Tackling Pastoral Challenges in Armenia

Armenia’s small Catholic Church strives to meet the pastoral needs of its community.

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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The day begins early at the summer camp of Our Lady of Armenia. At 7:30, prayers and the Armenian national anthem echo throughout the halls of the camp, which is located about 40 miles north of Yerevan in Tzakhkatzor, the valley of flowers.

“After 70 years of Communism, and now because of poor social conditions, Armenians are gradually losing the faith of their forefathers,” laments Sister Arousiag Sajonian, an Armenian Sister of the Immaculate Conception who is the local superior and runs the summer camp.

“A nation is held together by the common values of its families, and we are losing these values. The conditions are such that, in order to survive, people are searching for means that are foreign to our culture.

“With the help of the church, we have to reestablish Armenian and Christian values. Religious leaders must encourage people to endure with the hope that things will improve,” she concludes.

From their convent in the city of Gumri Sister Arousiag and her community run an extensive summer program for 500 orphaned and needy children, as well as an additional program for 50 catechists from Armenia and southern Georgia. The only Armenian Catholic congregation of women religious, established in Constantinople in 1847, the sister primary apostolate is service to Armenia youth.

“Last summer,” Sister Arousiag declares with enthusiasm, “we tried to recruit children from as many villages as possible in an effort to expose them to the truths of the faith and prepare them for the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – which they receive at the camp.”

All the sisters at Our Lady of Armenia camp participate in activities with the children. The sister energy knows no bounds as they sing and dance along with the campers. Their cheerful faces and their modesty make the children feel even more joyful and at ease.

“Many families want me to take their children – sometimes they literally beg for that,” notes Sister Arousiag.

“The work we do during the few weeks in this camp is as important as what we do all through the year,” she continues.

Besides catechism, sports and dancing, the sisters provide lessons in daily living. Indeed, in their mission statement, the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception state that they work to enable each child to “develop a set of values consistent with Christian ideals and an ethical system as a guide to behavior and formation of a conscience.”

With programs such as this summer camp, the Armenian Catholic Church, which shares the rites and traditions of the Armenian Apostolic Church yet maintains full communion with the Church of Rome, is making great strides in meeting the pastoral needs of Armenian Catholics. Nevertheless there is a shortage of priests – a serious impediment if the church hopes to meet fully the spiritual needs of the community.

There are some 25 Catholic villages scattered in Armenia and approximately the same number in southern Georgia, with roughly 2,000 inhabitants per village. In addition, thousands of Armenian Catholics inhabit the cities of Gumri and Yerevan. Yet, only eight priests are available to care for the sacramental needs of this widely dispersed community – four are stationed in Armenia and four are based in Georgia.

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Tags: Armenia Armenian Catholic Church Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception