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The Mekhitarists also studied ancient Armenian literature, amassing rare collections and recovering for scholars works long considered lost, including letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch that survived only in translation.

“If a culture is isolated from the world it risks dying,” Father Hovsep said.

“The Mekhitarist Fathers brought everything from algebra to astronomy to the Armenian people. Our culture was strengthened as a result.”

But these successes were accomplished in Mekhitarist houses and schools of the Armenian diaspora (Aleppo, Beirut, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Los Angeles and Paris), far from the nucleus of the Armenian nation — the sacred Mount Ararat and Holy Etchmiadzin, the home of the Catholicos of all the Armenians.

After more than 70 years of Communist oppression, isolated communities of Armenian Catholics resurfaced with the rebirth of an independent Armenia in 1991. These Catholics, numbering just 220,000 of the nation’s 2.9 million citizens, preserved their faith in bits and pieces; their clergy had been liquidated by the Communists, their churches padlocked or torched.

“In 1998, [the late] Catholicos Karekin I invited us to work among Catholics in the north of the country,” Father Hovsep said.

“When the catholicos came to San Lazzaro, we asked him what he expected of us [in Armenia],” Father Hovsep said. “He told us to continue what we’ve always done. In our prayer, as well as our monastic life, we have introduced European culture to Armenians.”

While the monks welcomed the encouragement, they privately expressed their concern for the lack of Mekhitarists available to take on such an apostolate — vocations to monastic life had declinedconsiderably.

“We didn’t come here by our own decision,” Father Hovsep said. “We came because we were asked to. This is the will of God and we can never work against that.”

There are only two Mekhitarists in Armenia: Father Hovsep and Archbishop Vartan Kechichian, who is responsible for the pastoral care of Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe. But Father Hovsep works closely with the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos, Karekin II.

“We haven’t come to proselytize, because we respect the Armenian Apostolic Church as the church of all Armenians,” Father Hovsep said.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II marked the third centenary of the community’s founding by extolling the Mekhitarists’ ecumenical role.

“In the common journey of monastic rediscovery, you will benefit a great deal from collaborating with your brothers of the Apostolic Armenian Church,” the pope said.

“It will be a further example of the ‘frontier ecumenism’ that monasticism can achieve if it does not withdraw into isolation or fundamentalism, but knows how to welcome a brother it meets on the way in the name of the sincere seeking of the Father’s face.”

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Tags: Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Armenian Catholic Church Catholicos Karekin II Mekhitarist