LET US BE STRONG IN OUR FAITH AND STRONG IN OUR BROTHERLY LOVE - An
INTERVIEW of Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad and Backa (Serbian Orthodox
The Serbian Orthodox Church,
Diocese of Bačka
December 26, 2008
An Interview of His Grace, Dr. Irinej, Bishop of Bačka with Mr.
Milorad Vučelić, the main Editor-In-Chief of PEČAT.
(This interview was published in the 44th issue, p. 17-25, of
December 26, 2008.)
1. Your Grace, you attended the funeral of the Patriarch of
Moscow and of all Russia in Moscow. What are your impressions of the
country you have returned from where the current opinion prevails
that a whole epoch in the history of Russia has come to an end with
the death of Alexis II?
Yes, I attended the funeral of Patriarch Alexis of blessed repose and
before that I paid him a formal visit together with Metropolitan
Amfilohije at the end of September. We met him again in
Constantinople in mid-October at the gathering of all the heads of
the local Orthodox Churches. At the time we had no inkling that our
next and last meeting here on earth would be by his catafalque at the
Church of Christ the Savior. I have been residing temporarily in
Moscow for the past two decades because of church affairs and inter-
church meetings. Prior to 1988, when I represented our Church at the
anniversary of the first millennium of the Baptism of Russia, I
followed the state of affairs in the Russian Orthodox Church and in
Russian formerly Soviet - society through Russian uncensored
literature, initially published in the "Samizdat" and later in
the "Tamizdat" in the West, and through several dissident journals
and newspapers (Pyсckaя, Посев, Гранй, Континент, et.al.) This might
sound immodest, but I consider myself well informed with regard to
Russia and Greece.
From my perspective, former and present Russia differs like heaven
and earth, spiritually speaking. I am amazed at the speedy and all-
encompassing spiritual rebirth of the Russian people. The Soviet era
with its most brutal persecution of the Church, by its struggle to
uproot Christianity from the most expansive regions of the biggest
nation on earth, lasted considerably longer than the persecution in
the more subdued version of communist rule and its atheistic
indoctrination in our country as well as in the other eastern and
south-eastern European countries. Nevertheless, Orthodoxy with its
Christian culture has triumphantly reclaimed the soul of the Russian
people and the public life of the Russian state overnight, so to
speak. In my opinion, the greatest merit belongs to the Russian
Orthodox Church under the wise and moderate leadership of Patriarch
Alexis, and this is immediately followed by the leadership of the
Russian government, which had suddenly found itself in Orthodox
Christianity, and consequently, especially after the Yeltsin period,
understood that the future of Russia was not primarily guaranteed by
its nuclear defense, but by the Orthodox faith and its Christian
culture, Christian values, and ethical code.
Indeed, an entire era has come to an end with the death of Patriarch
Alexis. As a Bishop, he worked during the harsh times the Church
endured under Nikita Khrushchev. Under the new conditions of freedom,
he had to deal with a new burden, with inconceivable new temptations
and provocations, the schism in particular. The journalist Boris Klin
writes the following in the daily newspaper, Izvestija, dated the 7th
of December: "For the first time, the Church was left to itself.
There was no Orthodox czar in which relationships could be harmonized
and where one could find support by the experiences of a predecessor
or through the Byzantine legacy. There was no dictate by the
government or by a specific authority to govern the Church, that is,
the Synod or the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union. There were no cruel persecutions. However, Alexis II
had to establish a new relationship of the Church with the
authorities, the society, and with the media
In spite of the deep wounds in the body of the Church, sustained from
the recent Soviet period and from the present, in completely new
historical circumstances, Alexis carried out a struggle and a
miracle he preserved the spiritual unity of the Church. He also
kept the Church intact in an atmosphere of disintegration of the
state, of an empire to be more correct, with the Ukraine being the
exception; even here, a great majority remained faithful to him. He
elevated the standing of the Church to unprecedented heights
undreamed of, and he established a relationship of trust and
cooperation with the new, Christian, democratic, and patriotic
leadership of the state. He restored faith, hope, and spiritual
strength to the people and to society. In addition to this, he
preserved and strengthened the trust of the members of other
religions and confessions towards the Orthodox Church that represents
the majority of the Russian faithful.
