From Sales To Souls

Fr. Shnork Souin

My call came long before I had any ability to discern it intellectually, emotionally or spiritually. I was told that my mother prayed for me before I was born. She told me, “I used to pray that God touch you, give you wisdom, lead you in the right direction.” My earliest childhood memories are of a family where we loved each other and we cared for each other. It was not a perfect family, but there was discipline and order. There was a lot of affection. We were raised in the church.

Rambunctious… Loud… Obnoxious

I had my own share of issues that I dealt with as a kid. I was rambunctious. I remember my mother was quite offended when they started up the junior choir in our parish and I was not invited to be a part of it. They said, “Your son is too loud, too obnoxious. He is a disruption.” After my mother protested, they let me in, but I was no longer interested in being a part of it.

Likewise in Sunday School. I remember they said, “Dghat khelok cheh. Dghat shad aghmoog gu haneh” [Your son is not well-behaved. Your son makes a lot of noise]. At that time my mother was not a huge advocate of the Sunday School anyway because she was raised a Roman Catholic and she felt that the proper place for a child on Sunday morning was in church. This was very unpopular with the Sunday School staff at the time, something I learned about later in life.

So we were in church every Sunday morning. “Sheedag gayneer. Tsayn mee haner” [Stand straight. Dont make noise], and so on. Those are my earliest memories of church. Church was bit of a drudgery for me as a kid, although there were parts that appealed to me.

I remember as I got a little older my Hayr Soorp told me, “You will be serving at the altar holding a candle.” I was awestruck by that. I started to serve at the altar along with my cousin and a couple of my buddies. I wouldnt say it was a particularly meaningful participation. It didnt have a profound spiritual impact as far as I was able to discern. I took my faith for granted as many kids from a devout Armenian Christian family would. This is what we believe and there were no questions asked. Still, by serving at the altar I started to learn the Divine Liturgy in spite of myself.

It Was the Thing to Do

I had a typical High School experience. Sports and athletics were far more important than academics. Rock music was far more important than school work, at least for me. But I never got into trouble. I managed to avoid drugs and sex and I was pretty paree most of the time.

Then along came the time to go to college. That was a challenge for me because I was not a real disciplined person. Friendships were far more important to me at that time than sitting down and studying. I ended up going to Ryerson Polytechnic Institute and I got a business degree. But I really ended up going to business school only because it was the thing to do. My dad was in sales and marketing, so I thought that thats what I should do. But in retrospect I wasnt very committed to it. I didnt have a vision of my career at the time.

During college I had the great and wonderful opportunity to attend a St. Nersess Summer Conference. I would say that was providential. I was attending a Diocesan Assembly with my parents in New Britain, Connecticut in 1980 or 1981, after my first year in college. I was sitting out on the picnic bench on the church property and this young clergyman came out and started to talk to me. I was shocked by this. I wasnt used to a priest just coming up and casually talking to me. I found out that this was Deacon Michael Chevian. He mentioned that he was the Rector of St. Nersess Seminary, which I hadnt heard of at the time. He urged me to consider coming to a summer conference and he had the literature in his hand. My immediate reaction was, “Thats not what I want to do.” Why would I go to a seminary? Besides, I always played summer hockey.

Nevertheless we had a good conversation. I asked questions about doubts that I had and he gave answers to every one of my questions. He had an open and honest dialogue with me, which I really appreciated. And up to that point I have to say that my experience with Armenian clergy was not so open and honest, although I loved the priests that I had and I respected them. When I asked them questions about moral and theological topics I used to get answers like, “Ayt paneruh mezee tsekeh” [Leave those things to us], or “Ayt paneroo maseen mee mudadzer” [Dont think about such things]. So I was really encouraged when I met Deacon Michael and I took to him very quickly.

A Change of Life

That summer I went to my first St. Nersess Conference and I had a wonderful time. I learned a lot and it was like a veil was lifted up over me. So many questions and concerns and even doubts were lifted. I would even say that it was of a miraculous nature. I met people who became friends and are still friends today. It was really a change of life for me.

Its funny, when I got back from St. Nersess I had signed up for some summer courses and I ended up doing very, very well in those courses. I approached them very differently than I had approached anything else in my life before that. I now approached my studies with a real sense of humility and with a respect for what I was being called to do. Even though I didnt have a great interest in what I was studying, it was like an unnatural respect for the academic. I felt a sense that God was now giving me this task to do whether I liked it or not. So my mind was really transformed over that summer. I did very well and I got a couple of As to my credit. My whole academic career took a turn after that summer. I finished up my degree, thank God. Part of that providential aspect, the hand of God, was that quite frankly I dont know that I would have gotten through college without that experience at St. Nersess.

After I got my degree I went off to France for 8 months. I got a job in Paris. There I lived in the Armenian student home and made some very good friends and had a wonderful experience. I attended the Armenian Church services in Paris, but I became very discouraged there, I have to say, because I didnt see any young people in church. I remember feeling very disillusioned thinking that without young people the Armenian Church just wont survive.

