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Remembering Catholicos Karekin I (1932-1999)

This summer marks 20 years since the passing of His Holiness Karekin I, the 131st Catholicos of All Armenians. His Holiness had the distinction of being the first catholicos elected in the free Republic of Armenia. That fact alone would have secured his place in our history.

But it was not in his character to be a mere by-stander in the parade of events. “Let us be makers of history,” was his credo—which he recited in countless sermons and public speeches. More importantly, he exemplified that advice throughout his life.

Karekin I began his pontificate in 1995, at a critical moment in Armenian history. His blessed predecessor, Catholicos Vasken I, had led the church for almost 40 years, and had been a beacon of light in the darkness of Armenia’s Soviet period. Our homeland was taking its first steps into a new era of independence. Armenians around the world needed to be reminded of their heritage, and the church itself needed renewal.

At this fragile moment of transition, Catholicos Karekin was called to lead the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. It was a heavy burden; but he did not bear it alone. His Holiness was always aware that there is a greater hand at work in the affairs of men; and he had faith that this Hand would guide our people through all afflictions, to a better place.

That faith endures, even 20 years after his untimely death on June 27, 1999. Those who knew Catholicos Karekin I will never forget his great strength and courage. Even during his final, painful days as he battled cancer, he never grew dismayed or fearful. His faith, his sense of duty, his awareness of God’s hand in own his life—and in the life of the Armenian people—gave Vehapar powerful spiritual reserves, which even the approach of death could not exhaust.

His spirit will endure in all who were inspired by his example. May God grant light to his soul.

To become acquainted with the life and legacy of Catholicos Karekin I, of blessed memory, continue below to read a survey of his thought and writings.

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Catholicos Karekin I and His Thought

A personal reminiscence

By Christopher H. Zakian

The summer of 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of His Holiness Karekin I Sarkissian, the late Catholicos of All Armenians. He was a unique figure in the modern period of our church, who stepped into its supreme leadership role at a unique moment in our national history.

That was the moment I became privileged to make his acquaintance. Admittedly, this made me a latecomer to appreciating him; and unlike most people, who first encountered Catholicos Karekin through his public appearances, I never met the man until after I had encountered him through his writings.

Perhaps as a result, I have always regarded him first as an intellectual figure, and only after that as a leader who grandly strode the stage of history—as he surely did. The famous aspects of Vehapar’s personality—his inspirational speaking ability, and his great personal magnetism—remain accessible to us, thankfully, through film recordings. But they are qualities of the man as he was. His continuing vitality in the Armenian Church of today lies in his vocation as a thinker and writer. Two decades after his death, he remains one of our most penetrating and engaging voices, and worthy of our continuing attention.

Discovery, Truth, and Joy

Giving a glimpse into this rich intellectual legacy is the purpose of this article. But one could hardly do so, especially in this year, without offering some personal recollections of the man.

His Holiness Karekin I was born in Kessab, Syria, in 1932, and was baptized Neshan Sarkissian. In April of 1995, he was installed as the 131st in an unbroken line of supreme patriarchs of the Armenian Church—succeeding His Holiness Vasken I, of blessed memory. This was the culmination of a remarkable career, during which he served a long tenure as the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, developed a substantial scholarly reputation, and was a leading international figure in the Christian ecumenical movement.

His Holiness was a prolific writer, his best-known work being The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church (1965), which is considered the definitive treatment of the theological issues that divided the Armenian Church from the Byzantine church in the fifth century. His pen also brought forth a continuous stream of shorter compositions, written mostly in Armenian and English. By his own admission, the thread weaving through his ministry was his vocation as a teacher.

“During the years of my ministry in the church,” he once wrote, “the preaching of the Word of God has occupied a central place in my service. This has given me a very special spiritual satisfaction, because it has provided me with the opportunity to look continuously and as deeply as possible into the Gospel, to try to discover the mind of Jesus, for my own life and also for the others whom I ask to do the same. Is there a better, more profound or more authentic joy,” he went on to ask, “than the search for the truth in and for one’s own life?”