The era of Alexis II denotes the return of the Russian person to his
Church and the great revival of faith and spirit. During the Soviet
Union there were less than 40 active churches in Moscow. Today there
are 872. Then, there was only one active monastery in Moscow; now
there are 8 and 16 antechapels. In 1987 there were 6,800 Orthodox
parishes officially registered in all of Russia. Today their number
is 29,268. There were 19 monasteries in all; today there are 804 and
over a thousand if you include the antechapels and the hermitages.
There were scores of bishops; today there are 203 hierarchs. There
were three theological academies and seminaries; today there are 87
schools of higher theological education. Presently, there are 11,051
Sunday schools attached to parishes. And so forth
However, more impressive than these statistical figures, is the
spiritual course and direction Alexis took. In this new era of
freedom of the Church, many expected a new edition of the Church:
modernistic and ultra-liberal, whereas others expected a Church like
a large sect: conservationist. Instead, he bequeathed to Russia and
to the world a Church faithful to Herself, to her Tradition and
purpose, and yet, open to all both young and old alike, rightists
and leftists, conservatives and liberals alike.
2. To what extent does the demise of the Head of the Russian
Orthodox Church influence the unity of Orthodoxy on the whole? For
the impression exists that the unity has been endangered through the
periodical conflicts between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and
Moscow. What is the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in solving
the pan-Orthodox problems, the conflicting issues of Phanar and
Moscow in particular?
Patriarch Alexis was first a great supporter and a zealous worker for
the unity of the Church in Russia, second and in equal measure, for
universal Orthodoxy, and finally, for the unity of all Christians in
truth and love. It is true that there have been episodic
misunderstandings and disagreements on a larger and smaller scale
between the Contantinople and Moscow Patriarchates on certain issues.
These, however, were exclusively canonical and jurisdictional issues,
never dogmatic or of an essential nature. Besides this, I must
emphasize that these disputes and dissensions have never led to an
interruption in the Eucharistic and canonical relationship between
the two Churches. The Churches are gradually and patiently working at
overcoming these difficulties through brotherly dialogue although
this may seem somewhat protracted. I must stress one more thing: the
nature of disputes and, if you will, of conflicts in the Church
differs significantly from the nature of secular, political,
international, ideological ones et alia. With this assertion, I am in
no way pardoning or disparaging the damage of inter-church frictions,
but I wish to point out the harm of inadequate secular interpretation
of such frictions often present in the media and popular amongst self-
appointed confession analysts and half-baked inquisitors, all in the
name of personal opposition to and estrangement from the Church,
masked in a false adherence to principles.
In the past two years, the relationship between the two Churches has
been shaken primarily by the conflict about the jurisdiction over
Estonia. This has been resolved more or less through the
acknowledgment of a dual jurisdiction, parallel to each other,
between Constantinople and Moscow. However, the canonical status of
the heads of the Church there has not yet been resolved
Constantinople recognizes one hierarch as the autonomous Archbishop
of Estonia whilst Moscow recognizes another hierarch as the
autonomous Estonian Metropolitan. Although this dispute remains the
subject of dissension and negotiation, it has not been an obstacle to
the con-celebration of both hierarchs at the meeting of the Heads of
the Orthodox Churches in Constantinople last October, just as it
posed no obstacle for them to con-celebrate with Patriarch
Bartholomew and with the recently reposed Patriarch Alexis on the
I am hopeful that this problem will be overcome in the near future. A
change in the course taken in this dispute is highly unlikely
independent of the heir to Patriarch Alexis. It is interesting to
note that His Beatitude was born in Estonia of Germanic-Estonian
descent, that he was the Bishop in Estonia for thirty years, and that
he rescued the Piuticki Monastery from the Soviets
Our Church is always ready to serve the all-Orthodox ecumenical
unity, and this issue as well. The extent of Her contribution is
something one should address others and elsewhere, perhaps in
Constantinople and in Moscow.
