"What is the definition of 'youth?", Fr. Daniel Findikyan asked the retreat participants, whose chairs were positioned in two concentric circles so that participants were facing each other in pairs.
"Youth means life," responded V. Rev. Fr. Haigazoun Najarian, Pastor of Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Armenian Church (Wynnewood, PA) and a member of the Eastern Diocesan Council. "And the opposite of 'youth' is death!", he added without taking a breath.
The question and its answer were part of the introductory session of an unprecedented all-day retreat for members of the Diocesan Council of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, together with the members of the Central Council of the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA). The retreat was led by V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Dean of the Seminary, at the request of the two church bodies.
And sensational it was. All eight members of the ACYOA Central Council participated with 8 members of the Diocesan Council, including the Primate, in a full day and evening of discussion, prayer and fellowship.
Also participating in the retreat were staff members from the Diocese's Department of Youth and Education: Nancy Basmajian, Jason Demerjian, Jennifer Morris, and Daron Bolat.
"My goal, first of all, is that you get to know each other better in a loving and prayerful environment," Findikyan said. "Next, my hope is that you will find common ground and become allies in the Armenian Church's mission and this Diocese's critical work in achieving that mission."
As the day opened, participants from both bodies were visibly reluctant, if not outright skeptical about facing each other in a retreat setting.
"This retreat is a natural step for the Diocesan Council to take, given its stated goal of making the Armenian Church significant in the lives of our youth," said His Eminence Abp. Khajag Barsamian, Primate, who participated eagerly in the day's activities.
Fr. Daniel began the day with a creative activity intended to break the ice and allow the participants to get to know one another better. In constantly changing pairs, the participants were asked to share their responses to questions like, "What motivates you to serve the Armenian Church in a leadership position?;" "What is the most challenging aspect of your current leadership position?; "Describe a time when you felt embraced by the Armenian Church;" "What is the greatest asset of the Armenian Church?" and "What are the greatest challenges facing our Diocese?," among others.
A Bible Study followed this exercise. In small groups comprising members of both bodies, the participants reflected on the opening to St. Paul's Epistles to the Ephesians (Chapter 1, verses 1-14). St. Paul describes the manifold blessings God has bestowed upon his people, and "the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
Participants were asked to reflect on their perception of these blessings within the Armenian Church, as well as their sense of having been called "from the foundation of the world" to propagate the Church's mission.
Following lunch, Fr. Findikyan gave the retreatants a provocative and challenging assignment: "Describe the person who would best replace you in your current church leadership position when you retire. Describe that person as clearly as you can--personality; talents; age; appearance; background; profession; education; family; birthplace; commitment to Church; commitment to nation, etc."
The task was, of course, a thinly-veiled invitation for each participant to reflect self-critically on his or her qualifications for church leadership, and to ponder the face of the Diocese's lay and ordained leadership tomorrow.
A fly on the wall would have heard intriguing snippets of the discussion which followed, including the Primate reflecting on the most important qualifications of his office; or the Treasurer of the Diocesan Council thinking over the importance of personal faith for members of that leadership body.
The discussion also turned to the effectiveness of the Diocese in cultivating qualified future leaders, both lay and ordained.
The final session of the day was devoted to a study and discussion of the fifth-century Life of Mashdots by his youngest disciple, Koriwn. Fr. Findikyan provided a "Chain of Excerpts" from the new English translation of Koriwn's classic work by Dr. Abraham Terian, Professor of Armenian Patristics at St. Nersess.
This year marks the 1600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrob Mashdots and his saintly patron, Catholicos Sahag the Great.
For Koriwn, St. Mesrob created the alphabet with one objective, which he pursued with single-minded tenacity: more effectively to teach and to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Again and again Koriwn stresses St. Mesrob Mashdots' heroic and saintly efforts to make every Armenian "knowledgeable of the prophets and familiar with the apostles and heirs to the Gospel, and in no way ignorant of the traditions about God;" and to make all Armenians "disciples of the truth."
An often-overlooked fact of St. Mesrob's mission is his focus on the youth. As he travelled throughout the provinces of Armenia, and later to Georgia and Caucasian Albania, without fail the holy translator's first task was always to gather a coterie of young people around him. They were always his first students of the newly-invented letters and of the Christian message which those letters conveyed. The youth thus became the first generation of teachers and preachers. Koriwn never makes a distinction between teaching the alphabet and preaching the Gospel. Cultural and Christian literacy are one and the same.
"How well does our Diocese's emphasis on education compare to Koriwn's overwhelming emphasis on teaching?," Fr. Findikyan asked the ACYOA and Diocesan Council members.
"How does our Diocese, in its programs and publications, convey the early Armenian Church's unqualified commitment to Biblical literacy--teaching our people holy Scripture?," he asked. " Similarly," he continued, "What can we learn today about the role of the youth in the life of the Armenian Church during the time of Mashdots?"
Following the afternoon session, the retreat participants recessed for dinner with Parish Council Chairmen from throughout the Diocese, who, by coincidence, were meeting at the Diocese for a weekend of meetings and consultations with the Primate and Diocesan Staff.
The retreat concluded late in the evening with a special prayer service in the intimate baptistery of St. Vartan Cathedral.
"Baptism is the sacrament of new life in Christ," said Fr. Findikyan. "My prayer is that each of us today has in some way perceived the power and beauty of that new life, and that God will empower us to apply it for the good of our people and the glory of God."
Fr. Yeprem Kelegian, Pastor of St. Mesrob Armenian Church (Racine, WI), who helped organize the retreat, shared these sentiments. "What a blessing this day was. I am thankful to have had this opportunity to get to know my colleagues in the Diocesan Council and especially the ACYOA Central Council members more deeply. It was a blessing," he said, "because my eyes have seen a new wave, a new cadre of committed Christian youth, ready to lead and to take over the Diocese."