Let us guard against inhumans, but let us guard even more against becoming inhuman ourselves. – Patriarch Pavle
When the man destined to become the 44th Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church was conceived in the the winter 1913-1914, horses and steam moved the world. That world appeared ordered and stable. The calamities of the 20th century – two world wars, revolutions and civil wars, genocides and expulsions, and the suffering of tens of millions of Christian New Martyrs – could not be foreseen. In the Old World the Serbian nation, although divided into two small kingdoms and two mighty alien empires, the Habsburg and the Ottoman, appeared vigorous and full of hope for the future.
Shortly after “the lights went out over Europe,” on September 11, 1914 (n.s.) – the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – a boy was born to the Stojčević family in the village of Kućanci, in today’s eastern Croatia. The family’s ancestors came to the Turk-devastated borderlands of the Habsburg Monarchy with the Great Serb Migration of 1690 from Kosovo, the martyred Serbian province with which the future Patriarch’s life was destined to be closely intertwined.
The weeks that followed the outbreak of World War I were a trying time for the Serbs in the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy: they were collectively blamed for the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo and subjected to mob violence and police persecution. For newborn Gojko’s mother Ana, however, the main worry was the fact that the war was raging, the prices were soaring, and her husband Stevan was far away: he had left for America only months earlier in search of work.
In early 1917, just before the United States joined the fray and made the war truly global, Stevan Stojčević came back home – without a penny to his name – to die of tuberculosis contracted in the workshops and rented rooms of western Pennsylvania. A year later Ana remarried but died in childbirth soon thereafter. Gojko and his elder brother Dušan were left in the care of their paternal aunt who raised them as her own children. He was a sickly child unfit for farm work, but the aunt recognized his aptitude for learning and – although poor herself – endeavored to give him a good education.
After graduating from the Fourth Gymnasium (high school) in Belgrade young Gojko enrolled at the Orthodox Seminary in Sarajevo. During World War II, suffering from tuberculosis, he took refuge in the Holy Trinity monastery in Ovčar, in central Serbia. In 1944 he was given only three months to live. His recovery, miraculous in those pre-penicillin times, prompted him to take monastic vows in 1946 and assume the name of his favorite saint, Pavle (Paul)..
The Serbian Orthodox Church, which had a quarter of its shrines destroyed and a fifth of its clergy killed during World War II, was left in 1945 at the mercy of Tito’s militantly atheist clique. Most of its property was confiscated immediately after the war, religious education was effectively banned, and the political cost of liturgical attendance was high, often prohibitive. Yet monk Pavle visibly thrived in those years, spiritually and intellectually. In 1954 he was ordained hieromonk. After completing postgraduate studies in Athens (1955-1957) he became archimandrite, and only months later elected the Bishop of Ras and Prizren. Bishop Pavle remained at the helm of that ancient diocese, which includes Kosovo and Metohija, for 33 years – until he was elected Patriarch in 1990.
The long decades of Tito’s autocracy were a trying time for the Serbian Orthodox Church. Patriarch German, elected in 1958, had to strike a sensitive balance between the imperative of keeping his Church alive in an inherently hostile political environment and the necessity of establishing a workable modus vivendi with the communist regime. The dilemma, well known to the Russians, had a similar consequence in the misnamed “American Schism” (raskol) of 1963. The split soon spread from the United States to all other communities in the Diaspora. It caused deep divisions that left a lasting scar on the Serbian community as a whole. It is now known that the split was surreptitiously encouraged by the regime in Belgrade, and fanned by the divisive work of its agents infiltrated into the émigré ranks.
As the Bishop of Kosovo, Pavle faced tribulations that were of different nature but similar magnitude. In seeking to win over the Albanians of Kosovo during his wartime struggle to seize power, Tito promised them autonomy and duly proceeded to change the character of the province in their favor after the war. Over 100,000 Serbs were forced out of Kosovo by Albanian Quislings during World War II; incredibly, they were not permitted to return after 1945. An additional 200,000 Serbs left the province, often under duress, between the late 1950s and early 1980s. On the other hand, 200,000 Albanians from Albania settled on deserted Serbian farms after 1945. Their “cadres” took control of the local Communist apparatus. In 1948 the Albanians made a half of the population of Kosovo; by 1981 78 percent; and over 90 percent today.