3. The events of the past few months lead to the conclusion,
maybe an erroneous one, that there is not a complete unity within the
Serbian Orthodox Church, at least as far as the Church hierarchs are
concerned. Your Grace has also taken an active part in the disputes
at the Synod about the election of a new patriarch. According to you,
are the disagreements between the hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox
Church a result of their differing approaches to solving the acute
problems of the Church and of society; or is there perhaps truth to
the speculation that the Church has become the center of a struggle
of opposing structures from outside the Church, which includes
How do you define disagreement and how do you define complete unity?
I will start with the latter. There is a complete unity between the
hierarchs, the clergy, and the faithful even when they have very
opposing views on certain issues. For Church unity is neither a
monolithic ideology, nor an authoritative leveling instrument, nor an
anthropocentric given; Church unity is an ontological unity, a God-
Man unity, a unity through grace; one which comes forth from the
communion of the Eucharistic Church. This unity is not impaired by
freedom or by the "pluralism" of opinions.
On the contrary, it is a given and at the same time a task to be
achieved. Unity is the point of commencement but it is also developed
in the spirit of universality. If this were not so, would there even
be a need for dialogue in the Church? Would the institution of the
Church synods be in existence? Would these synods not be reduced to
decorative advisory bodies of a single decision-making person,
whoever he may be and whatever historical title he may carry?
Different viewpoints do not impair unity. They strengthen unity
insofar as they lead to the universal victory of the viewpoint, which
sides closest with the Church, a viewpoint, which becomes the most
salvific one. The trouble starts when an individual or a group
considers its vision of reality as an absolute and does not allow for
concessions even in the fullness of the Church's synod. This is how
heresies emerge (for the primary meaning of the word heresy is the
selection of a partial truth instead of the complete truth).
Sometimes paradoxically, those who are otherwise against absolutism
in the Church, adopt a fiercely papal behavior, a behavior
personified in the pretentiousness of Roman bishops already for
All this, of course, does not mean that the ethos or order of the
Church can be equated to secular democratic principles or that truth
is obtained by outvoting. Truth, in the spirit of love, is even less
attainable through the abolishment or disparagement of the ecumenical
nature of the life of the Church. This ecumenical nature of the
Church applied in practice, is usually conducted as an ecumenical
methodology, that is, in the aftermath of all discussions,
disagreements and conflicts, the ecclesiastical synod is both able
and obliged to express the Church, through the Holy Spirit, as the
true and truthful emergence of the Kingdom of God here and now,
within us and among us.
It is commonly known that there have been and that there still are
two opposing positions in the Synod of the Fathers of our Church
about the situation, which has ensued by the deep old age, frailty
and illness of His Beatitude, the Patriarch. According to some, the
Patriarch's request to retire from active duty should be given
consideration and a new Patriarch should be elected. This is not
unprecedented in the history of the universal Church or in the
practice of our local Church. It is rather in the interest of the
Church and for the sake of Her full and appropriate functioning.
According to others it is more prudent to wait until further notice
out of respect for the merits of His Beatitude who has served the
Church in troubled and uneasy times, and, for the sake of avoiding
discontent, distrust and dissension.
The second position prevailed. The opinion of each bishop, myself
included, is relatively well known. However, does this justify verbal
clashes in the media? I do not think so. The future is in front of
us; time will show whether we were able to do better but chose not to
or did not have the boldness, or whether under the circumstances we
have done everything within our possibilities. God Himself does not
expect from us more than what is possible, as His Beatitude himself
has often pointed out. In any case, we do not know what sort of
surprises life has in store for us.
I do not believe that any forces outside the Church or any
other "centers of power", not even the infamous secret services, are
able to annul or impair the freedom which Christ has given us once
and for all. It is possible for an individual or for certain
individuals to overlook their responsibilities and obligations toward
God's Church but the Church as a theanthropic ecumenical organism has
always submitted to God rather than to people, as Holy Scripture
tells us. After all, we do not philosophize about the Church: we
believe in the Church because we believe in the Triune God.
4. You have likewise received the letter from Bishop Gregory of
Zahum-Herzegovina and you are acquainted with the series of his
announcements and interviews. There is the impression that a selected
campaign is unraveling in our Church, which existed only in the daily
political life of Serbia until recently and which we can hardly be
proud of. Do you intend to respond to Bishop Gregory?