Become Part of the Solution

I got back from Paris and I decided that I was going to serve the church in a much better way than I ever could before. As I got involved in the ACYOA, I started not only challenging myself, but now challenging the church to respond to the needs of the people. I probably was a pain in the neck to my pastor, who at the time was Hayr Hovnan Derderian, who is now Abp. Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. I became very close to him. He was as much a friend and a brother to me as he was a father and a pastor. We talked a lot and he really encouraged me. I started to see that here was a man who really did have a vision for the church. He really did encourage the inclusion of the youth. One day when I was pestering him with questions”Why cant the church do this?” and “Why doesnt the Church do that?”he looked right at me and said, “Rather than complaining about the church why dont you become part of the solution?” Thats when it really struck me that God uses us to accomplish his means. It wasnt that I didnt know that, but I was confronted by him in a way that humbled me. After that day, I really made a concerted effort not to complain. I decided to do what I can do as long as its good and pleasing to God.

I started to serve on the altar and learn the liturgy. During those years I also was participating in the St. Nersess conferences as a participant and later as a counselor.

All this time in the back of mind there was something that I am going to refer to as a “call.” I am not sure that at the time I discerned it as a “call.” There was this tugging: “Come, follow, serve.” Im using these words today, but Im not sure that I would have been able to articulate it back then.

Then I fell in love with a lovely, wonderful woman who became my wife; my first girlfriend and now my bride, my first and only love. She is not Armenian, but she is a very faithful and devout Christian woman. We got married in the Armenian Church. She was a devout Roman Catholic, but she became very comfortable in the Armenian Church. In the first five years of our marriage we were blessed with three children.

I should say that after I got back from France I got a job in sales. I did quite well and got a few promotions. We moved to St. Catherines, Ontario and I became a district manager. I had a few people working under me. Things were going quite well. I had an expense account, a nice car, and all that.

I became the chairman of the Parish Council at St. Catherines. I really enjoyed that. Then a couple of years later, around 1991, there was a Diocesan Assembly and I really began to discern more and more that God was calling me in a direction that I wasnt necessarily willing to go, nor was it a direction that I felt worthy to go, nor was it a direction that I imagined it possible to go. And that was priesthood. By now I had even led a couple of retreats for the young people, which I really enjoyed doing. But I couldnt imagine all the other “stuff” that went along with priesthood, particularly the language. I spoke “kitchen Armenian,” but I couldnt read or write Armenian, which seemed prohibitive. Plus, I was married, I had kids and I had a mortgage to pay.

Enough Already!

One day my wife Julie and I were driving back from Toronto from some church function. Julie asked me, “If you could be doing anything right now what would it be?” So I said Id want to be a priest, thinking that she would say Im nuts and that would be the last time wed ever talk about that.

Much to my surprise, however, she said, “Yes, I could see why youd want to do that.”

Over the course of the next couple of days, I kept bringing the subject up. Finally after a few weeks she said, “Thats enough already! Would you stop talking about this!”

I thought she meant, “Shut up and lets not go there anymore.” But she continued, “Instead of talking to me, go and talk to Srpazan. If God is calling you to do this, then maybe you ought to explore it rather than denying it.” So this was permission from my wife. Later I realized that God spoke through Julie that day.

That very day I called Srpazan and told him I needed to talk to him about something serious. He was alarmed, thinking that there was something wrong. He said to come right away. He was in Toronto and I was in St. Catherines, an hour and a half away, so I got in the car and drove to Toronto to his apartment.

He greeted me at the door with a very worried look in his face. I came right out and said, “I think Id like to be a priest.”

He took a giant sigh of relief. “Is that all? I thought there was some tragedy.”

“Is that crazy?,” I asked him.

He said, “No, its not crazy, its wonderful! I thought it was something serious. I was worried.”

I was surprised by his reaction. I thought hed say, “Khent mee ullar [Dont be crazy]. You have a good job. You have a wife and kids. Youve got to take care of them. You can serve the church in all kinds of different ways.”

But he didnt say that. He said, “OK, lets talk about this.”

So we talked. I went about telling him how unworthy I would be as a priest and how I could never become a priest. I tried to come up with every reason why I should not be a priest.

But he said, “Look, if God is calling you, he will equip you. He will make it all possible. And if hes not calling you, you should explore that too. So either way youve got to explore whether hes calling you or not.

“Well how do I do that?,” I asked him.

“Im not sure,” he said. “But whatever happens, it should happen peacefully and without disrupting your family.”

“Sure, easy for you to say,” I thought. “Youre not married and you dont have kids. Anything that happens to me is going to affect my family.”

“Greg, dont worry. Just pray about it and ask God to give you direction,” he said, calling me by my baptismal name. “I will pray for you and well talk again this week.”

Leaving his apartment, I felt a bit relieved that I had spoken to him. But at the same time I had no concrete answers at that point.

