From ONE Magazine

The Long Road Home

“Five years ago, when I was 75, I thought it was time to rest and pray in preparation for the last joyous journey to be with our Father in heaven, but it was not to be,” said Father Hovsep Behesniryan, a priest of the Armenian Catholic Armenia Congregation. After serving more than 64 years in ministries in Venice, Paris, Los Angeles and New York, “I was called into service once more, this time in Mekhitarist.”

He was sitting in a parlor of the Mekhitarist minor seminary, located in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, where the Ethiopian-born priest supervises the education of those who hope to follow his path. The seminary opened in October 2004 and is now home to 22 boys, age 13 and older.

“Every boy who comes here believes God called him,” said 16-year-old Narek Tchilingirian, who spent a month at the seminary before deciding to enter. His mother, Tsovinar, was not surprised. “He always went to church regularly, and he always took part in religious ceremonies and youth organizations.”

Father Hovsep’s return to the land of his ancestors has more than personal significance for the octogenarian. The seminary also marks a significant step in the homecoming of an Armenian religious community after centuries in exile.

Father Hovsep’s community was founded by a farsighted Armenian monk, Mekhitar, who in the early 18th century gathered around him disciples committed to the intellectual and spiritual renewal of the Armenian people. Influenced by the work of Catholic religious then active in the Ottoman Empire, Mekhitar sought to establish a college in Constantinople, the center of the Ottoman Armenian community. But Mekhitar’s ideas, which also included his advocacy for the reestablishment of full communion between the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, generated hostility.

In 1701, Mekhitar found refuge in Morea, a Greek territory then occupied by the Venetians, where eventually he established a monastery in the Benedictine model. After pledging his fidelity to the papacy, Mekhitar received papal approval for his foundation in 1712. Two years later, however, Mekhitar and 16 of his disciples were forced to leave their monastery as the Ottomans overran Morea, flushing out the Venetians and their allies.

The senate of the Venetian Republic offered the abbot and his displaced monks Venice’s abandoned island of San Lazzaro, once a leper colony. Until his death in 1749, Abbot Mekhitar worked tirelessly from his island monastery, introducing grammars for classical and vernacular Armenian, compiling an Armenian dictionary and composing commentaries on various books of the Bible.

Though separated from their homeland, Mekhitar’s spiritual sons, commonly called Mekhitarists, played a vital role in enlivening Armenian cultural life. From their houses in Venice and Vienna, they translated into Armenian works from the Classical era, early church writings, Renaissance literature and contemporary science and geography texts. Their endeavors, which also included the establishment of publishing houses, ensured that Armenians would not be cut off from the advancing world.

The Mekhitarists also studied ancient Armenian literature, amassing rare collections and recovering for scholars works long considered lost, including letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch that survived only in translation.

“If a culture is isolated from the world it risks dying,” Father Hovsep said.

“The Mekhitarist Fathers brought everything from algebra to astronomy to the Armenian people. Our culture was strengthened as a result.”

But these successes were accomplished in Mekhitarist houses and schools of the Armenian diaspora (Aleppo, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Los Angeles and Paris), far from the nucleus of the Armenian nation — the sacred Mount Ararat and Holy Etchmiadzin, the home of the Catholicos of all the Armenians.

After more than 70 years of Communist oppression, isolated communities of Armenian Catholics resurfaced with the rebirth of an independent Armenia in 1991. These Catholics, numbering just 220,000 of the nation’s 2.9 million citizens, preserved their faith in bits and pieces; their clergy had been liquidated by the Communists, their churches padlocked or torched.

“In 1998, [the late] Catholicos Karekin I invited us to work among Catholics in the north of the country,” Father Hovsep said.

“When the catholicos came to San Lazzaro, we asked him what he expected of us [in Armenia],” Father Hovsep said. “He told us to continue what we’ve always done. In our prayer, as well as our monastic life, we have introduced European culture to Armenians.”

While the monks welcomed the encouragement, they privately expressed their concern for the lack of Mekhitarists available to take on such an apostolate — vocations to monastic life had declinedconsiderably.

“We didn’t come here by our own decision,” Father Hovsep said. “We came because we were asked to. This is the will of God and we can never work against that.”

There are only two Mekhitarists in Armenia: Father Hovsep and Archbishop Vartan Kechichian, who is responsible for the pastoral care of Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe. But Father Hovsep works closely with the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos, Karekin II.

“We haven’t come to proselytize, because we respect the Armenian Apostolic Church as the church of all Armenians,” Father Hovsep said.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II marked the third centenary of the community’s founding by extolling the Mekhitarists’ ecumenical role.

“In the common journey of monastic rediscovery, you will benefit a great deal from collaborating with your brothers of the Apostolic Armenian Church,” the pope said.

“It will be a further example of the ‘frontier ecumenism’ that monasticism can achieve if it does not withdraw into isolation or fundamentalism, but knows how to welcome a brother it meets on the way in the name of the sincere seeking of the Father’s face.”

Mekhitarist seminarians begin their day at 6 a.m. They pray, study and work, with few breaks, until 9 p.m. After two years, novices not only take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but a fourth vow to go to the missions to teach the faith.

The rigorous education provides students with a sense of purpose according to those that know them well.

“I knew he would feel better here, because he wasn’t satisfied anywhere else,” Mrs. Tchilingirian said of her son, Narek. “He wasn’t sure what path to take in life. Now, he’s found his place.”

For many would-be Mekhitarists, including novices like Narek, the path involves not only prayer and study, but entrance into full communion with the Church of Rome. But unlike those Armenians who join the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons, full communion with the Church of Rome is not perceived as such a stark break with tradition.

“The liturgy is the same,” Mrs. Tchilingirian said. “It’s the same religion.”

“When a boy from the Apostolic Church wants to become a Mekhitarist, we alert the catholicos,” Father Hovsep said. “But not only is he not against such a decision, he agrees with it.”

Catholicos Karekin II has offered the Mekhitarists an ancient but abandoned monastery in Armenia. This is a significant symbolic gesture, for Armenia’s monasteries historically preserved Armenian culture, language and spirituality. Sadly, many today stand empty.

In today’s interconnected world, Armenians no longer need to be introduced to European culture. Armenia boasts a 100 percent literacy rate; almost any sliver of information is a mouse click away.

“But we do need to keep Armenia alive in terms of its traditions,” said Father Hovsep. “We need to preserve and strengthen our language, our culture and our connection to our origins.

“And we can help Armenians be good Christians. Perhaps this is the most important work … there are so few priests and monks in Armenia today.”

Onnik Krikorian is a photojournalist based in Armenia.