A Deep and Abiding Humanity

The anniversary of his passing gave me a welcome opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the writings of Catholicos Karekin I.  Re-reading his essays rekindled the excitement I felt when I first met him in 1996. I was also reminded, frankly, of some of the contradictory qualities of the late Catholicos’ life and thought, which he never fully worked out in public, as far as I am aware. Chief among these was his role, earlier in life, in the division within the Armenian Church—a breach he tried to heal, in the latter part of his ministry, but which remains with us still.

This, too, will be seen as a part of his legacy. People can disagree with it, but that disagreement will never invalidate the important things he did and said. Most critically, history will note that in the most profound way, Catholicos Karekin saw the establishment of the free Republic of Armenia as a watershed event, which decisively changed the existing circumstances of the Armenian Church. His own enthronement as Catholicos of All Armenians was in his estimation, I believe, to be seen as the symbolic end of the divided-hierarchy period. This idea emerges most powerfully in his Enthronement Sermon, delivered on April 9, 1995, which is the expression of a man who felt that God had shepherded himself and the Armenian people to a point in history that was both new and utterly unpredictable.

Eight months after his enthronement, it was announced that the Catholicos would soon be visiting America. As part of the Eastern Diocese’s preparation for that visit, I was asked to put together a book of his short essays, and in so doing I began what has become a continuing intellectual encounter with the great themes of Catholicos Karekin’s thought.

I will never forget the day he arrived in New York: January 10, 1996. I was part of the press entourage that would follow Catholicos Karekin on his five-city tour of the Diocese. Emerging from the plane at the airport, Vehapar spoke in a cheery, confident tone about his historic visit—interesting, but nothing unexpected, I remember thinking.

But later that evening, I caught a glimpse of what must have been going on inside the Catholicos’s mind.

A blizzard had descended on the entire East Coast during the first week of 1996, and it was bitterly cold that night as we waited to enter St. Vartan Cathedral for the hrashapar service. Outside, clergy from a dozen denomina­tions were lined up, waiting to enter the cathedral in procession. Our video technician told me that he wanted to put a small radio microphone on the Catholicos, so we could record his speech, and so I went up to him where he stood, at the edge of the steps leading to the cathedral plaza, to ask Vehapar’s permission. He didn’t say a word, but only nodded, and as the technician affixed the microphone to his vestment, I got a close-up look at the Catholicos, only a foot away from me.

His gaze was transfixed on the doorway of the cathedral, and at this close distance, I could see that his eyes were moist with tears. Surely, this was partly a response to the intense cold; but to me, his face betrayed a deeper emotion, a sense that there were very high stakes in what would happen once he walked through that door. In that moment, I had a sense of the burden he was carrying. It occurred to me that, even though he had been elected Catholicos, he really didn’t know whether he’d be welcomed by Armenians in this country. Would they hold his former role as the Catholicos of Cilicia against him? Would they truly accept his election? In retrospect it seems to me that, despite his incredible abilities and confidence, at that moment Catholicos Karekin did not know the answers to those questions.

Finally, the signal came for the procession to enter the cathedral, and he cast off his grim, anxious expression, lit up with a fatherly smile…and walked across the threshold.

Of course, he was great that night. He spoke for an hour, as he could when he was energized; but he was riveting, and impressive, and lovable. For anyone who had any doubts about his election, he was confirmed, in our hearts, as Amenayn Hayots—the Catholicos of All Armenians.

