By Ashot Vavyan
The prophets are persons sent by God, transmitting His words, called to certain mission by the Almighty. They are the men of future, whose words and actions are not accessible for the surrounding, and for understanding them certain period of time is needed. This is the reason for which they are not perceived in their own surrounding, and even are subjected to persecutions. “A Prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own home,” says Jesus in the Gospel.
In the opinion of the Italian writer, historian and scholar Giovanni Guaita, His Holiness Karekin I is a person playing a prophetic role in the contemporary history and in the history of the Armenian Church. The words of praise about Vehapar were not so abundant in his homeland, while his merit was greatly appreciated abroad. The greatness of the Catholicos of all Armenians was noticed by the “poetess of all Armenians,” Silva Kaputikian, who mourned thus when he left us. “It’s a great pity that the 131st Catholicos left us so early, and so tragically was interrupted his speech, that sounded so beautifully upon his lips demonstrating the most valuable abilities of the Armenian mind and language. Fortunately, his deeds remained beneficial for the nation — numerous and various works which are written testimonies of his extraordinary talent and his Armenian soul. They have much to do in this money-worshiping and demoralizing times.”
Son of Hagop and Ovsanna Sarkissian, the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin I, of Blessed Memory, was born in the Syrian town of Kessab, populated by Armenians. He studied theology in Oxford, where he defended in English his famous graduation thesis, “The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church.” As the dean of Antelias Seminary, as the Prelate of Iranian-Indian or Eastern Prelacy of the North America, everywhere under his leadership was recorded success in the national-ecclesiastical life. Thanks to his efforts, the Catholicosate became a member of the World Council of Churches, where he took leading positions.
His time coincided with some of the most difficult times for the Great House of Cilicia, namely the Lebanese civil war, but Vehapar, with is wisdom, managed to safeguard the Armenian community. During those years, under bombing attacks, many implementations were made in the religious, national, educational, cultural and constructional spheres of the community. In the communities everywhere he found warm reception. He was enjoying a great reputation, sympathy and respect also among the religious and political figures of other nations, which was very beneficial for the church and the nation. As a famous figure of the ecumenical and interreligious movement, his exhortation to his people was to “keep pace with the world without going astray from our road.”
His Holiness was a man of faith, idea and action, he never sought to obtain an office or a special position. Eventually he was nominated for the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia and then as Karekin II as Catholicos of All Armenians. But there was much to be done, and unfinished works were left, too. Vehapar was assured that the people of Armenia needed him and were waiting for him. But Vehapar’s coming to Armenia was the Lord’s project, which was testified in the Mother Cathedral in the sermon devoted to the 10th anniversary of his passing, when His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, as if under the Heaven’s influence, said: “In historically hard times His Holiness answered to the God’s call, came to shepherd his flock, he came to serve his people as a Patriarch of All Armenians. The yoke was heavy, but remembering Moses’s commandment to Joshua, telling him, “be courageous, because the Spirit of God is with you,” he came to be a Brave Shepherd. Inspired by the Holy Spirit he continued to guide his flock and lead to the Source of the Light.”
It was not easy for Vehapar to act among the people who were Christian only outwardly, where still the Soviet atheism dominated, where almost the whole society took into account the unwritten norms of the “goghakan (stealth) ideology.” He had to feel, that only a few of the people meeting him were frank and that everybody sought only personal interests. And with pain he would confess, that “it is much easier to build where nothing exists, rather than to restore an atrophied heritage, such as Armenia.”
But despite these unfavorable conditions Vehapar managed to carry the cross which, in his own words, had become heavier and did much work in the short period of his being a Catholicos: he undertook the formation of national Christian consciousness of the population, established promotional and educational institutions, prepared young clerics, formed the organizational structure of the Holy See, opened Church Dioceses, reconstructed and built dozens of churches, published numerous books, presented the ambitious program for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity, shepherded entrusted worldwide flock … . Thanks to the years lasting efforts of the well known ecumenical figure and his theological, scientific valuable works in the whole family of the world Christian Churches was recognized the apostolic origin and nature of the Armenian Church. The isolating disagreements were resolved, the authority of our Church and it’s people increased significantly. Many undertakings of Vehapar directed towards those goals faced the resistance of local clergy with limited burial-ritual outlook, though such will later enjoy the already built bridges.
The abilities of the great intellectual were Godgiven, the speech pronounced by the great orator in different languages was inspiring even for the leading figures of churches and countries. The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church would consider fortunate the nation who has a son like him. It was a luck to be his interlocutor, who was the author of these words: “Think for a while, that your uttered words will be like a thing, that will return to you with the joy of happiness caused to another.”
The mind was so mighty, that his mother tongue was not enough to verbalize them and new words were born on spot. It’s noteworthy to mention the existence of the dictionary comprising nearly 1,700 words which enriched the Armenian language. To the incredible intellectual potential of Vehapar was added the surprising industriousness, power of faith, love toward nation and humanity, his sacred mode of life and inimitable kindness.
It’s obvious the involvement of Armenians in spreading Christianity, i.e. the key to the happiness of humanity: the first Christian state, lasting presence in Jerusalem, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, centuries of participation in the reign of Byzantium… . God has chosen our nation just for the mission of spreading and conservation of this Abrahamic religion and Vehapar was exhorting to continue that mission. “The church is called apostolic not only for the works done by Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew: the spirit of Apostles must live inside ourselves and we must demonstrate it today,” he taught.
The man named Nishan Sarkissian at birth, entered Armenia at such a difficult time, that the scars of it are still there. By coincidence, this period marks the turning point: the country discerns business and liveliness, emerges hope, and were moments when some thought that the ground has appeared for sowing God’s justice and law. But alas, the health of Vehapar became worse. Incomprehensible are the Lord’s deeds: why He took away His Holiness from us so soon. Maybe Vehapar had already carried out God’s project, leaving his influence, his thoughts of great potential, his lines, though clearly written, but time is required for decoding them. And still the followers must come to build the Armenian House on the unshakeable foundation laid by Vehapar.
His Holiness’s farewell to this world was also characteristic of those of prophets: the torments were hard, but he bore them with the steadfastness of Christ: “The deceased Vehapar was a personality of an extraordinary will. While others suffering with his disease are in bad mood and are often subject to psychic collapse, during his stay in New York Catholics Karekin was never depressed and never lost his mental peace, even when he was in terrible pains. Before his second surgery every day he was coming to the Prelacy where he stayed for hours and with the pain inside he was having appointments with Armenian or foreign important figures, was writing kondaks (orders) and letters or was busy with literary activity. The same was doing in his apartment trying to overcome his pains, relying on his pen,” says the archbishop who was with Vehapar in those last days.
August 27 was the birthday of His Holiness. And next year will mark the 80th anniversary of the birth of this Great Armenian.