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Hopeful Growth in Armenia’s Seminaries

Young men pursue priesthood at two seminaries that foster a stronger Christianity in Armenia.

The future of Armenia’s church percolates in the minds of its young seminarians.

In dark blue uniforms resembling military garb, the young seminarians of Vazkenian Armenian Apostolic Theological Seminary line up to attend Sunday Divine Liturgy at St. Arakelotz Church on the Sevan Lake peninsula in eastern Armenia. The seminary is named after the late Vazken I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. The visionary leader pioneered the Armenian Church’s commitment to ecumenism.

The Vazkenian theological seminary was founded in 1990 on the Sevan peninsula. Once an island, this bit of land was gradually absorbed into the surrounding terrain in the 1940’s with a loss of lake waters. Located 36 miles north of the capital of Yerevan, and with an altitude of 6,600 feet above sea level, the area seemed an ideal spot for a seminary because of its serene atmosphere, its pure air and its proximity to the ancient churches of St. Arakelotz and St. Hovannes on the peninsula.

Sevan Lake, like the famous Mount Ararat – legendary home to the remains of Noah’s ark – is the pride of the Armenian nation. The beauty of this area has inspired poets, musicians and artists alike from around the globe.

Seminarians are admitted to Vazkenian seminary after finishing high school. The maximum age for entrance to the seminary is 23. Beginning in September, the academic year runs until June, with 52 to 55 students enrolled each year. The rigors of the first year, however, often weed out some students.

“At the end of the year there are usually 46 or 47 seminarians left,” says Father Minas Martirossian, the seminary’s rector.

“They leave for health or family reasons,” he adds, while others simply learn that they are unsuited for priestly life.

Seminarians study for five years, after which they take an exam and are then transferred to the Gevorkian Apostolic Theological Seminary in Etchmiatzin for their final years of study. Each year one or two top students in their fourth or fifth year are sent to France, Germany, Switzerland, Romania or the United States for further study.

At Vazkenian the day starts at 6:30 a.m. when seminarians climb up to St. Arakelotz Church for morning prayer. Located on a rocky hill overlooking the lake, the church is not used during the winter, when temperatures drop below freezing; instead, prayers are conducted in dormitory hallways and common areas.

After outdoor exercise and a hearty breakfast, the young men assemble in their respective classrooms by 9 a.m. Their studies are a mix of a standard college curriculum: geography; English, Russian and Greek languages; and Armenian language and literature. Combined with this is a classical seminary program that includes philosophy and theology, Old and New Testaments, religious history and church music, as well as Grabar, or Old Armenian, the official language of the Armenian Church.

Computers have not yet found their way to the seminary.

“I regret that we do not have computers,” says Vahé Karapetian, an 18-year-old seminarian from Yerevan. “It would keep us up with the contemporary world.”

At 2 p.m., the students have an hour of rest before lunch. This is followed by a daily group upkeep of the seminary’s garden and grounds. At 5 p.m. the seminarians reconvene at church for evening prayer, after which they tackle homework, read or study until dinner. A healthful dinner is followed by further study until 11 p.m., when students retire to their dorm rooms. Seminarians are usually housed five to seven per room.

“I grew up in a family where religion and spirituality had an important place,” recalls 20-year-old Hovannes Baghalian. “My grandparents taught us to pray and the walls of our house were covered with sacred images.

“Now I am in my fourth year here and my brother studies at Gevorkian seminary,” says Hovannes.

Although the classes at Vazkenian end in June, the seminarians remain at the school through the summer, except for one week when all students head home for vacation. Parents are permitted to visit their sons, however, on Saturdays throughout the year. During the summer, students frequent the beach at nearby Lake Sevan, but must also read, pray and attend Divine Liturgy on a regular basis.

The majority of students at Vazkenian plan on becoming priests after graduation.

“Out of 10 students in my class, only one wants to become a deacon – all the others want to be priests,” Vahé tells me. “I have not made up my mind yet. I’m very pleased to be here – I feel lucky.”

The students at the seminary in Etchmiatzin follow the same curriculum as at Vazkenian. Unlike Vazkenian seminary, where the number of students has remained constant, numbers at Gevorkian seminary have doubled over the past five years. Currently, there are 116 seminarians at Gevorkian; an additional 17 students attend classes on an auditor basis.

According to Father Babken Salpian, Gevorkian’s vice rector, many boys who come to the seminary require the basic framework of a general education before they can undertake the additional challenge of theological studies. The seminary has six years to provide both, and Father Salpian hopes that when the young men leave Gevorkian they will be equipped with both a good education as well as a solid faith formation. He is proud that the seminary plays a key role in helping to preserve Grapar, “which is considered a dead language today.” In addition, ecumenical understanding is important to the seminarians’ formation. “Here we try to stay open to all other religions,” Father Salpian adds. One way of doing that is by providing the students with conferences and lectures given by members of the Catholic, Georgian Orthodox and other churches.The Gevorkian seminary is housed in a newly renovated building in the heart of Etchmiatzin. First constructed in 1874, the seminary remained open until 1920, when it was shuttered by Communist authorities. In 1938 there were only two seminarians enrolled at Gevorkian. All others were exiled to Siberia.

“We were oppressed by the Communists – and by the surrounding population – for being priests,” recalls Father Salpian. “It was only in 1947 that the seminary was officially reopened. We have come a long way,” he beams.

Graduates in 2001 from both schools were proud that their year marked the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. With a new crop of eager, well-educated future priests, Armenia’s future looks bright.

Armineh Johannes is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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