By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN — Very Rev. Fr. Garegin Hambardzumyan, dean of the Gevorkian Seminary of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, visited the United States last month to attend the annual Diocesan Assembly and Clergy Conference in Cleveland as a representative of Echmiadzin. While in the Boston area, he served as a guest celebrant and homilist on May 15 at Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The educated and well-spoken young priest spoke with the Mirror about his background and plans for the seminary.
He was born in 1986 in the city of Kapan, Armenia, but he and his family left to Russia, where he began his schooling. They returned eventually at the end of the 1990s, and he continued his education in Armenia. At that time, he said, “my family was not very church-going, but was very pious, in the Soviet way.” He learned journalism in one of the afterschool children’s centers run by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and the Armenian Church, and was in the youth group.
There was a soup kitchen run by the two organizations, and when the Divine Liturgy was celebrated for the mostly elderly clients, he participated as an acolyte. He said, “I found that this service brought me the greatest happiness, for I obtained experience in two things, in prayer life and in the service that grew out of prayer life. Some weeks the elderly could not come to the soup kitchen so I would bring them food to their homes … I learned what prayer is, and the service that arises from prayer, which is the embodiment or crystallization of prayer in our daily life.”
As he learned more, one day a cleric came and asked whether he might want to attend seminary. He was about to graduate high school and initially was planning to study journalism at Yerevan State University, but he felt his calling was through the church. Six years of study, from 2002 to 2008, at the Gevorkian Seminary, where he was ordained a deacon at the end of 2006.
On July 17, 2009, he was ordained a celibate priest by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), and he went to Great Britain to continue his studies from 2010 to 2015 at Sheffield University. He also studied and occasionally lectured at Oxford University. He earned a Doctor of Theology degree. In addition to Armenian and Russian, he knows Classical Greek, Hebrew and a little Latin. He speaks English fluently, and knows a smattering of French.
The topic of Hambardzumyan’s doctoral study was the Old Testament Wisdom of Sirach (the Book of Sirak) in the Armenian Biblical tradition. He said, “It contains the most profound spiritual feelings and experiences, but is also a very practical book.” He said that it talks of the three qualities, love, wisdom and awe of God, which can lead man to perfect happiness, and summarizes the relations of man to man and man to God.
Hambardzumyan said it was paradoxical that when he went abroad, to Great Britain, he began to better appreciate Armenian culture and theology. He said, “I began to find the values and profundity of Armenian theology, and how much it has to be worshipped. It is like Echmiadzin a luminous altar.” He added that the Armenian school of theology had much yet to give to the world though it may not have developed that much in the most recent era.
He liked the connection to scholarship and Christianity that he could have while in Great Britain, and in particular the punctuality and discipline that the English showed in connection with work, which Armenians may not always evince. He hoped that Armenians can combine their good souls and good work with this discipline.
Another important value he saw in the West is that clergymen must not be afraid to talk with the people and show that they are ready to help. He liked how ordinary people could find ways of helping philanthropic institutions in the West.
While he studied, he also served as a visiting pastor at St. Yeghishe Armenian Church of London and the Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Manchester, and established a mission parish at Oxford University. In November 2014, he was appointed as Assistant Director of the Department of Christian Education in the Mother See, and in September 2015, appointed Dean of the Gevorkian Seminary. Two months later, in November, he successfully defended his thesis and was granted the rank of vartabed by Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian.
Last month was Fr. Hambardzumyan’s first visit to the United States. He said, “I was very impressed. I know that the Eastern Diocese is a great example from the point of view of organization. It is very organized. This is something to be studied for us, especially for us young clerics.” As Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the Primate of the Diocese, is his spiritual father, Hambardzumyan declared, “I am happy now to be in his diocese and to benefit from his hospitality and grace.” He thought that his time in the US would help him in understanding the local needs that clergy who will be prepared in the seminary must meet. He said, “I know what I need to prepare students for if they are going to serve in Armenia, but I did not know about conditions here. One month of course was not enough, but I still was able to get an idea of what preparations students will need to succeed in America.”
