A Celebration at St. Vartan Cathedral

By Florence Avakian

At New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, a very special event took place on Sunday morning, October 30, 2016.

High ranking Armenian clergymen from around the world, digniaries from America’s east and west coast dioceses, and a large number of faithful welcomed the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, for a celebration of the 17th anniversary of his enthronement as leader of the global Armenian Church.

The ceremony preceded a week of meetings of the Supreme Spiritual Council, under the leadership of His Holiness, which was held at the Manhattan headquarters of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America-the first time in its history that the Council has gathered away from Armenia. Attending were more than a dozen bishops from diocesan jurisdictions throughout the world, including the primates of Artsakh, the Eastern and Western U.S., Canada, France, Australia, Russia, Siunik, Georgia, and Armenia’s Araratian region. The patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople also were represented.

On Sunday, October 30, with Catholicos Karekin II presiding, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese. The homily was delivered by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese.

The badarak began with the majestic hymn “Hrashapar,” sung by a combined choir from St. Vartan Cathedral and area parishes, under the direction of guest conductor Kris Kalfayan. Several solos were sung by Metropolitan Opera tenor Yeghishe Manucharian, including the moving “Der Voghormia” by Komitas.

A Glorious Heritage

Just prior to the Scripture readings, His Holiness entered with a retinue of high-ranking clergy: likely the largest number of Armenian bishops ever assembled in the cathedral.

Archbishop Barsamian addressed his remarks to the special occasion-and the unique role the holder of the title “Catholicos of All Armenians” has held throughout history.

“Father of our people. Shepherd of our flock. These are the terms that we apply to the Catholicos, in every generation, from the time of St. Gregory to our own day,” said Archbishop Barsamian in his homily. “To our ancestors, and to us, the Vehapar is the living symbol of our heritage, a heritage that has lasted through 17 centuries, that has gained the highest achievements and overcome the worst afflictions, and that today spans the globe.”

He added: “Having His Holiness among us – as he is today – is to experience a re-birth of those milestones of faith.”

But he reminded the congregation that “His Holiness symbolizes another re-birth, as well. For our homeland has also been reborn. It has been God’s great blessing on our generation that we have lived to see the birth of a free, independent Republic of Armenia.”

Addressing the Catholicos Karekin directly, Archbishop Khajag declared, “Vehapar, we stand with you, and with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, in this great moment in the life of our nation, church and people. May our Lord continue to bless and strengthen your ministry.”

The Divine Liturgy concluded with a special thanksgiving prayer: the magnificent “Hayrabedagan Maghtank,” sung by the choir in honor of His Holiness, to express appreciation to God, and the good wishes of the Armenian people.

The entire Divine Liturgy was broadcast by the Eastern Diocese on its Livestream channel. Beautifully filmed and directed, with an informative running narration, the broadcast allowed viewers from across the country, and even around the world, to be a part of the splendid occasion.

Gala Banquet

Following the church services, a banquet took place in honor of the Supreme Patriarch in the Diocesan Center’s Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium. The invocation was delivered by His Holiness.

Archbishop Barkev Martirossyan, Primate of Artsakh, shared a toast with the more than 300 guests present. “Today, we performed a special service for our Vehapar so he can have a long life and always lead us. May his enthusiasm be everlasting,” he stated. “Congratulations to him on this anniversary. I pray that his eye will always be on Etchmiadzin,” he said, then led the crowd in an enthusiastic chorus of the “Hayrabedagan Maghtank.”

Master of Ceremonies James Kalustian, chairman of the Eastern Diocesan Council, warmly welcomed the attendees, who included Ambassador Zohrab Mnatsakanian, and officials of the Eastern, Western, and Canadian Dioceses, and the AGBU (the latter had been engaged in the 89th AGBU Assembly and celebrations of the organization’s 110th anniversary earlier in the week).

Relating his grandmother’s story of migration to America, Kalustian emphasized the close relationship between the diaspora, the Mother Church, and the Armenian homeland.

Distinguished keynote speaker Lara Setrakian, of ABC News, focused her talk on the importance of “faith, hope and love,” and how these must influence our daily lives.

“We are the church, and we must live these ideals,” she said. In tribute to the Vehapar she enumerated his many accomplishments, including the education and ordination of many priests, publication of hundreds of books, bringing Pope Francis to Armenia, sponsoring soup kitchens, and comforting the Artsakh soldiers. “Vehapar believes in faith, and we must also,” Ms. Setrakian said.

The Shushi Armenian Dance Ensemble of St. Vartan Cathedral, garbed in beautiful national costumes, delighted the audience with several numbers, then lined up behind the head table, clapping in unison for the Catholicos.

A video presentation from Holy Etchmiadzin was shown, detailing the achievements that have taken place during the 17 years of Karekin II’s pontificate. Especially impressive were the 300 to 350 churches either erected or reconstructed, the needy individuals helped, the chapels installed in prisons, the many priests serving in Artsakh, the protection of treasures in the church and in museums, and the canonization of the Genocide martyrs.

Tenor Yeghishe Manucharian again shared his artistic gifts, performing well-known selections by composers Harutyunian, Dikranian, and Khachaturian, with accompaniment by Ivy Adrian.

In remarks, Archbishop Barsamian expressed appreciation to the clergy from all over the world, as well as all who contributed to the church service and the banquet.

He envisioned the Armenian Church as “our harbor, our place of safety and peace. As Armenians, we are aware that the waters outside the harbor can be turbulent and dangerous. Therefore we place our trust in a captain who can guide us with courage and conviction, and with a vision for the greater well-being of our people. In our generation, these qualities are embodied in the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin I,I who has brought energy and vision to the task.”

The Primate then was joined by the famed artist Michael Aram, who presented the Catholicos with a special gift: a unique sculpture of Noah’s Ark resting on Mount Ararat.

“May this work of art always reside at Holy Etchmiadzin, to remind us that the Armenian homeland was the first harbor that God ever chose for mankind,” the Primate said.

Before delivering the benediction, Catholicos Karekin II, in his message of hope and optimism, noted that “today we all know the many hardships that our people have suffered, and are still enduring. With all our strength, we will conquer them, and bring about new outcomes and victories. We will continue to revitalize our church and our nation. We will strengthen our faith each day, and inspire future generations,” he stated to applause.

The banquet committee was chaired by Karen Nargizian, with members Serda Belekdanian, Kristine Casali, Lynn Jamie, Eileen Kafafian, Mary Ann Saraydarian, Maria Stepanian, Silva Terjanian, and Alice Yigitkurt. A beautifully-produced booklet for the occasion featured a history of pontifical visits to America by Catholicos Vasken I, Karekin I, and Karekin II, along with recent and vintage photos of the catholicoi past and present among the people.

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