The Armenian Cardinal and his servant

by Tom Vartabedian

Published: Wednesday February 08, 2012

Pope Paul VI with Cardinal Agagianian standing to his left along with other clergy in 1964.

Growing up inside an Armenian Catholic Church in Harvard Square, my Sundays were always occupied as an altar boy.

I would wear the "shabig" and go through the entire ritual of a Holy Mass, uttering the responses and smoking out the congregation with an incensor.

Each Sunday, for over three decades at Holy Cross Church, the celebrant was Father Luke Arakelian and he ran a tight ship. His altar boys were trained like Prussian soldiers, answering every call as if the Almighty had ordered it.

One day, he took me aside and said, "Thomas. The Cardinal is coming. You will be his chief servant."

I thought maybe a glass of water when he needed it or perhaps fulfilling any request made of him. After all, it wasn't every day such a high authority of the church would be visiting your community.

The protocol I envisioned was nothing compared to what was expected. My altar duties were ready to take a quantum leap. I would serve as his deacon and give all the responses expected of my role.

His arrival to Greater Boston was met with high anticipation. Cardinal Gregory Peter XV Agagianian was here to bolster the Armenian Catholic faithful, stimulate the church populace and heighten the understanding of our common heritage.

My nerves stood on edge in the days that followed. Suppose I fell apart and forgot the prayers? What if I tripped on my robe and took a dive? Like any sheepish teenager, it was like waiting for a tooth to be pulled.

The year was 1951 and the big day finally arrived. I remember him hearing my surname and smiling, "You are the son of a priest. I couldn't have a more appropriate assistant."

Of course, he had two. On the Cardinal's opposite side was Father Luke himself and down below, a cadre of other altar boys and candle bearers --- the whole entourage. It went off like a charm.

My thoughts go back to the 1958 papal conclave in Rome following the death of Pius XII. Cardinal Agagianian was on the verge of being elected to the highest post in the Catholic Church. He received a large number of votes from the College of Cardinals, eventually approaching the majority needed for election. This was confirmed by the elected Pope himself, Pope John XXIII.

In a talk at the Armenian College in Rome, three months after the conclave, the new pope admitted that his name and that of Cardinal Agagianian's "went up and down like two chickpeas in boiling water" before he finally got elected on the eleventh ballot with the two-thirds vote required.

Thousands who gathered outside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome that Oct. 28 had laid witness to a smokestack ritual. At one interval when the smoke changed from back to white, a new pope had been elected, thought to be that of the Armenian Cardinal. Before the celebration began, the smoke reverted to black.

Had Cardinal Agagianian been elected but declined the post? We'll never know.

Our paths would cross again two years later at the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna where I was sent to pursue my studies. Every morning for one year, the first call to duty was serving the Abbott General of this vank --- His Eminence Archbishop Mesrop Habozian.

And then history repeated itself.

"The Cardinal will be visiting us next week and we would like you on the altar," the Abbot General proposed. "You may have met him in Cambridge."

One in the same. An old acquaintance renewed. I was psyched. I remembered the beard, the feisty personality, this passionate disciple of Christ. But most of all, I remembered the twinkle in his eye. If there was any haughtiness in his presence, it didn't show.

At least a half dozen priests accompanied the Cardinal at Mass that day with me below this time as the altar in Vienna sparkled like never before. He remembered me from 1951 during his visit to Holy Cross Church. "The son of a priest," he had smiled.

He stuck around the vank for a few days after that. We even got to play a game of chess during a rare moment of leisure. I didn't stand a chance nor did I want to. He could have been the next Pope in Rome --- the first Armenian elected to such a pontifical seat.

Cardinal Agagianian died in Rome in 1971 as the most celebrated Armenian Catholic in history. And I was proud to be his servant.

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Reporter closing

The Cafesjian Foundation has taken a difficult decision to close The Armenian Reporter. We regret that we are forced to take this decision after more than eight years of publishing. We thank our readers and all individuals who have contributed to the Reporter. Kathleen Cafesjian Baradaran Chair, Cafesjian Family Foundation

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