By the 1970s Orthodox priests in Kosovo were routinely harrassed. Bishop Pavle himself was assailed by an Albanian while walking to the post office in Prizren, and slapped in the face by another at the city’s main bus station. The authorities were invariably “unable” to identify the culprits, however, let alone to bring them to justice. Monastic properties were damaged or confiscated, well before the wave of KLA destruction unleashed by NATO in 1999. The biggest church in Metohia, in Djakovica, was demolished by the authorities to make room for a massive “Partisan” monument. The secessionist movement of the Albanians in Kosovo, derived from the logic of the Titoist order, eventually produced Slobodan Milosevic – the neo-communist quasi-nationalist. The violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991-1999 was the belated revenge of Tito and his ideological heirs.
Bishop Pavle was elected to the Throne of St. Sava in December 1990, on the eve of that disintegration. He did not seek the post but was chosen as a compromise candidate because neither of the two front-runners could secure the necessary majority in the Assembly. In the dark years that followed he would repeat many times that “there can be no interest, individual or national, which could be used as an excuse for becoming inhuman.” As the former Yugoslavia descended into violence, he appealed on the faithful to pray not only for those of good will but for those of ill will, too, as “they are in an even greater need of salvation.” When meeting the late U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann in 1991, he was asked what could America do to help him and the bChurch. He replied, without batting an eyelid, “Your Excellency, the most you can do to help us is not to do anything to harm us!”
This was not to be. Yugoslavia was a deeply flawed polity, and there could have been no serious objection to the striving of Croats and Bosnian Muslims to create their own nation-states. But equally there could have been no justification for forcing over two million Serbs west of the Drina River to be incorporated into those states against their will, and without any guarantees of their rights. Yugoslavia came together in 1918 as a union of South Slav peoples, and not of states. Its divorce should have been effected on the same basis. This is, and has been, the real foundation of the Yugoslav conflict ever since the first shots were fired in the summer of 1991. This political essence of the war has been systematically hidden, all over the Western world but especially in the United States, behind the portrayal of the Serbs as primitive ultranationalists who sought to conquer other peoples’ lands. The most vehement such accusations, coming from Muslim and Croat sources, went wholesale into the media machine, Congressional resolutions, the pseudolegal fatuities of The Hague “tribunal,” and finally into NATO’s marching orders.
Sadly, there are many Serbs who have not followed Patriarch Pavle’s instruction: “If we live as people of God, there will be room for all nations in the Balkans and in the world. If we liken ourselves to Cain, then the entire earth will be too small even for two people.” But the systematic portrayal of the Serbs as demons, and the Muslims of Bosnia or Kosovo as innocent martyrs in the cause of multi-ethnic-cultural tolerance, was a crude exercise in the construction of postmodern quasi-reality. Patriarch Pavle was painfully aware of this fact, but decided to refrain from statements that could be construed as political. He remained silent even when the Croatian authorities demolished the Orthodox church in his native village, in which he was baptized in 1914. He was often criticized in the Western press for making appearances at official functions attended by Milosevic, even though the protocol and tradition demanded his presence, but in 1997 he also appeared, silently, at a rally demanding Milosevic’s resignation.
Patriarch Pavle was deply pained by the Mammonic spirit that became dominant in Serbia in the aftermath of the collapse of communism: “I wish I could stand and beg outside the banqueting halls and other gathering venues of the rich, beg for our poor brothers and sisters and their children. We should actively shame those who sink into arrogant greed so openly, instead of expressing our anguish behind closed doors.” His proverbial modesty was reflected in his use of public transport and dislike of chauffeur-driven cars. During the Assembly of Bishops in 2006 he walked our of the Patriarchate and saw a long line of shiny black Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW cars parked outside the building. “Who do these belong to?” Pavle asked his secretary. “Em, to the Bishops who came to the Assembly, Your Grace.” “I only wonder,” the Patriarch commented, “what would they have driven if they had not taken the vow of poverty ”
Serbia was blessed with several politically astute Patriarchs in some critical moments of its history, notably Arsenije III (Charnojevich) at the time of the Turkish wars and Great Migration of 1690, and Gavrilo (Dozhich) during World War II.
Patriarch Pavle belonged to a different tradition. He was a mystically prayerful monk, rather than a sanguine Prince of the Church. He was a Patriarch who blended, harmoniously, three key functions of his throne: that of the father, of the priest, and of the prophet. He understood, and lived, the legacy of Prince Lazar, martyred at Kosovo in 1389: “The Kingdom on Earth is but paltry and small; yet the Kingdom of Heaven is forever and knows no bounds.
Srdja Trifkovic is an author, historian and world affairs analyst.