In such personal moments, one could sense the deep humanity of the man: both the inner strength of a genuine and rare leader; but also the tenderness, the uncertainty, that lay beneath the mask of command. We would glimpse it again, late in our third day with him, after a grueling string of meetings and receptions, when he spoke these words to a small gathering of Armenians in the Diocesan Center:

“I have not come as one ignorant of the American world,” he began. “I know America; I have lived in America; I have served its people. There is nothing new for me here. The only things new in me“—and here his voice halted, as the emotion rose within him—“the only thing new in me are my new eyes. Those are the eyes of a person who feels that God and the people have called him to be a father for all. It is not an easy burden to uphold. I feel that I must justify all my predecessors, and not put to shame all those who will follow me. And this burden can be held, with dignity, only through your cooperation, your fellowship, and solidarity.”

For a man of such a high position, this was a moment of unexpected spontaneity—of deep, soul-baring honesty. There was a hushed moment as everyone absorbed his meaning, before the room erupted in the by now familiar applause.

The Outlines of His Thought

Spontaneity, honesty, authenticity—to Catholicos Karekin I, these were clearly valuable qualities to cultivate in oneself. But they were also vital, power-packed words in his intellectual vocabulary, which he’d reference over and over again.

To be sure, they are among a number of words and phrases that crop up in his writings. In examining those words, one begins to perceive the outline of his intellectual ministry. The words below will be familiar to readers of Catholicos Karekin’s essays, and should be considered important features of his thought. One can see in them his debt to the intellectual ferment of the Second Vatican Council, which he observed in an official capacity as a young priest. Equally clear is Vehapar’s deep affection for the French language.

1. Prise de conscience:

The “cracking open of conscience, or consciousness.” Vehapar meant by this a critical moment of enlightenment in the Christian believer’s life, when you awaken to your true identity as the torchbearer of the life-giving flame of the Christian faith. The Catholicos felt that, for Armenians, one could achieve this experience by delving into our past history, culture, and the language itself. You might say that this is one of the reasons why he spoke so tenderly about the “national” aspect of our church: because it was the doorway onto a deeper understanding of God’s plan, not just for yourself, but for the generations before and after you.

The second word is related:

2. Ressourcement:

The “return to the sources” of the faith—to the original texts, the early rituals, and the foundational understandings. The idea is that Christians (and Christianity) need to periodically refresh themselves by re-reading or appreciating anew the old teachings. The Catholicos regarded this as a prescrip­tion for all churches. But understand how it places the Armenian Church in a special position vis-à-vis the others. There are people today who believe that the world has moved beyond the Armenian Church. To which Catholicos Karekin I might have replied: Perhaps; but simply to move “beyond” is not necessarily to move in a positive direction. And to ascertain whether that movement is good or bad, one has to return to the source: to an institution which has preserved some of the oldest Christian forms into modern times. To truly understand where other churches are, they have to come back to us—to ideas and practices the Armenian Church still upholds, to this very day.

3. Croyants crédibles:

We must be “credible believers”—our belief must be believable. That is, what we believe has to matter in a concrete, tangible way. And the most concrete expression of ourselves is what we do. I am not aware that the Catholicos ever put it this way, but his idea of being a “credible believer” seems to be a real departure from the Protestant understanding, in which there’s essentially a one-way street between man and God. God can see into one’s heart, and He’s the only observer who matters. Not so, the Catholicos might say; what other people think of us—what they see in us—is also important. I believe this was what he saw as the proper meaning of “evangelism”: that the non-believer is persuaded, not just by the Christian message—the words—but through the personal example of living, acting Christians.

4. Challenge:

This is one of Catholicos Karekin’s two most crucial terms, and again the accent is on doing—and on doing something hard. Here’s what he once wrote on the subject: “…in the concept of challenge I find a sense of motivation. A simple invitation to a person makes that person passive; but a challenge makes the person take issue with something…. A person with no challenge cannot be fully human. That is a strong statement—but I believe it must be so. Because it goes down to the depth, the very heart, of life. Challenge means to be faced by the kinds of problems, to confront the kinds of situations, in which you test yourself…”

5. Renewal:

This is his other crucial word. The theme of renewal—understood as the Christian promise to the individual human soul, but also as the historical development of a nation—was a consistent feature of the utterances of His Holiness over the course of his ministry. Almost every essay of his contains a reference to it.

