Fr. Vasken Kouzouian Reflects on the Journey of an Armenian Priest


Kouzouian2

 

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

 

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Fr. Vasken A. Kouzouian has been pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston for 12 years, and is celebrating his 20th anniversary as an ordained priest. As the pastor of one of the largest and most influential parishes in the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), he plays an important role in as a leader of the Armenian-American community. On the occasion of his anniversary, he took the time recently to reflect on life as a priest and an Armenian American.

Fr. Vasken comes from a long line of priests. On his mother’s side, the Der Bedrosians of Marash, there have been 51 generations of priests, though he  only knows a little about their activities prior to the 19th century. His father, Fr. Mampre Kouzouian, of course, is also a priest. Fr. Vasken said that when he was a child, “the rhythm of family life was set by my mother. Church life was always a part of my childhood. My mother told me that I even ‘played church’ as a child. I placed a blanket on my shoulders, and carried around a book like a Bible.” By the end of high school, when he had to write for a class about what he wanted to become when he “grew up,” he reached a point where he could formally articulate his desire. He said, “Before I knew it, my hand was racing across the page, writing that I want to be a priest in the Armenian Church, and giving the reasons why.”

Yet despite this, it was not predetermined that Fr. Vasken would enter the ranks of the clergy. He reminisced: “My parents wanted me to fully investigate all areas of interest to me — so that I would not choose one thing without giving the other interests in my heart the chance to develop. I had a love for history and political science, and I majored in political science when I went to Boston University. I truly loved it.”

Yet in the end he found out that his heart still was with the priesthood. He went to Armenia, to Echmiadzin’s Gevorkian Seminary, from 1988 to 1990. This was an exciting time to be in Armenia, with the changes that were leading toward independence, but even more important to Fr. Vasken (then still called by his baptismal name of Alexan), was “the constant feeling that this is where you belong. I knew by the time I returned that this is my calling. You go where your heart calls you to be.” He became ordained as a deacon at Echmiadzin.

Echmiadzin was a smaller place than today, with only 43 seminarians, so Alexan was able to interact a good deal with the clergy, even with the late Catholicos Vasken I. He recalled that the catholicos “was a very fatherly and graceful figure. You knew you were in the presence of a very holy man when you met him.”

Kouzouian returned to the US and began a course of study at St. Nersess Theological Seminary and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. After graduating, he married Arpi Musluyan in 1994. Soon thereafter he was ordained as a priest and renamed Fr. Vasken in memory of the late catholicos he so admired. He did a pastoral internship with his own father at Holy Trinity, and then, for some 10 years, went out to work elsewhere.

He served as pastor of St. Mark Armenian Church in Springfield, Mass., from 1995 to 1999, and also as director of St. Vartan Summer Camp. His wife served as director of programming for the camp. Their success with the camp led to Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese, to ask them to lead the Diocesan Youth Ministry Program. Kouzouian also led several youth pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Armenia. In a sense, he became a specialist in dealing with the Armenian-American youth at a period in the Diocese’s history when this was considered one of the most important missions of the institution.

After his father, Fr. Mampre, retired, the Holy Trinity parish asked the younger Kouzouian to become its new pastor in 2002. Comparisons between father and son were inevitable. Fr. Vasken himself commented, “I came here with completely different strengths so that my ministry has been very different than his. He was very strong liturgically and culturally, and loved by the people. I entered through the door of addressing the issues of our youth and families first, and then went on to their parents and grandparents. Yet he has always been here to give support and to offer his opinion, but only when asked. He never interferes but is always available for me if I have a question.”

Kouzouian came back to Cambridge a changed man. He explained, “Going into the seminary, I was certain that I was going to go and teach the world all about the Armenian Church’s teachings. Soon when I became involved in parish life, I realized that it was first necessary to speak to people’s lives — the issues that they struggle with, the decisions they have to make, their joys and their sorrows. My focus turned from teaching to pastorally ministering, to entering their lives with them. It has been a wonderful path, and an effective one. People are looking for answers from the church.” Teaching for him now comes through sermons which show how to apply the lessons of the Armenian Church to one’s daily walk in life.