Only personally, in a direct encounter, and under no circumstances
through the press. I received his letter personally and not through
the media. My possible comments to his letter are redundant, even
inappropriate, for he has publicly explained everything he had wished
to achieve through his letter. Whoever is interested in it has an
already established opinion.
5. According to Your Grace's opinion can the actual events that
have occurred in the Serbian Orthodox Church be considered as an
attempt to destroy the most important institutions of our country by
certain structures in society, so that in Serbia not even one stone
would be left unturned?
In my opinion, one cannot view it this way. I hope that I am not so
naïve as to be ignorant of the existence of "certain structures", as
you delicately put it, for whom the Church's public activity and
social influence no matter how small it may be, pose a greater threat
than everything else in the world, and, who would therefore, if they
only could, banish the Church into deeper and farther catacombs than
the earlier anti-christs and Church persecutors, beginning with Nero,
and Diocletian to Hitler and Stalin. However, to their misfortune and
to our joy they cannot accomplish this.
However, one should not underestimate them for they slander our
Church to powerful foreigners and invite them to disdain and to
condemn our Church; all of this under the mask of slogans of
democracy and in the name of "civilized society". (As one of the
worst examples, I will cite, the recent incoherent accusation of
Sonja Biserka and her organization that amounts to nothing short
of "hate talk".) But they are strong only when we Christians are
weak weak in our faith and weak in our love for our brethren. In
order to overcome them, we need to overcome ourselves not them, that
is, we must overcome our own fainheartedness rather than their
6. The faithful and all of the Serbian people to a large degree
are confused because of the alleged urgency by which the Serbian
Orthodox Church had to elect a new patriarch.
The Church was not forced and that is why She did not elect one. In
asking this question you rightly guard yourself by correctly using
the term "alleged". All sorts of things occur allegedly but not
actually. Personally, I am more inclined toward the opinion that it
would have been more advantageous to the Church had there been an
election of a new head of the Church not as a "matter of urgency"
or from external dictates but because of the internal needs of the
Church which, however, has not happened. The Synod has made its
decision. This is the current reality we live in, we move in, and
exist in, without any faintheartedness and complaints but with faith
and in hope. We as Christians need to be thankful to God and grateful
for His dispensation, whether through Grace, or through His
permission, or His actual condescension toward our weaknesses and our
shortcomings. We pray: "Our Father
.., Thy Will be done", and
not, "Our Father
.., our will be done", or, " Our Father
.., may our
will be done".
7. There is more frequent talk about the "unacceptable
politicising of the Serbian Orthodox Church". However, when one
considers, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church, one is bound to
notice that in the past two decades the state and Church diplomacy
have acted in conjunction with each other in many areas in the
Russian Federation. In our country, however, there is the predominant
view that the Serbian Orthodox Church is practically the only
institution in Serbia that is protecting our national interests
today. What are the obstacles for the members of the Church and
government authorities to act in unanimity, at least when vital
government and national interests are at stake?
The "politicizing" of our Church and the "clericalization" of our
society represent one example of the notorious and, regretfully,
deliberate lies, which our opponents operate with. For our people on
the whole those are merely conceptual nouns, that is, they do not
really exist (according to the formal census, half a percent of the
population believe this in addition to the four and a half percent of
those people who out of personal reasons abstained from expressing an
opinion), and among the so-called intellectual elite, an
insignificant minority maintain this view. Out of inexplicable (or
maybe explicable) reasons, our opponents completely rule the Serbian
media, as though they were the absolute majority expressing the
opinion of the majority of people democratically.
The separation of Church and state like in the present day European
Union, Europe, and democratic world at large does not entail, as
they think or as they claim to think, the banishment of the Church
from society, or Her greater or lesser marginalization, but rather
the recognition of separate authorities ("autonomous ingerence")
along with the internal independence of the Church and of the modern
laic state. It further means the need for mutual cooperation in all
areas of mutual significance and for the general good.
You are correct with regard to Russia. Present day Russia can serve
as an example and as a model to Serbia when we talk about the
relationship between the state and the Church. Russia is not the only
example, or model for us. You have Germany, Austria, and many other
European countries that can serve as an example, even France.
