Fr. Daniel Findikyan, left, at his May 8 enthronement as Primate, with his predecessor Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (photo: Albin Lohr-Jones)

New Eastern Diocesan Primate Listening and Learning, Considering Reprioritization

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NEW YORK – Very Rev. Daniel Findikyan’s election on May 4 as Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America represents a decided change from the past. The installation of any new Primate for the first time after 28 years, which is the length of time Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, the longest-serving Primate in the history of the Diocese, was in office, would imply change, but on top of that, Findikyan is the first American-born priest to hold this office, and his election coincided with the mass movements leading to a change of government in Armenia.

Findikyan commented, “I was elected Primate the same week that Nikol Pashinyan claimed his place as prime minister, with all those really remarkable events in Armenia. People could not help but remark that it was a new day, with fresh hopes and expectations. I don’t want to be too romantic about that. Time will tell. My way of expressing it is that perhaps the holy spirit of God is at work here.”

Primate, Very Rev. Daniel Findikyan

Young Michael Findikyan

Findikyan is simultaneously Armenian and American — and even German. He was born Michael Findikyan in Fort Worth, Texas, where his family had no Armenian connections whatsoever. His mother is German, and through her he learned German. On the other hand, his father is from Istanbul, and his grandfather was the director of the Gomidas Choir there and a real leader of the Armenian community there.

Findikyan said that his grandfather was part of the Armenian National Assembly which elected Patriarch Shnorhk Kalustyan and on the organizing committee for the visit of Catholicos of All Armenians Vasken I to Istanbul.

Findikyan as a child was old enough to hear stories of Istanbul Armenian life from his grandfather, who relocated to Brazil with his wife and a daughter and her family in 1960, but frequently visited the US. He also heard much from his father, who came to the US as a college student.

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When his family moved to the metropolitan New York area, young Michael came into contact with an organized large Armenian community, and when he was 8 or so, his father forced him to go to Camp Nubar. Today Findikyan says that this “perhaps was the birthplace of my Armenian identity.” He met prominent Armenian clergymen, including Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, and still looks forward to visiting the camp as an adult.

However, Michael’s father changed jobs while Michael was in high school so that in 1975 the family had to move to Binghamton, a little town in upstate New York. There is a small Armenian community there of some 30 or 40 families, mostly from Hadjin originally. Findikyan said, “They knew we were coming before we got there…this family with three kids…and they just dragged us in.”

Moving to Binghampton

The American-born Fr. Kevork Arakelian, only ordained a few years before and the first graduate of St. Nersess Seminary to become a priest, “just scooped us up with enthusiasm,” Findikyan continued, “and I had no choice but to be involved.”

And Michael’s mother was, as Findikyan describes, “scooped up too in Binghamton.” She became involved in the Armenian Church. Michael’s German background and American upbringing, he says now, “allow me to recognize what is so precious about Armenian identity.”

One day, Arakelian showed up with a pile of books and asked him to prepare to replace the church organist, who had moved to Florida. Michael was sent to St. Nersess for deacons’ training and summer conferences. He said, “Once in that environment, everything started to change.”

At the age of 14, Arakelian planted the seed in Michael of becoming a priest, and eventually, after studying chemistry and music in college, Michael gave up the idea of become a physician to go into the priesthood. After earning various advanced academic degrees and becoming a vartabed, Findikyan served as a visiting parish priest, taught at St. Nersess Seminary himself, where he was dean from 2000 to 2012, and was the director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center of the Eastern Diocese from 2012 until his recent election as Primate.

He also has taught at a number of universities.

Historic Perspective on Armenian Church

Findikyan confessed that in his first few months in office, he must spend much time listening and learning, for there are many aspects of the Diocesan operations with which he was not involved in the past. He will be meeting with staff at the Diocesan Center, the Diocesan Council, clergy, Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA), allied groups, and various parishes, after which, he said, he can begin to formulate more concrete ideas about how to change, improve and grow.

In a broad way, Findikyan said, he already does have a sense about what type of change is necessary. He said, “One thing is very clear to me…for a long, long time, for many good historical reasons, the Armenian Church was placed in a position of being all things to all Armenians, all things to all people. The Armenian Church was the only structure or entity of the Armenian people that had a global reach. Quite naturally, especially during horrific circumstances like the Genocide, and in other circumstances as well, the Armenians looked to the church for everything, not just for spiritual sustenance but for education and culture…and now of course we live in a different world.”