Preparing for the Priesthood

So I drove back to St. Catherines. You can imagine what was going through my mind: “Theyll send me to Jerusalem. What if they send me to Armenia? What do I do with my children? Ive got a wife whos not even Armenian! Shell think Im nuts. Shell kill me. Itll never work. I have a mortgage. Will I have to sell my house? I dont even have my own car. My wife is pregnant. Impossible! I cant see any possible way for this to work.”

As I was driving to one of my stores right in town, I drove by Brock University, which is the local college in St. Catherines. I had driven by this University hundreds of times. But this time my eye caught a cross on one of the campus buildings. As I drove closer, I saw a sign, “Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary.” Cool! So I quickly put on my left signal and drove in. The parking lot was empty because it was late May and classes were out. So I walked in, wearing my suit and tie, and there was a receptionist.

“May I help you?”

“Yes. Im curious. Ive never seen this building before. I noticed that this is a seminary. Could I pick up some literature about your courses?”

“Yes, certainly but Id like you to speak with someone.”

So this bearded gentleman came out in a T-shirt and shorts. I introduced myself as an Armenian Orthodox Christian and, surprised, he invited me into his office. In his office there was a whole wall full of Byzantine icons. I look on his bookshelves and found them filled with books on patristics (church fathers), theology, church history, and so on. More surprising, he started telling me things I had never heard of concerning the Armenian Church: about Etchmiadzin, about our christology and theology. He pulled out a few articles that he had authored referring to the eastern church traditions.

“How wonderful it would be to have an Armenian Orthodox student here preparing for the priesthood,” he said.

Now of course I wasnt preparing for the priesthood. I had had one conversation with Hovnan Srpazan that morning! So my head was spinning! But this guy knew exactly where I was coming from, much to my amazement. I left there with all kinds of literature, articles and he even gave me a book.

I called Srpazan back and said, “Srpazan, I think Ive found a place where Id like to take a few courses.”

“Great! Ill pay for it.”

So we got together a few days later because he wanted to see the literature about this seminary. “Youre going to take this course, this course, this course and that course,” he said, running his finger down the pages of the course catalogue.

I said, “Srpazan, I cant do that. I have a job.”

“You’ll leave your job. Youll go to the seminary. Youll take six courses. And youll help out at your parish. And your Der Hayr will teach you liturgics and Armenian.”

I said, “I don’t know how I can do that.”

“Don’t worry, Well take care of everything,” he said in a calm, fatherly voice. “Sit down and prepare for me your monthly budget to support your family.”

So I prepared a very modest budget and presented it to him. I dont know what he did or what he said to the Diocesan Council, but within a week there was an agreement whereby the diocese would help me with a car. They would offer me remuneration. They would pay for my theological studies.

I told my company right up front what I was doing. I worked until the end of August and went off to seminary starting that September. After my first year of seminary, which I thoroughly enjoyed (and I did quite well Im happy to say), I had a chance to come to St. Nersess in the summer. I spent two months there with my whole family and I basically had private tutoring in liturgical theology, Armenian language and a few other things. It was a great experience.

The next Fall I was ordained a deacon. A year and a half later, I finished my Master of Divinity degree and was ordained a priest.

The First Inspires the First

I want to add something very crucial here. This process of going through the challenges of addressing Srpazan with my thoughts and feelings coincided with the death of V. Rev. Fr. Vasken Tatoyan, the first American-born Armenian priest. He baptized me. My father and I went to his funeral in Niagara Falls, New York, thirty minutes from my parish in St. Catherines Ontario. Right after the funeral, I asked my dad to stay behind with me in the church. After everyone else had left the church, just six of us remained: my dad, myself, Fr. Vasken (whose casket had not yet been removed) and the Holy Trinity.

I said, “Dad, I have to tell you something. Over the last couple of weeks, something amazing and miraculous has happened.”

“What is it, dughas?,” he asked.

“Im going to start studying for the priesthood. Im leaving my job in September.”

His reaction was, “God bless you.” He pointed out something very interesting: “Here at the funeral of the first American-born Armenian priest, who baptized you, you are telling me that you are going to be the first Canadian-born Armenian priest.” It seems that Gods hand was in that too.

Ill summarize my mothers reaction with a funny anecdote. She was quite ill. She got to see my ordination, but didnt last much longer after that. Hovnan Srpazan used to come to our house all the time. One day he said, “What a proud day it was for me when I made your son a priest.”

And she said, “No, my proudest day was when you made me a diramayr [the mother of a priest].”

God Deemed Me Worthy to Do This

To this day, looking back, it is completely miraculous that all this happened; almost in spite of me. I have never looked back. I think this is the most wonderful vocation in the world. I wouldnt trade places with anybody in the world. Having just celebrated my tenth anniversary, I am completely thrilled and humbled and thankful to God that he has deemed me worthy to do this. It was a great miracle and I was a part of it.