We have an example in our closest neighbor. I am deliberately citing
the neighboring Croatia, which is without a doubt orientated towards
the European Union. (The time has come for us, who have had a state
since ancient times, to envy the Croats without guile
) But is there
a better example and model closer to home than the Srpska Republic
that is of the same faith and blood?
8. Lately, there has been much talk about the different
opinions of the Church hierarchs regarding ecumenism. Why are certain
circles claiming that this issue currently takes priority in the
Serbian Orthodox Church when it is commonly known that the Church has
been involved in the ecumenical dialogue for a long time now?
This question deserves a special answer. However, for now I will
answer briefly. The term ecumenism is used twofold. For some it
stands primarily for Church-faith relativism and syncretism, a theory
about the "branches" of Christianity and similar, and rightly shudder
at this type of ecumenism. Others understand ecumenism to be mainly a
culture of dialogue and see it as an imperative to bear witness to
the faith of the ancient Church, in the service of reestablishing the
unity of the Church (maximalistic perpective) or of bringing closer
that, which is held in common (minimalistic perspective).
Our Church accepts this second version of ecumenism, which is in the
spirit of faithfulness to the Gospel and rejects the first version.
The Church is engaged in the promotion of rapprochement, cooperation,
and currently at bearing witness, which can be realized, with a view
of the unity that existed in the first millennium, and an emphasis on
the ancient Church of the Holy Fathers and of the Ecumenical Councils
as the precepts of both faith and life.
9. The impression exists that our media have played a central
role in an attempt to destroy the good reputation of the Serbian
Orthodox Church. To what extent, however, are the Church hierarchs
themselves responsible for the Church becoming the subject of media
I agree with your statement about the less glorious role of the media
in their attempt to destroy the good reputation of the Church and
will give you a laconic answer. Certain representatives of the Church
are responsible. Some are careless, some are naïve, and there are
some, unfortunately, who are far from naïve.
10. It appears that in recent history there has not been a good
rapport between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the secular media. Is
there a way for an improvement?
It appears this way but it really is not so. There have been and
there still are some shining exceptions and good examples. I will
make a brief mention of the writings of Mirjana Kuburović or of
Milorad Ćirilović of Politika with regard to church issues, and there
are many others. (On the present course that Politika has taken with
reference to the Church I will decline to comment.) Would it be
inappropriate for me to highlight your former merits for the series
of the Orthodox Primer, which lasted for several years? Without your
good will and support an entire friendly team would achieve nothing,
nor could I for that matter.
Today's recipe? The media must take the Church much more seriously
and church dignitaries must take the media much more seriously.
11. It is not an easy task to be the Bishop of the Diocese of
Bačka nowadays. The separatist tendencies of the regional authorities
are increasingly forceful. Does the Serbian Orthodox Church have
sufficient strength to demonstrate to the people the dangerous
consequences such a division would bring about, especially in the
region of Vojvodina?
12. Kosovo and Metohija are an integral part of the life of every
Orthodox Serb, just the way every Serb is permanently connected to
Kosovo and Metohija. Does the content of this statement, which the
Serbian Orthodox Church has always maintained, and which is very
logical, pose a problem to the fact that the collective spirit of the
people is being damaged by subjective affirmation and by individual
Subjectivism and isolationism exist. However, somewhere at the bottom
of one's soul, invisible to the sacrilegious eyes of the intruder
from outside, the Orthodox Serb continues to live his Kosovo life,
the holy oath and ideals of St. Lazar. This will remain so. No
malicious derision can do any harm.
13. In the past twenty years, in spite of everything, the Serbian
Orthodox Church has to some extent re-established Her influence on
society. One of the results of this has been the return of religious
instruction in schools. Nevertheless, it appears that the educational
program that allows for a choice between religious and civil
instruction is creating a new division in Serbian society, which the
youngest population in our country is now exposed to.
Religious instruction is of paramount significance in the formation
of our future generations. It signifies nothing less than the
foundation of the future of the Church and of the people. The choice
between religious instruction and an alternative secular subject is
unavoidable. Both the Church and the state respect everyone's right
to their faith or to their rejection of faith. This choice does not
create a division. The division is preemptive. It is the Church's
obligation to develop a charismatic religious program. "Civil"
instruction (as if the faithful were not citizens!) will harm no one
if properly done. It is a mistake to think that an alternative and
secular subject would act as an "anti religious" program.
