by Suren Musayelyan
Khachatur Gyozalian is one of 31 students graduating from the Gevorkian Theological Seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin this year "to serve the Church and the people."
This 23-year-old deacon, now a sixth-year student, says becoming a seminarian was a natural choice for him. He was born and raised in the city of Etchmiadzin and assisted in church services since the time he was a schoolboy.
"Back then I thought that being a priest was only performing church rituals or saying prayers. But after years spent at the seminary, I understood that a man serving in the Church must first of all have a good education and great dedication to spreading the Word among people," Khachatur says. Gevorkian, he adds, fulfills both intellectual and spiritual needs.
He came as a teenager, will leave as a young adult, and in the course of his time there has become dedicated to the work of the Church. "We must be magnets to gather our people around the Church, be in the forefront of the nation-preserving mission of our Armenian Apostolic Church, because our mission is not only in Armenia but also in the Diaspora," he says.
A Home to Grow In
The Gevorkian Theological Seminary is literally home to 124 seminarians (1st-6th year students; some students from Sevan's Vazgenian Seminary join Gevorkian for the 5th and 6th years after four years in Sevan). They remain on the grounds of Holy Etchmiadzin, where they reside in dorms, many of them sharing rooms, taking food together, going to divine services and other functions together.
"There is an idea of family behind this. It is like we all live in one house," says Khachatur, who has a private room, like a majority of graduating students. "Sometimes it is good to have time to spend alone with your thoughts, reading the Bible, learning sciences, doing homework . . ."
The seminarians study and live together inside the seminary throughout the school year, except for one week at New Year. Summer vacation lasts about two and a half months.
Smoking, gambling and drinking (except for small amounts of wine offered during church rituals) are prohibited on the campus and seminarians caught breaking the rules will be cautioned or even expelled.
Every week a number of students from the seminary visit orphanages and/or schools for children with special needs. It is a means by which they learn missionary ministry early on.
The seminary building was totally renovated in 2002 by donations from Mr. and Mrs. Kevork and Sirvart Hovnanian of the United States. The Hovnanians have also established an endowment to fund future expenses.
Very Reverend Father Vazgen Nanian, the seminary's dean, says the renovation was very important for the seminary, which is the oldest institution of higher education in Armenia, with a history of more than 130 years.
"The modernization is important because every student must have an appropriate environment where he can feel comfortable. It is not good when a student lives in poor conditions, which affects his mentality. Our Church is not a poor church and it doesn't need clergy with a negative mentality," Fr. Vazgen says.
Originally founded in 1874, the Gevorkian Seminary was ordered closed in 1921 and its building was converted into a state government office. It was only after World War II that Josef Stalin allowed the seminary to provisionally re-open, restricted to a maximum number of 30 students enrolled at any one time, with an unknown number of them being KGB spies. Only a few seminarians were actually ordained priests upon graduation during the Communist years.
Presently, 48-50 students are admitted to Gevorkian and its affiliate, Vazgenian Seminary. During the last three years, 30 students a year were admitted to Gevorkian for its six-year program. (The others entered Vazgenian.)
The seminary's secretary, Andranik Hakobian, says 50 percent or more of applicants are admitted, following entrance examinations. He says that the number of applicants decreased in the past two years-from about 130 to about 80. The secretary said there is no perceivable pattern to the numbers; they simply change from year to year.
In the first five years of Catholicos Karekin II's ministry (1999-2004), the seminary produced 108 graduates-about 21 a year. In 2005 and 2006 the number of graduates was 39 for each year. Hakobian says they expect 31 students to graduate this May. According to him, only about 10 percent of graduates are not subsequently ordained priests.
Each year, only about five or six seminarians drop out. Hakobian says most of them are expelled for breaking discipline, but there are also students who decide to leave themselves because they feel "they are not cut out for this" or for other reasons.
"Sometimes it happens for family reasons, as students have to earn money to assist their parents, brothers or sisters, which they cannot do staying inside the seminary all day long," he says. "In exceptional cases students dismiss themselves. Recently a medical examination of one good student revealed he had a spinal problem. A priest has to be on his feet while performing rituals and other activities and it means that it would be very difficult for that student to cope with the problems."
All seminarians are paid a small monthly stipend-1,000 drams (about $2.85) for senior classmen, and 500 drams for lower grades. Hakobian says it is a symbolic sum, and that students enjoy many benefits of being in the seminary, such as free clothes, food, medical care, free visits to museums, theaters, concerts, excursions and other privileges paid for by the Church.
