"The life of the church can be messy because of human weakness [...], but Church is and will always be more than our weaknesses."
A new chapter "opens" on the historical path of Saint Spyridon Church in Washington Heights with the appointment of the new Rev. Protopresbyter Dr. N. Kazarian, Parish Priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, who was interviewed by the journalist Despina Afentouli for New Greek TV. He speaks openly, not only about his own goals for the development of the community, but also about his personal life. At the same time, he invites the parishioners to attend the main fundraising event, which is organized on the occasion of the 86th anniversary of Saint Spyridon Church and the Parochial School Reunion, on November 12th, 2017 in New Jersey. Special guest of the event is His Eminence Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey.
Family and Studies
Please tell us about your family background.
You start with a very complicated question, because if I had to sum up my answer I would say I am a French-Armenian man living in New York and priest of a Greek Orthodox community. I am proud of these many layers of identities because they have helped me to understand the diversity of the world. My ancestors arrived in France from the Ottoman Empire following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. I was born in a town near Lyon and grew up in the south of France surrounded by the Russian community, since I attended Saint Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church in Nice. My mother is a physician. Like me, my dad is a Greek Orthodox priest. Before his ordination in 2015, he was a physical therapist. I see a real continuity between his former job and his current pastoral mission. He was and still is a man who cares and listens. I also had a brother, Serge, who unfortunately died in an accident. He was only 21. In many ways, his loss has made me the person I am today.
What have you studied?
Immediately after finishing high school in Nice, I started my undergraduate degree in Orthodox Theology at the Institut de Théologie Orthodoxe Saint Serge in Paris, graduating with a BA in 2004. In 2005, I spent close to a year studying Greek at the University of Cyprus, in Nicosia, before moving to Switzerland to start an MA in Orthodox Theology at the Orthodox Theological Institute of Chambésy in collaboration with the University of Geneva and of Fribourg. After finishing my MA, I decided to challenge myself and change courses by starting a PhD in geopolitics at the Sorbonne under the supervision of Professor George Prevelakis. I received a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation to spend a year in Athens, where I improved my knowledge of the Greek language and strengthened my love for Greek culture and history. I defended my dissertation entitled "Cyprus, Geopolitics and Minorities" in November 2011.
What languages do you speak? Does the fact that you speak many languages contribute to your Parish work?
You never just know a language, you also learn to appreciate the culture that drives it and most importantly the people that embody the language. I think that knowing several languages allows you to navigate today's world, and at the same time, there is nothing more personal than a language to define someone. That is why we so often talk about the language in connection to our mother, it speaks to the heart, to the soul. It helps greatly to connect with people. And I only speak three languages: French, English and Greek.
What is the subject of your PHD thesis? Why did you choose this certain subject?
As I mentioned, my dissertation was about ethnic and religious minorities in Cyprus and more specifically about how the geopolitical equation of the island impacts the treatment of the minority issue there. I chose this topic for several reasons. First, I fell in love with the island when I initially went to the University of Cyprus to learn Greek. Second, I was fascinated by the island's destiny as a crossroads of cultures, religions, history, political interests and ultimately geopolitics. But rather than studying the community divisions of the island, I focused my interest on a macro level: minorities and what was at stake for them in this chaotic context of anti/post colonialism, violence and separation. Third, it is related to the notion of crossroads, the insularity of Cyprus.
Why did you decide to become a Priest?
I was between 14 and 15 years old and I had a strong desire for the absolute. This absolute was for me accessible through the Divine Liturgy.
Then, through the years I became able to put words on what someone could consider a vocation or a call, even though I don't like those two terms. You learn theology and you learn that the life of the church can be messy because of human weakness and failures, even scandals. But Church is and will always be more than our weaknesses.
That we need good priests, transparency, accountability: sure. But we should not fool ourselves by justifying our own weakness as full members of the body of Christ by focusing on the errors of others. Let's be honest with ourselves: I don't want to go to church because I don't want to. If you wait for the perfect parish, you will never leave your house on Sunday. So, what is better? To stay home or to expose yourselves to the grace of the Divine Liturgy despite the messiness of life. Obviously going to Liturgy is the better option!
When and where did your ordination take place?
