [state] schools,” stressed Father Vasken.
“It’s ironic that now it’s kids telling their parents about the church and not the other way around.”
The catholicosate also reaches out to the faithful through its television network, Shoghakat TV, named after a 17th-century church in Etchmiadzin. Established in 1999, the network’s wide-ranging programming includes cartoons, talk shows and films.
Still, Father Vasken remains concerned that church leaders are not doing enough to uplift people spiritually. He describes how people come to church not to hear the liturgy but simply to light candles — a phenomenon he attributes to the improving economy.
“Now things are changing. When people’s conditions improve, they care less about religion.”
But Father Mkrtich on the other hand seems pleased Armenians worship at all.
“The main thing is to be saved by Christ. Whether you pray at home or in church, Armenians are spiritual Christians and mystics. If I light a candle and stay in church for three minutes, maybe that’s all it takes to get to Christ. It’s probably our style.”
Baptized with her husband in 1991, Yerevan resident Anna Galystian echoes Father Mkrtich. “I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I do go for special holidays. I don’t think I have to go weekly to be Christian.”
Armenian-Canadian journalist Levon Sevunts observes a stark contrast between the way Armenians worship in Armenia and in the diaspora. Whereas the faithful living in Armenia mainly attend the liturgy to satisfy their spiritual needs, those in the diaspora treat it as a means to preserve their identity. For those who do not know Armenian, the church links them to their heritage.
“What you often see in the diaspora are these observant parishioners who never miss the Sunday liturgy, but are not religious at all,” Mr. Sevunts suggested. “Etchmiadzin for these people becomes the sacred depository of their Armenian identity.”
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Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, Paul Rimple writes on the Caucasus for a number of journals.
Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Monastery Armenian Apostolic Church Etchmiadzin