Learning beside the lake
Life at the Vazgenian Theological Academy follows a routine much like Gevorkian, its companion seminary in Holy Etchmiadzin. Significantly different, however is the fact that young men at Vazgenian study in an awe-inspiring natural environment.
On a peninsula's hillside, with a panorama of glimmering Lake Sevan, Vazgenian's picturesque location is itself a lesson in divine creation.
Seminarians here, though, are expected to devote themselves to their serious undertaking of service and for four years follow a regime similar to that at Gevorkian, before transferring for the final two years of study at Holy Etchmiadzin.
The seminary on the lake has not always been so appealing. For a time, Vazgenian, like many Church institutions damaged by neglect, was run down. With water all around it, the seminary itself did not have running water. Nor was it adequately heated.
The Academy was re-established in 1990 during the pontificate and with the blessings of His Holiness Vazgen I and by the direct initiative of His Holiness Karekin II, who was then the Vicar of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese. The complex encompasses two churches-St. Karapet and St. Arakelots. Currently, the dean of the seminary is Very Reverend Father Mkrtich Proshian.
The original seminary was constructed in 1897 by the Catholicos of All Armenians, His Holiness Mkrtitch I (Khrimian Hayrik 1892-1907). In the early 1990s it served both as classrooms and a dormitory for the students.
In 2004, a newly constructed dormitory, sponsored by an anonymous donor, was completed allowing the seminary to increase its student body to 80. Study areas, offices and comfortable student bedrooms provide a welcoming environment for learning. The new dormitories were furnished through the contributions of Mr. and Mrs. Noubar Jessourian of New Jersey. The library was also furnished with the sponsorship of Sarkis and Avedis Demirdjian of Lebanon.
Students at Vazgenian are proud of their seminary's past and present.
David Mangasarian, 22, is a fourth-year student. He is from the city of Etchmiadzin, like many of the current 72 students.
"Student years at the seminary certainly change your attitude towards being a spiritual person and serving the Church. The conditions provided here are excellent; they help in our studies as we don't feel the shortage of anything. The only thing we are required to do is to study well and learn to be good servants of the Church," Mangasarian says.
Mangasarian himself remembers how, in his first year, he had to walk 100 meters down to the lake to brush his teeth and fetch water to heat for bathing in the mornings. He says it was alright in summer, but in the lake's severe winter conditions it was a hard trial. "Now we have all the amenities. But we are grateful to the generation of seminarians who had to overcome those hardships, because what we have today is also their achievement," he says.
Seminary supervisor Artur Hakobian says discipline plays a big part at Vazgenian. Generally, there is a family atmosphere, he says, due in part to living closely together away from any city, town, or even village.
Fourth-year student Artur Tigranian says the isolation can have positive effects.
"Of course we have a connection with senior students at Gevorkian and they sometimes admit in conversations that the active life of the town (Etchmiadzin) to some extent has its negative effect. I think that some isolation is needed for the beginning of spiritual life," Tigranian says.
As part of their preparation process for the priesthood, students of the seminary visit the nearby town of Sevan, along with clergy, to provide education and preaching to the faithful. This is an additional goal of the seminary, to establish a bond between the local community and the seminary students.
More than 100 priests serving in Armenia and abroad since independence began their studies at Vazgenian.
One of the first graduates is now Very Reverend Father Torkom Donigian, the head of the Aragatsotn Diocese. He graduated in 1996.
He says the provision of excellent conditions and the professional teaching staff at the seminary are crucial to filling the existing shortage of priests for the Church.
"We still have a need for priests and clergy today and the role of the seminary is great," Fr. Torkom says. "I hope the number of priests will increase to serve the spiritual needs of independent Armenia and strengthen the ties between the Motherland and the Diaspora."
Remembering his student years and the conditions at Vazgenian back then, Fr. Torkom says those were years when Armenia was overcoming its Soviet past to become an independent state, with all ensuing consequences - the impoverishment of the population, social and economic hardships. "As the country was rising to its feet, the seminary was also getting stronger."
Chosen to Serve
After graduating, all seminarians without exception get appointments from His Holiness to serve in places where he finds their particular skills are best applied.
Those who start families are ordained married priests and those who choose to remain single become celibate priests.
Fr. Vazgen says that, among the requirements for accepting students to Gevorkian Theological Seminary, faith is of paramount importance.
"We need students who make an informed decision to come to our seminary, not just those who come to get a university education, but those coming with the understanding that this is a place of faith, committing their whole life to the Church and making a contribution," he says.