6. Happiness:

This word popped out at me unexpectedly as I was preparing the present essay. Vehapar took the idea of happiness very seriously. Unlike a lot of the religious talk one hears—which stresses discipline, or guilt, or social action—Vehapar often asked a very simple question: What makes a person happy? He felt it was not enough to say that one’s religious faith could give you a sort of psychological advantage: that it fooled you into thinking you were happy. Happiness for him was real; and though it cannot be found apart from God, it has a form that is earthly. I think in this regard of the tradition of Armenian hospitality, which is such a beautiful part of the Armenian identity—and so much more deeply rooted than the burdens of sadness we carry from the past. Catholicos Karekin did not seem to think highly of consolation—”Let us not be merely consoled by the past,” he would say—but instead directed people’s energies towards building and creative expression; towards productivity and happiness.

7. His ecumenical vision:

As a clever young priest—possibly inspired by the Second Vatican Council—Catholicos Karekin made some tantalizing suggestions that the entire Christian world should come together in a new Ecumenical Council, and hash out the divisions that prevail among the churches. He seems to have felt that the various theological questions could be settled: after all, God is mysterious, our theological ideas about Him are imperfect, our divisions arise from those imperfections; so if we arrived at a new formulation to replace the old formulations, wouldn’t the divisions thereby disappear? But even as a young priest, he immediately retreated from this position, arguing that churches could not simply abandon their historic differences, because their individual identities are contained in them. Interestingly, after he became a bishop, the talk of a new Ecumenical Council does not come up again in Karekin I’s writings, and I assume that this was partly because of his disappointment with the ecumenical movement, and partly due to his feeling of responsibility to husband the “national” character of the Armenian Church.

8. Armenian history really does matter:

This is one of the Catholicos’s most charming ideas. It was not enough for him to say (in the manner of contemporary multiculturalists) that every group has something to be proud of, so let’s all celebrate together. Vehapar wanted to tell the world that the Armenians were something special: that our history has a universal significance, beyond its significance to Armenians. This comes out especially in an essay he wrote during the final months of his life:

What happened in Armenia in A.D. 301 was not something confined only to Armenia’s internal national life. The conversion of Armenia was the work of the same Holy Spirit that has performed wonders elsewhere in the world—yesterday, today and forever…. I sincerely hope that in the year 2001, the Christian churches around the world—having just celebrated the 2,000th birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ—will share in the celebration of the 1,700th “birthday” of the Church of Armenia. It is my firm conviction that such a united celebration will be a source of mutual enrichment…

This can be the finest hour for my people, as we rebuild our stature based on the principles of the Christian faith. My church is called to offer its irreplaceable leadership in the process of rebuilding a nation after seventy years of Communist domination and ecclesiastical stagnation. We need to revitalize our Christian faith…

Let us stand up to the challenge.

Those concluding words—brave, confident, defiant—could stand as the motto for Catholicos Karekin’s entire ministry.

From the vantage of twenty years, it is tempting to look back sorrowfully, elegiacally, on Karekin I’s life and pontificate. But succumbing to that temptation would be wholly alien to the man himself, and I feel he would scold any writer who left his readers with such an impression. Throughout his days—even in his painful, difficult final ones—Catholicos Karekin I was all about optimism: about getting up and facing each day, keeping up the good fight, never letting your spirit flag. That is how he lived his life, and that is how he died.

Most unwavering of all was his faith that Christianity itself compels the believer never to relent in the face of adversity. “In our darkest hours,” he wrote of our own, tormented forebears, “how did the Christian faith serve as a source of hope and endurance, perseverance and renewal? To answer that question is to seek the meaning of the Cross. It is to confront the power of the Resurrection.”

If this is the power behind us, he implicitly asked, can it really be so difficult to overcome the obstacles before us?

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Above: Catholicos Karekin I (photo by M. Hintlian).

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