For me the calling to even entertain the thought of going to seminary and becoming a priest didn’t happen overnight. It was a process. It took years of growth and maturing to come to that decision. But I did have certain positive things that happened in my life, seeds that were planted in me that began that process.
A First Little Push from Der Hayr
My parents made sure that every Sunday I was in church, going to Sunday School as a young boy. After graduating Sunday School my priest at the time, Fr. Carnig Hallajian, told a number of us graduates that we were either going to sing in the choir or serve at the altar. So a bunch of us young boys decided to sing in the choir. After a year or two, Fr. Carnig said that he needed someone to help serve at the altar and to do poorvar. So a couple of the boys helped him and then my turn came. I began learning how to do the censing at the altar. In the beginning it was difficult for me, so I asked to go back to the choir. I felt more comfortable singing in the choir. A couple of Sundays passed and he was still really in need of someone to do the censing and he asked me again. This time I felt more comfortable. I felt that I was really helping the church and the Der Hayr in a time of need since there was no one to do the censing. Gradually I started to pick it up. And I really enjoyed serving at the altar on Sundays. One Sunday became two Sundays, and two Sundays become four Sundays and before I knew it I was serving at the altar every Sunday, doing poorvar but also gradually learning the deacons’ litanies. Fr. Carnig invited me to his home and he began teaching me the deacons’ litanies so that I could serve properly at the altar.
Have You Ever Thought of Becoming a Priest?
One Sunday when I was about 21, a woman approached me after church. Her name was Josephine Shabazian. She asked me if I had ever thought about going into the priesthood. I said, “Thank you, but it’s not really for me.” I enjoyed serving on Sundays, but I really never thought about the priesthood in that light. At the time I was working with my father. He owned a gas station and I worked as an auto mechanic. I was very happy working in the family business. I never thought about the priesthood as a life-long vocation. The following Sunday Josephine approached me again after church during the coffee fellowship and she asked me again, “Richard, have you decided to go into the priesthood?” And I said, no, I’m not going into the priesthood. This became a funny thing because every Sunday she would ask me the same question and it became kind of annoying. I tried to avoid her as much as I could because I knew the question she was going to ask me.
But meanwhile Fr. Carnig had introduced me to the St. Nersess Deacons’ Training Program. He told me that it was a very good program where I could really learn how to serve very well at the altar. There would be other young men there like me who also served at the altar. So I decided to go and I enjoyed it very much. There I met Fr. Mardiros Chevian, who at the time was Deacon Michael. He was very energetic. He was the dean of the Seminary and worked with the youth. He impacted my life in a very positive way with his love and concern and enthusiasm for the ministry and serving the church.
A Positive Influence and a Role Model
The person who really impacted my life was Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, who was a retired archbishop at the time. He was invited to speak at the Deacons’ Training Program when I was there. His wisdom, his scholarly approach and his vast knowledge really impacted me in a very positive way. After I left the Deacons Training Program I started thinking that maybe it’s not such a far out idea to become a priest. Maybe it is something I could attain. But I was really wrestling with myself because I really didn’t think I could achieve that level and some day become a priest, thinking of all that I would have to learn to become a priest. So for three or four years I actually wrestled within myself whether or not I should do this. One side of me was saying, “There is something very positive here and you should look into it.”
The other side of me said, “This is unreachable, don’t even think about attempting to do this,” because you have to go to four years of undergraduate college and get a degree, then you have to go another four years for a Master’s degree and then study overseas. It’s like eight or nine years of your life and I didn’t think I’d be able to do it since I wasn’t really prepared to go to college.
Give it a Try
After a few years serving at the altar every Sunday at my home parish, Holy Cross, Union City, I felt that just serving on Sundays wasn’t enough anymore. I was growing and maturing and something inside of me was saying that I had to give this a try. I was afraid that if I didn’t at least try it, then ten or twenty years later I might look back and realize that I could have been a good priest. “At least if I give it a try,” I thought, “and put all my effort and energy into this at least I’ll know definitely if it’s for me or not for me.”
So I decided to go to St. Nersess Seminary but first I had to go to back to college. So I got a Bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in philosophy from Jersey City State College which is now Jersey City University. Then I went through the preparation and testing to be admitted to the Seminary.
For me Seminary was a training ground. I was tested in many different ways. Going to church on Sundays is one thing. After you serve on the altar you go home after church. But living in a seminary environment where there are rules and regulations and various disciplines is something else. For me once I came to the Seminary my faith grew immensely. I felt that I was being disciplined and I was maturing and I was growing. And I truly felt at home even though the classes were difficult. It wasn’t easy. What was really excellent was the support among the seminarians. If I had difficulty in a subject one of the seminarians would help me. If I could help someone I would. We had a very nice rapport and camaraderie with one another. So during my time at Seminary I truly grew in my faith and I felt comfortable with this vocation of priesthood.
But I have to take a step back and say that when I decided to go to Seminary I went back to Josephine, the lady who put the idea in my head. I asked her if she was happy that I was going into the priesthood. It’s interesting because she never spoke about that subject again. Years later I realized that God was speaking to me through this woman but at the time I was too young and immature to understand the magnitude of what she was saying.
Even my father, who was not really a churchgoer, began coming to church and was very proud and happy that I would be going into the priesthood and receiving holy orders as a future priest of the Armenian Church.
The Vocation is Within You
So for me it was not something that happened over night. It was a gradual process that unraveled within me. I have to say that I am very happy that God has blessed me in this vocation to serve and to bring people closer to Christ under the umbrella of the Armenian Church. To me this could be a testimony to other young men who may have an interest in the priesthood, but who may not be sure if this is something that they can achieve or if it is attainable.
The vocation is something we have within us and we may not know when or where or how. I must say that Fr. Carnig was instrumental in my decision to go to Seminary. He encouraged me. But it was this woman who persisted constantly in sharing with me her feelings about me going into the priesthood. She felt that I would be a good priest. When we’re younger it’s hard to see that far ahead. To have the vision. Sometimes people see things in us that we don’t see. Are we willing to open our hearts and our minds to accept what other people are saying? We are ambassadors of Christ. They come in different shapes and forms and sizes. Sometimes people in various situations can be the ones that lead us; a very humble and simple person in our parish can be the one who touches our life. We don’t know.
For me it’s been a blessing. To be a priest has been very rewarding. To be a priest is very exciting. Every day is a new challenge. There are many blessings every day interacting with people, bringing them closer to Christ, helping them on the road to salvation as I too learn and grow and mature in my faith as a Christian and as a priest of the Armenian Church. I enjoy it. I enjoy my service to the church.