By Taleen Babayan
As high school seniors around the country embark on the next chapter of their lives and prepare to enter college life, the Western Diocese has ensured that Armenian school students remain rooted in their faith, values and culture, during its annual symbolic Graduation Communion Ceremony that took place on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the St. Leon Cathedral in Burbank, California. The graduating classes of the AGBU Vatche & Tamar Manoukian High School and the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian High School, both leading day schools in the Los Angeles metro area, participated in this timely program that created a strong foothold and a sense of comfort for students.
Setting the context of the ceremony, Arpi Avanessian, Principal of the AGBU Manogian-Demirdjian School, recited portions of Vahan Tekeyan’s acclaimed poem Եկեղեցին Հայկական, tying the significance of the Armenian Church into the nationhood and in the daily lives of Armenians, highlighting that “we are strong when we are together as a school, as a family and as a church.”
Throughout the program, students participated in Bible readings, prayers and hymns, completing the ceremony with an ուխտ, a vow as they transition into their college years, and received Holy Communion.
“You are the reason for our happiness this evening,” said Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese, in his address to the students. “This is a day of celebration as you inspire us with your faith, your wisdom and your future accomplishments.” He noted the supportive environment for the students and recognized the clergy in attendance, including Rev. Fr. Manoug Markarian (St. John Armenian Church in Hollywood, CA), Rev. Fr. Shnork Demirjian (St. Peter Armenian Church in Van Nuys, CA), Rev. Fr. Vazgen Boyajyan (Holy Resurrection Armenian Church in Redmond, WA), Rev. Fr. Khajag Shahbazyan (St. Leon Armenian Cathedral, Burbank, CA), and Rev. Fr. Sarkis Petoyan (St. Gregory Armenian Church in Pasadena, CA).
Reflecting on his own educational experiences at Gevorkyan Theological Seminary in Armenia and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, Archbishop Derderian related to the emotions the students are experiencing as they leave behind their familiar surroundings. He remarked that the evening was an emotional moment for him as well, since he watched the graduating students grow from children into adults during his service to the Western Diocese.
“You were shy and uncertain first year students, holding tight to your parent’s hands, but you grew up under the care of your priests and pastors, bonding with us spiritually during our visits,” said Archbishop Derderian. “You inspired us with your bright ideas, which oftentimes became headlines of our sermons, and on a personal level you challenged me with your smart questions, surprised me with your meticulous observations, enlightened me with your academic achievements and impressed me with your mature faith. In other words, we started school together sixteen years ago and we graduate together as we become partners in God’s Good Word.”
Archbishop Derderian imparted advice and wisdom, encouraging students to navigate through the challenges, struggles and “moments of fear, despair and disappointment” that they may face in their futures. Instead of succumbing to “stress and depression,” he advised them to gravitate towards their faith.
“Just turn to Jesus, awaken him in your heart and he will take care of the rest,” said Archbishop Derderian. “Cultivate and live a meaningful and visionary life engulfed with the Christian faith and commit to serve our nation and our church with love, loyalty and dedication.”
The evening’s keynote speaker, Her Excellence Nina Hachigian, Ambassador and Deputy Mayor of International Affairs in the City of Los Angeles, urged students to be “engaged in the solutions to the problems harming humanity and the planet.”
She emphasized the importance of service to “your community, your country, God and humanity.”
Ambassador Hachigian spoke of the many ways that the students can serve, including through public service, while conveying her personal and professional experiences as a U.S. Ambassador and how she worked with dedicated, driven and smart people “who want to make the world a better place.”
“It was important for me to know I was making the effort even though I didn’t always see the results,” said Ambassador Hachigian, who received her B.S. from Yale University and her J.D. from Stanford University. She expressed to the students the different ways to serve, from becoming a doctor and healing people to becoming an engineer and cleaning up the atmosphere, to becoming a journalist who uncovers the news.
“The key is to have a service mindset,” she said. “Think about whether your actions are helping the world around you.”
She also advised the students to volunteer, either at homeless shelters, Sunday School, planting trees in Armenia or joining a protest, noting that the most important aspect is “to be an engaged citizen of the United States.”
Ambassador Hachigian left the students with a piece of advice to be kind.
“Please serve and please be kind and then you’ll be sure to leave the world and your era better than you found it,” she concluded.
As the ceremony came to a close, each student was given a gift as well as a Bible, which Archbishop Derderian said would be “a companion throughout your life.”
“Dear graduates, each of your names are a prayer for us,” he said. “You are precious for us and we see in you Armenia, our Armenian Church and our people’s victory.”
The Graduation Communion Ceremony, which was established last year, is a way for the youth to become closer to the Church, according to Principal Avanesian.
“Our hope is that the Communion will remind our seniors that not only do they have their schools to lean on in the future but that they also have the Armenian Church,” she said.
The students themselves were touched by the program and understood the meaningful religious atmosphere they were raised in.
“As the first Christian nation, it is important for us as students to practice our nation’s religion,” said Karina Piliguian, a senior at the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School. “The communion was the first step in our graduation process and it was a sentimental moment for the seniors as we prepare to leave and enter the ‘real’ world.”
“Our Senior Communion was very helpful because it reminded and reconnected us to the church both physically and spiritually,” said Aren Chinchinian, a senior at the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School. “In order to keep the Armenian culture alive within us as we embark on new frontiers, we were reminded that our religion is an essential part of our culture and it helps us identify who we are.”
The ceremony also provided the opportunity to bring together the Armenian schools and their families and friends to “witness the sharing of Holy Communion by both senior classes before they leave for the next educational stage of their academic life.”
“Holy Communion is that faithful sacrament that transcends one’s life and will be of lasting value as our students matriculate in the realm of higher education,” said Michael Pratt, Head of School at the AGBU Vatche & Tamar Manoukian High School.
“The Graduation Communion gave us an opportunity to join our sister school to participate in one of the most devout sacraments of our Christian faith,” said Nanor Derbedrossian, a senior at the AGBU Vatche & Tamar Manoukian High School who sang “God Have Mercy Upon Us” during the ceremony. “The Graduation Communion is a binding event for our entire class to appreciate before we go to go our separate ways and move into the collegiate environment.”
“It is important for us to be in collaboration with the Western Diocese as our religion is intertwined with our greater Armenian culture,” said Alec Babikian, a senior at the AGBU Vatche & Tamar Manoukian High School, who read the Bible Verse Timothy 1:11-19 during the program. “The Graduation Communion embodied the importance of faith as an integral part of our Armenian heritage.”