On the other hand, the applicants' academic abilities are also taken into consideration.
Applicants' school records are considered and they have rigorous entrance examinations at the end of August. Those who successfully pass all examinations-Armenian (written), Armenian literature, foreign language aptitude, singing, history of the Armenian people-are allowed to join the ranks of seminarians.
Recruitment is done in several ways. The Church's TV channel, Shoghakat, periodically runs advertisements announcing admission to the seminary. As a rule, boys who serve in churches may be admitted through recommendations from priests and, in this case, their secondary school records will be considered.
"If every priest sends at least one student a year to our seminary, I am sure we will have a secure future and will be able to provide the needs of our Church in clergy today and tomorrow," Fr. Vazgen says.
Since independence, the Church has been on a campaign to boost seminary enrollment. But Fr. Vazgen says the initiative to recruit future priests has not weakened the commitment to high standards of education.
"It is quite difficult to get into the seminary. No matter how much we say that we need many students, believe me, the entrance examinations are very hard to pass and the educational process in the seminary is also difficult. They study six years and have to pass difficult state examinations before they graduate," he says. Students (who can't make it) drop out during the years.
Education at the seminary is comprehensive. Attention is given to the basic subjects during the first three or four years, in Armenian language, the history of the Armenian people, Armenian literature. In the upper classes, seminarians focus on theology, in subjects such as New Testament and Old Testament interpretation.
Seminarians are also required to study languages - Armenian, Russian, English, Grabar (classical Armenian), then Greek and Hebrew in the upper years. They have exams every semester and also year-end examinations.
Gevorkian is equipped with a computer lab, but there is no Internet in the seminary. (The Church itself, though, does have a website: www.etchmiadzin.com.)
Foreign Study for Home Ministry
Fr. Vazgen says a majority of students are from middle- or lower-class families. "Of course, we have boys from a higher class whose parents are, for example, a newspaper editor and teacher. But we also have boys from villages whose fathers are farmers and mothers are homemakers.
"Sometimes it happens that a boy enters the seminary against his parents' will. In this case we find a way to talk to his parents, and even His Holiness himself does that. We meet them and very often find that the parents are against the boy's entrance, because they do not know anything about us, or they have a very vague idea of the seminary. But once they see our educational program, understand what it is like being here, see the conditions in which the seminarians live, they no longer have objections," says the 30-year-old educator, whose father was also opposed to his son's theological study, but has completely changed his opinion today.
Gevorkian also sends select students for advanced education abroad, and each year that number is growing.
Presently there are about 30 students abroad. Last year the seminary sent students to study at prominent universities in the United States and in Italy, Belgium, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Greece and Russia. All of them are on scholarships that cover all their expenses, usually for three years. Students study for master's degrees in different fields, mainly theology, but not necessarily. Other fields may include international relations, ethics, philosophy, and language.
After completing studies abroad, students are required to return to Holy Etchmiadzin, where they share their knowledge with other students, becoming teachers at the seminary for several years. Meanwhile, His Holiness sends those who show exceptional acumen for further studies to get doctoral degrees.
And, while it is sending seminarians abroad, Gevorkian is also accepting foreign students. In recent years the seminary has admitted students from Georgia, Russia, Syria, Iraq, the Netherlands and Germany. The seminary has developed a special language program for the foreign (mostly Diaspora) students, as many of them have difficulty with Armenian at first.
While spiritual and intellectual growth is the goal of seminary education, the pursuit is enforced by a code of discipline. Deacon Khachatur Gyozalian says students take the discipline in stride.
"If you behave properly, everything is allowed to you, but while you study here you must obey the rules," he says. "If you break them, you cannot call yourself a seminarian. Smoking and drinking affect a person's mental ability. How can a person who is not sober learn lessons well? You have to be in a process of learning all the time if you deal with people's souls."
The daily routine of seminarians also includes physical exercise in accordance with the principle that "there is a healthy spirit in a healthy body." Every morning the seminarians gather for group calisthenics. "We need physical training, as we have to sit a lot during the day," Khachatur says.
Khachatur, who is graduating this year, sees his future closely connected with the Church and sees himself as the Church's servant.
"I'd like to continue doing sciences, but my ultimate goal is to become a priest. It is all the same to me whether I remain here in Holy Etchmiadzin, or if my mission will be to serve in a remote village," Khachatur says. "The Church is the same-be it in Meghri or in the United States, we are one Church. We must serve all Armenians. There are children, young people, elderly people out there, maybe in an upscale city or in a poor village, who need my work."