He said he feels that he has a good set of tools to accomplish this, especially with his present parishioners. He said, “I grew up like they did. I struggled with what they struggle with. I know what it is to go through the life process they are going through, from young children trying to figure out what life is, to college issues, finding a spouse and all the issues that emerge later in life.” The people he grew up with now are themselves parents raising young children — as are Fr. Vasken and his wife. He said, “When I interviewed here, I told the Parish Council that I will be a father with a newborn, and my needs will be different from the pastor who was here before me, who had adult children. They understood and allowed me to spend as much time as possible with my child. Now that she is 12, she is very active in our parish life too. The parish was very welcoming — and a young family with a young pastor brings a certain excitement for other families too.”

In turn, Kouzouian is very proud of the parish. He said, “This has always been a parish that has brought leaders to the Armenian Church in America. We are made up of immigrants who came after the Genocide. They built up their businesses, and their children took it to the next level. They became very successful thanks to their strong work ethic. Consequently we have a trust fund which sustains this large church complex. People say that this is ‘the wealthy church,’ but the real strength of this parish is its people — the way they think and approach family life. And they honor their community by maintaining their church on Brattle Street in this very blue-blooded part of America.”

At this point in time, he said he felt there was no major demographic distinction between it and St. James Armenian Church in nearby Watertown, which also is part of the Armenian Diocese. He said, “It is just old family ties which often determine where parishioners go to church — grandparents or parents may have come here. However, though we have a new influx from oversees, this is more of a fourth-generation church, with very much an American-Armenian experience. St. James has that, but also draws more newcomers, partly because of its location.”

Kouzouian said he feels the ministry of the Armenian Church grows more challenging as broad outside influences grow stronger. Many other priorities pull people away from the church on a Sunday morning. He said, “The social media world has changed our entire way of viewing our young people and how they view themselves and the world around them. World events like 9/11 have changed their outlook to what is a very dark one for many young people. The light that God brings is a new approach for them. The ministry must reinvent itself constantly because the world young people live in does the same.

Furthermore, it becomes more difficult in many ways to minister to a community that has been in America for several generations. He said, “With every generation of Armenians in America, American life becomes more ingrained in them, which is a wonderful thing. However, this does take them one step further from Armenian life. In the church and Diocese, we look for a balance. … I try to make the different experiences come together. I am an Armenian priest serving in America, and I know what that means.”

He feels that “the church in the last 20 years has moved toward becoming more accessible to the people in this country, and more part of their everyday life. We have a long way to go, but we are closer today than yesterday.” Among other things, the Diocese is exploring the use of the Internet and social media.

Fr. Vasken expounds his pragmatic approach not only in his parish and at Boston area interfaith and clergy councils, but on a Diocesan level, as he has been a member of the Diocesan Council for eight years. He said, “I have a love for our Diocese, having worked in the Youth Ministry. Now that I am in parish ministry, I can see both sides of issues and the Primate understands this. I try to focus all conversations back to how things impact parish life and the community. Our Primate has been very open to hearing that and appreciative of such comments. I will stay involved as long as they want me at the table.”

With his anniversary approaching, Kouzouian reflected on how he himself has changed over the past 20 years: “I feel much more attuned to the lives of the people I serve, and much more aware of who I am as a priest of the Armenian Church, with my strengths and my weaknesses. I look at myself as someone who is a part of the journey of the people to whom I administer. I like to shed the light of Christ into their lives as much as I can. Now more than ever I rely on these words of the Bible which accompany me all the time, no matter where I may go: “‘Be not afraid, for I am with you always unto the end of the age.’”

Kouzouian’s anniversary will be celebrated formally at Holy Trinity Armenian Church on Saturday, October 26.