Patriarch Pavle: A Saint Who Walked

by Danny Abbott

4306603192_2a8c4653ceOrthodox Christians lost a fearless bishop with the death November 15 of Patriarch Pavle, long-time leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church. A man of exceptional humility and a tireless voice for peace in the Balkans, he was widely regarded by his fellow Serbs and many others as a living saint.

Born Gojko Stojcević in Croatia, orphaned in childhood, he was raised by an aunt. He graduated from a Belgrade gymnasium, then studied at the seminary in Sarajevo. During World War II, he took refuge in the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ovcar. After the war, he worked as a construction worker in Belgrade, then entered monastic life at Blagoveštenje monastery in Ovcar where he took the name Pavle. He lectured at Prizen Seminary, then went to Athens for two years of study of the New Testament and Liturgics, writing prolifically on the latter subject.

In 1957, he was ordained archimandrite and later that year consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Raška and Prizen. At this time, he began speaking of the trouble brewing in the Balkans and of the plight of Kosovo. In 1990, he was made Patriarch. (Strips of paper with the names of three candidates were placed on the altar. Two were blown away ( his alone was left; thus his selection.)

One of the most striking indications of his commitment to ascetic life was his refusal to have or use a car. He declared he would own a car only after the last person in Kosovo had one. As a result, he was often referred to as “the saint who walks.” As Patriarch, Pavle was noted for appearing late to parish visits because he insisted on taking the bus.

In 1989, at a time when relations between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were getting more tense, he was beaten by a group of Albanians and hospitalized for several months. He refused to press charges against the assailants.

In the years of violent conflict in the Balkans, the western press, ignoring Pavle’s words and actions, often accused him of failing to speak out against unbridled Serbian nationalism.

“If we live as people of God,” he said in one widely unreported statement, “there will be room for all nations in the Balkans and in the world. If we liken ourselves to Cain who killed his brother Abel, then the entire earth will be too small even for two people. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to be always children of God and love one another.”

Pavle’s desire for inter-ethnic peace in the Balkans was evident and apparent to all who knew or met him. When Jim Forest, as secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, first met him in 1994, Pavle recalled his long-standing friendships with Jews and Muslim going back to his youth, especially when he lived in Sarajevo. He stressed his readiness “at any moment” to meet with anyone who could help bring the Balkans “a centimeter closer to peace.”

While there were Serbian clergy who were partisans in the conflicts that broke up Yugoslavia, Pavle never condoned or authorized anyone to take sides with any group shedding blood or sanctioned any priest’s blessing of anyone’s weapons. He stated in 1995, “In the context of ongoing events occurring in neighboring republics of former Yugoslavia, the blessing of weapons can only be regarded as sanctioning the use of weapons in a fratricidal war.”

On occasion he broke with the Church’s tradition of neutrality regarding the government by openly opposing Milošević.

In the early 90s, Vuk Drašković, now Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister, was among the first Serbian politicians to accuse the Milošević government of war crimes. He and his wife were badly beaten and jailed for their stand. In 1993, Pavle wrote to Milošević pleading for Drašković’s release. In 1997, the Patriarch led an anti-government march, preventing a police attack on protesting students.

In 2000, Pavle called upon Slobodan Milošević to resign. Once the Milošević-led government was removed from power, Pavle welcomed the new government.

Patriarch Pavle’s contributions to the Orthodox Church are difficult to measure. The amount of material he wrote on various topics such as liturgics and feasts could fill many books. Moreover, he oversaw a Serbian translation of the New Testament in 1984. He was able to heal the Serbian Church’s schism with the Free Serbian Orthodox Church and actively sought to heal the schism with the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The last two years of Pavle’s life were spent in hospital while his duties were carried out by Metropolitan Amfilohije. Patriarch Pavle’s death was followed by a national three-day period of mourning.

Upon his death, condolences were sent by Pope Benedict, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and leaders representing the entire Orthodox world. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople remarked: “None in this noisy era spoke so softly and yet was heard so widely as he. None spoke less and yet said more. None in our delusional age confronted truth with such calmness as he.”

Danny Abbott received his law degree from the University of Arkansas. He is a member of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro Tennessee.

Winter Issue IC 55 2010
IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010