He pointed out that there is the government of the Republic of Armenia and all sorts of Armenian organizations with a global reach now, and concluded, “It is time for the Armenian Church to be a church, to focus its mission on that which has been uniquely given to the Church to achieve, which is the Gospel, cultivating God’s people, God’s children, building up the Body of Christ…these are the kinds of imperatives uniquely entrusted to the Church and to no one else.” If the Armenian Church does not do this, he said, these things won’t get done, and, he said, “We will betray what we are at its most sacred center, or, they will be done by other people…and that is not acceptable. I am the Primate of the Diocese. I have gone over the books. We don’t have the resources, neither human nor financial nor spatial, to do everything to which the Armenian people aspire. There are others who can do that work, nation-building and so forth, who are much better equipped, both financially and otherwise, to undertake those kinds of missions.”

This approach if followed to its logical conclusion will lead to many changes. He said, “This has very tangible consequences, which in time we will have to consider. We will have to trim the way we do things…We are not going to do some of the things this Diocese has traditionally done.” This will be a reprioritization.

Findikyan said that the present situation perhaps is one reason why a lot of people do not have much time for the church. In the aftermath of the Genocide, the children of survivors did not have much time to reflect on the distinct theological orientation of our church. He said, “If we are unable to articulate clearly why it is fruitful for someone of Armenian extraction or someone who is now in a family of Armenians to live his Christian life within the Armenian Church…then we should not be surprised that our churches are empty.” It is necessary to provide “education in the sense of lifting up our people, recognizing who we are, and what is the message of the church that is distinctive to it.”

Uniquely Armenian Christianity

There is also much to be optimistic about in the present situation. Findikyan said, “I believe that the Christian way of life that is uniquely Armenian, for which our ancestors have given their blood, is a very good path …. My goal always has been as a priest, a vartabed, and now, as a Primate, to inspire our people with what is in their blood: it is world class, second to none.” This tradition must be studied and articulated, or rather translated into the categories of the 21st century, he said.

The first step is to “excavate” it, as it is all in Classical Armenian. The St. Nersess Seminary and the Zohrab Center can play a part in this, and education must be fostered, he said, at all levels, age groups and demographics.

He said he often quotes Prof. Gabriella Winkler, a world-renowned historian of liturgies or worship traditions of the Eastern Churches, and in particular of the Armenian Church, who said to him that “you Armenians don’t know what you are sitting on.” This stung to the core, Findikyan said, because as Armenians, “We don’t really have a clue. We are operating on the outermost skin, one cell thick, of what it means to be Armenian, with our lahmajun, our flag and our genocide and our alphabet, and about six other things, yet we stand up as proud Armenians. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable.”

He said that he was not convinced that the old model of education, with Saturday and Sunday schools, inherited from 75 years ago, is effective, while an artificial distinction has been created between Armenian Christian and cultural heritage. “We face grave problems with the Christian formation of our kids and the creation of a generation that can speak or read Armenian,” he declared. “This all has to be reviewed very carefully and very soberly and courageously, because to disrupt what we have been doing for decades is risky business.”

One option, he thought, might be to raise money to send the youth to Armenia, Lebanon or Jerusalem, but this was a conversation for the broader community to hold. When asked about the possibility of the Eastern Diocese running Armenian schools, he responded that “the question will be, does this fall within the unique prerogative and privilege of the Church, or are there others who can do it better than we can?” Running schools, he said, is not an easy task and the financial costs are great, while there are other bodies like the Armenian General Benevolent Union that are already doing this very well, or the American University of Armenia with its language immersion programs. Consequently, he said, “we have to have the courage to think critically and very objectively to make sure that…we find the best means to do it.”

Giving concrete examples, Findikyan said, “My heart bleeds for the fact that my nieces and nephew don’t speak Armenian. It bleeds redder blood when I see nice Armenian kids addicted to drugs, and committing suicide and becoming Mormons … and, to be very honest, that is where my heart goes. With every fiber of energy that I have left, I will teach Armenian and encourage it, but for me there are even more horrific tragedies around us.”

These include issues like opioid addiction, suicide and gender confusion, which are issues no other Armenian organization will deal with, whereas, he said, “We are better equipped to deal with those kinds of issues here in this diocese than to figure out the great, complex problem of transmitting language and culture to fourth-generation American Armenians, and we really need to be thinking broadly about that…We have a time-honored path which works, endorsed time and again with the blood of the martyrs. I am eager to share that with people.”

When the perennial question of how to get the youth to participate more in the life of the church was discussed, Findikyan declared that “the stagnancy that we may experience may have to do with a broad and diffuse sense of the mission of the church. We will articulate that message courageously, see its links with the history of our church and the Christian culture of our people. This is really exciting.” He said that he would work to have all elements of our community centrally involved in the life of the church. The ACYOA, for example, should not “be a holding bin for college students” but be actively engaged in the ministry of the church, while women must be more visibly involved with the mission of the church according to the Armenian tradition. He exclaimed, “I can tell you that I will be casting a wide net to empower men, women, children and youth to become a part of the very invigorating mission of our church here in America in the third millennium.

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