CAMBRIDGE - Under a maroon silk canopy held aloft by four men, His Holiness Karekin II gently touched his gold, gemstoned cross to the bowed heads of worshipers in the pews of the Armenian church. To the rhythmic shake of an incense-burning thurible and ethereal choir hymns that wafted through the air, the patriarch of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church blessed hundreds with a beatific smile.
Karina Matevosyan, 57, was among several hundred Armenian Christians from across New England who gathered at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church outside Harvard Square yesterday to celebrate Karekin's pontifical visit to the United States. A simple tap of his hand-held cross across her brow, she said, delivered a touch of grace.
"I am sure everyone felt that they were touched by the Holy Spirit," she said. "It is something I will always remember. It felt like God was looking down at me for that moment."
Clad in a robe and mitre, Karekin, the leader of 7 million Armenian Orthodox Christians, celebrated the divine liturgy to an overflow crowd of worshipers from some 25 Armenian churches in New England. Except for Holy Trinity, all were closed for the occasion.
Speaking in Armenian, Karekin II urged the congregants to protect their Armenian faith and identity and cultivate a close connection with their motherland.
"Through the intersections of history, during periods when the Armenians were denied statehood, the church and the family have been the only refuge for our people - the sanctuary of creative life and preservation of Armenian identity." he said. "Church and family have been the firm rock on which the Armenian people have stood and existed against the destructions and violence of the enemy."
"Each and every Armenian today must know well that regardless of the fact that we are dispersed throughout the entire world, we are the sons and daughters of the same people," he later added.
After he gave the sermon, it was read to the church in English, although many of the worshipers said they were fluent in Armenian.
Karekin chose to visit the United States this fall to witness the lives of Armenian-Americans firsthand and urge younger people to become involved in the life of the church, which is growing quickly in the United States, said Michael O'Hurley-Pitts, communications and development director for the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.
It was Karekin's second trip to the United States since being elected the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in 1999. He will spend the rest of the month visiting elsewhere in the region, as well as in the South, and Midwest.
"For us, it's obviously the equivalent of a visit by the pope, but in our case it's even more rare," said Berge Ayvazian of Arlington. "It's wonderful for us, especially because he feels the role the diaspora plays in strengthening the central church."
Ayvazian, 54, said Karekin's visit was well-timed as the US Congress considers a measure declaring the killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks starting in 1915 a genocide.
Karekin II, born Ktrij Nersissian in 1951, was ordained a monk in 1972 and was elevated to the rank of bishop in 1983.
He has played an instrumental role in rebuilding the country after it gained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, said O'Hurley-Pitts.
There were just 13 Armenian churches worldwide when Karekin II was elected in 1999, O'Hurley-Pitts said. Today, there are 250.
As Karekin made his way around the church, young and old alike leaned toward the spiritual leader in hopes of receiving his blessing.
L. J. Stepanian, 79, who traveled from Worcester to see Karekin II, said the emotional experience was difficult to put into words. "It was very imperative for me to see him," he said. "It was inspiring, truly inspiring."
"You go a step beyond," said Nishan Goudsouzian, of Winchester. "It was supernatural."