By Petros Vassiliadis*
Much has been written about the “in Holy Spirit” (that is, by lot, as is traditionally the case according to the Charter of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the only one among the fifteen Autocephalous Orthodox Churches) election of the Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana, Porfirije (Perić) to Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovci, and Patriarch of Serbs.
Having attended postgraduate studies in Greece and defended a doctoral dissertation at the Theological School of the University of Athens in 2004 on the topic: “The possibility of knowledge of God in the Apostle Paul according to Saint John Chrysostom,” the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church has to steer his long-suffering Church through many stormy waters.
I am referring to his relations with the very conservative Serbian society and the political elit, in combination with his visions for the strengthening of relations with his second homeland, Croatia, and the dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.
And this is what he is called to do in a Church and a country with open fronts with Kosovo, the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox self-consciousness, the potential ecclesiastically autonomous Montenegro, but also the de facto secessionist Church of Northern Macedonia.
To these one can add, like myself who belong to the Orthodox theological academy, the gap created between the hierarchy and the progressive Serbian theological academic community.
All these, however, are the result of geopolitical perceptions to a great extent dependent on or connected with the theological and political narrative of the friendly Russian superpower. That is, the theory of the “Russian and by extension ‘Slavic’ people,” Russkyi Mir, whereas the concept of Milliet (that is, the whole Orthodox people) was valid in the more than 400 years of Ottoman rule.
And if the last-minute decision (of the late hierarchs, Patriarch Irinej and Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral) that the Serbian Orthodox Church finally participates in the Holy and Great Synod of Crete, despite the desperate efforts of the Patriarchate of Moscow and the strong resistance of the hierarch who is closely associated with the current Patriarch, Metropolitan of Bačka, Irinej (Bulović), the other powerful pole of the church policy of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From whom, let me say in passing, the… Holy Spirit deprived him of the patriarchal throne for the second time in a row!
Many argued that this led the Serbian Orthodox Church to faithfully follow the line of the Moscow Patriarchate, thus engaging in a revenge, becoming “more royalist than the King himself” (tsar, and Patriarch of Moscow) by contributing to the geopolitical plans that consolidated the so-called Ukrainian crisis.
Contrary to the opinion of many analysts, namely that the Ukrainian crisis was the result of the Russian Orthodox Church’s abstention from the centuries-old Pan-Orthodox Synod of the Orthodox Catholic Church, it was nothing more than the result of geopolitical aspirations and theological visions for an Orthodoxy without a Protos but with a primacy based on caesaropapist, economic and population, factors.
On the occasion of the interesting analysis carried out by the researcher Slavica Jakelić about the new Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been recently published in the online journal Public Orthodoxy of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, I remembered our participation in the ecumenical meetings on Orthodox spirituality organized by the monastic community in Bose, Italy.
In fact, in one of them, I coordinated the panel in which the current Patriarch of Serbia was a speaker at that time. Much more interesting, however, and in line with some of his first public statements as Patriarch, was his presentation at the 2015 conference on “Mercy and Forgiveness”.
There, as Metropolitan of Zagreb-Ljubljana, the current Patriarch Porfirije spoke on the topic “Memory and Forgiveness. Reconciliation between the Nations Today,” stating the following: “Christ’s evangelical call to forgiveness, “But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6: 14-15) is a Christian imperative. It cannot be humanly attained, but can only happen with Divine help and grace. However, it is not a mechanical event; knowledge of one’s own mistakes and repentance are required. To forgive someone in heart, through love—that is a victory over one’s own pride, a true miracle. To forgive the other, to receive forgiveness from the other! That is a true return from alienation to unity; from hate to love; from being apart to being united.
In order to reach “reconciliation among nations,” it is necessary, on the one hand, to cultivate a culture of remembrance, as opposed to resentment, and on the other hand, actively to practice the basic Gospel call to forgiveness. It is essential to admit one’s sin and repent for it; only then a mutual acceptance of forgiveness and reconciliation are possible.
I wish the above words of the new Patriarch to accompany him throughout his patriarchal ministry, thus fulfilling the famous quote of the Second Letter to the Corinthians by St.Paul, in the theology of whom he devoted his doctoral dissertation: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18).
The question, in other words, is whether the new Patriarch of the Serbian nation will become a “deacon of reconciliation” or a geopolitical expediter.
*Petros Vassiliadis is an Emeritus Professor of the Department of Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, President in Honour of the Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES) and of the World Conference of Associated Theological Institutions (WOCATI)