I was ordained to the priesthood at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen in Paris in June 2014. Why there? Because for several years prior to my ordination I had been the assistant of H.E. Metropolitan Emmanuel of France. Thanks to this rich experience and H.E. Metropolitan Emmanuel's leadership, I was exposed to the many different places where Orthodoxy meets the world, working in close collaboration with the French authorities or on the European scene, as well as on many opportunities for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. These are all opportunities that show the intersection between religion and politics. Thanks to my studies in theology and geopolitics I could play a modest role in this very exciting and demanding area. Assisting Metropolitan Emmanuel in his ministry was crucial for me because I also had the opportunity to collaborate for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, especially most recently during the Holy and Great Council in June 2016 (Crete, Greece) as a subject expert in the Press Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
What advice would you give to a young person who would like to become a priest?
Don't think you will become a priest just because you want it. Priesthood is never disconnected from the life of the Church and from a community in the larger sense. Because it is somehow easy to become a priest, it is harder to be a priest. It is not sufficient to have studied theology, you have to know why you are ready to sacrifice your life. In a beautiful novel, The Salt of the Earth, Paul Florensky puts these words in the mouth of Fr. Sylvester, whom a bishop just asked why he wanted to become a priest. Fr. Sylvester's answer was: "Because I want to be on the cross with Christ." And the mystery of the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice, happens again – once and for all – each time the Divine Eucharist is celebrated. There is no priest without the Divine Liturgy, as there is no Divine Liturgy without the community, because the sacrifice of Christ happened so the Lord could give his life for the life of the world.
Priesthood in my case is also very much connected to my family, my wife Lianna and our two children. They all share my priesthood in the sense that they all experience its consequences. But having grown up with a mother who is a doctor, I know that these challenges are not unique. Still, you have to be aware of the burden on your family. This is why your wife should be fully integrated into the process, or at least sold on the idea.
Vision and goals for Saint Spyridon Church
You have been recently appointed as a Priest at Saint Spyridon Church in Washington Heights. What is your vision and mission at this Church?
I am humbled by the trust of H.E. Archbishop Demetrios who assigned me to St. Spyridon's. At first, I didn't really know what to expect. But I have very quick learned to appreciate and discover the many talents and wealth of this community, especially the genuine commitment of the parish council members and its president Mrs. Lydia Vagelos Callimanis. In the tristate region, everybody knows St. Spyridon. It was the home parish of many Greek Orthodox people in our area. It is an honor to serve this community. Its history is rich and invaluable in the constitution of Orthodoxy in America. You know, I started my assignment on June 1 of this year. I don't have the pretention to arrive and change everything. On the contrary, the way the Church sees time as a long process shapes my understanding of the kind of service the community needs, for the youth and the seniors, for the kids and the adults, etc.
Among the ministries of our community, particular attention is given to the restoration of our beautiful Church. This initiative started before my assignment, and I have to say that each time I enter the church I am amazed by the beauty of the iconography, the expression on the icons and the magnificent iconostasis. St. Spyridon's church is worth preserving not only because of its glorious past, but above all because it is a place where people should meet God. The way we treat this sacred space is also reflective of the pastoral attention you give to the faithful. Orthodox spirituality is about seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling the presence of God, especially during the Divine Liturgy. Our restoration project is not intended to turn it into a museum, but a place of life and holiness, a space for salvation.
Our main fundraising event is approaching: 86th Anniversary and Parochial School Reunion, on Sunday, November 12, 2017. All proceeds to benefit the restoration of Saint Spyridon Church. Feel free to visit our website: http://www.saintspyridon.net/index/86th-anniversary
What are your priorities for the development of Saint Spyridon Church and why?
As I told the parishioners of St. Spyridon's when I first arrived, my mission among you is to care and to inspire. I think these are two ways to develop not only our church ministries but also our outreach. To be successful in achieving these two goals, we need to be able to translate the eternal experience of the Orthodox Church into the words of today's culture. To me, the issue of language is crucial for connecting our everyday life with the life of the Church. The difficulty is not only to understand what the Church Fathers, for instance, said, but also what they meant. There is a very rich wisdom and revelation in the Holy Scriptures, in the patristic texts, in the hymnography of our Church. But translation is not only from the past to the present age, it is also from one language to another. There is a pastoral dimension in choosing which language (Greek and English in my case) to use during Church services. This is critical for the sake of being able to transmit the reality of our faith. In other words, translation becomes a mean for tradition.
*The interview is also available in Greek on: http://www.newgreektv.com/2013-09-18-19-03-02/2013-09-18-19-06-01/item/23586-synenteyksi-ieratikou-proistamenou-ierou-naou-agiou-spyridona-aid-prot-dr-nicolaou-kazarian
Pic. - D. Afentouli: The Rev. Protopresbyter Dr. N. Kazarian, Parish Priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, in front of the Eikonostasi of the Church.