The seminary already provides, he said, preparation for being a priest in a variety of environments, and information is taught about the Armenian diaspora and the histories of various dioceses. Most importantly, he said, “We teach that you must be ready to listen, to easily adjust to new environments and not be narrow-minded. You must be ready for new possibilities, have meetings, and then make decisions in a flexible way.”
Languages are important for adjusting to new environments. Russian, English, Old Greek, and Hebrew are required languages for students, as well as Classical Armenian. A one-year class in Western Armenian is mandatory for all students. This was decided two or three years ago, prior to Hambardzumyan’s assumption of office. German or French (beginning this September) are optional.
At present, there are 12 or 13 graduates of the Gevorkian Seminary working in the US. Hambardzumyan said, “I learned from the kahanas [married priests] from Armenia that people are skeptical about priests from Armenia until they get to know them. Now it is good, and even others want them. I am happy that they have succeeded and are loved in their new communities.” He said that the seminary was always ready to send more clergymen if arrangements are made through the Catholicos of All Armenians. Furthermore, he said, “I am happy that in recent years we have enjoyed closer relations with St. Nersess Seminary in New York. There are only a few students there but they have the opportunity to serve or study at the Gevorkian Seminary too. This is good for US natives.”
At the Diocesan Clergy Conference, the visiting dean spoke to the American clergy about his seminary, and at the Diocesan Assembly he read the blessing of the Catholicos of All Armenians. He said that being at these meetings “gave me great hope that it is not just clergy but the people who are greatly involved. Few churches are like the Armenian Church where laymen play such a great role in church life. Of course there may be disputes and issues, but all this is to make the Diocese stronger and to serve the dissemination of the Word of God.”
Hambardzumyan realized about the clergymen serving in the US that “The Armenian remains Armenian. The kahana represents simple human values — modesty, wisdom, the ability to listen, and most important of all, his faith —
so that he can inspire. The clergyman must be charismatic, showing others how he loves God and inspiring them to behave in the same Christian way in their lives.”
Hambardzumyan explained the workings of the Gevorkian Seminary. It is the main seminary for the Church of Armenia. There is also a pre-seminary high school in Harich and a four-year seminary in Sevan which sends its graduates to the Gevorkian.
The Gevorkian Seminary consists of two sections. The first, the primary section, contains 92 students for those 21 years old and younger. A second section prepares people who have decided to enter the priesthood later in life. They often are already married and have gotten an education. They get three years of training and then may be ordained. This year 26 people graduated from the two sections: 20 from the seminary, as deacons and six from the priestly ministry program. Annually 40-50 people are admitted to both the Gevorkian and the Sevan institutions.
At present, the dean explained, graduates from Gevorkian work in a department in Echmiadzin as a deacon. Some marry and then apply for priesthood, and others decide to be a celibate priest. Examinations must be taken and if a committee decides that the candidate is ready, he can be ordained from six months after graduation up to ten years later. Then the individual may be sent to a diocese to serve as a deacon or a university for further study of theology and related topics. Many are sent abroad to universities in Russia, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Hambardzumyan has great ambitions for the seminary. He is planning to establish a PhD program at the seminary. Right now it can only give bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Biblical Studies, Dogmatics, Church History and Pastoral Theology are the four fields of advanced training. The new program will add two to three years more study. A nine-person committee with the Catholicos of All Armenians as its president, will create this, and the specialists already exist. Hambardzumyan thinks that as early as 2017 or 2018, the first doctoral student will be accepted into Gevorkian.
Of course, Hambardzumyan pointed out, there will always be students who decide not to go into the priesthood after graduation, but hopefully they will bring something positive that they have learned at the seminary into other realms of life. Two examples are Aksel Bakunts and Avetik Isahakian, who studied there and went on to become famous authors.
The new seminary dean has already introduced several other innovations. He established a digital or electronic magazine published every two weeks and sent to various organizations and clergymen throughout the world. It is also on the Facebook page of the seminary. Among other things, it serves as a tool to help seminarians learn how to express their thoughts.
He also began to organize pilgrimages throughout the year for students. Each individual class goes to a remote village in Armenia to do Bible studies. Often a famous person is invited, perhaps an author or an artist, to speak on various themes ranging from bioethics to art. Issues concerning modern society and priests are discussed.