14. Was religious instruction introduced too early? There are not
enough religion teachers, even in your Diocese. Professors of Serbian
language and literature end up teaching religion also. Once the
circumstances were achieved at the end of the last century, was the
Serbian Orthodox Church equipped well enough to take on the role She
Religious instruction was not introduced too early. It would be more
accurate to say that it was introduced somewhat late. One could
hardly expect to have sufficient religion teachers following more
than fifty years of an enforced separation between the Church and the
school. However, this problem will soon be resolved. Around two
thousand young men and women are studying theology; thus the teaching
staff is practically already well supplied.
One should not neglect the fact though that some professors of
Serbian language and literature, and other professors with a humanist
educational background have demonstrated greater competency in
teaching religion than some theologians.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is always prepared for Her role, or more
exactly, for Her mission.
15. Although more people (especially young people) are attending
church more frequently, certain church dignitaries have observed that
the percentage of genuine Orthodox faithful do not exceed the three
to four percentile of the population. Does the return of Serbs to the
Church out of "sentimental-psychological" and "national-ideological"
reasons concern Your Grace?
Serbs like any other people are mostly believers. A certain
percentage of them regularly participate in the liturgical life of
the Church but this does not mean that the rest are not believers. It
is not for us but for God to judge who is a genuine believer and who
Our Savior Himself praised the faith of a pagan Roman officer, and He
said, moreover, that He had not found such faith even in Israel.
However, Serbs are not pagans (except for some which is rare, very
rare). Examples of great faith, found where some self-
contented "zealous" persons would not even suspect, are abundantly
described in the Gospels, in the lives of the saints, in the history
of the Church, and in our immediate environment.
Present day Serbs are genuinely returning to the Church, out of
spiritual need and not for other reasons. The Church is no longer
fashionable but is rather a desire for life.
16. What is the relationship between the Serbian Orthodox Church,
your Diocese in particular, and certain "nationalistic" organizations
that have recently been the subject of many public debates in our
I do not know exactly which organizations you are referring to. In
the eyes of certain pretentious defenders of Europe and of the world
from the evil Serbs and from the Serbian homeland of which I am a
member, even the Serbian Academy of the Arts and Sciences, whose
representatives I often work with, is considered a nationalistic
organization. The following are considered even worse than that: the
Movement of Svetozar Miletić or the fans of the Association of the
Freedom Wars of Serbia of 1912-1918, whose meetings I gladly attend.
And what would they say about the students who belong to the Dveri
Srpskih where I have frequently been as a guest of the Engineering
Faculty? (Although I do not wish to have any contact with them
presently because they have involved themselves of late with groups
inclined towards certain schismatics currently rebelling against the
incumbent Bishop of iča. It appears that they have forgotten that
membership of Dveri does not enable them to teach the faith. This
duty is performed by the bishop or by those he imparts his blessing
to do so.)
Once one extremely zealous pro-autonomist falsely accused me of
providing space in the Diocese of Bačka for a certain National
Formation. That is sheer nonsense. We love our people, and this
school of love teaches us how to love other peoples as well, people
with whom we live and some of whom we have as cherished friends. Our
love to other peoples cannot and will not be demonstrated in a
pathological way, namely through hate directed at our own people.
17. For some time now, certain thinkers claim that the
beginning of the 21st century will be celebrated as the "new
renaissance", that is, the return of humanity to spiritual values.
Does Your Grace consider the global economic crisis as an affirmation
of this tendency in all world societies, and, do you believe that the
crisis itself points to the futility of a worldview that in recent
history professes the market as a basic law and the acquisition of
material wealth as its primary aim?
Your question already contains the correct answer; an answer I am in
full agreement with. The return to faith and to spiritual values is
the only possible reaction to this consumer civilization of death.
18. Nowadays, we are confronted much more frequently with the
popular thesis that we are living in pre-apocalyptic times. Having in
mind that we are approaching one of the greatest Christian
festivities, Christmas, this would then be the right moment to remind
our readers how to discover our Lord Jesus Christ in our own hearts
even in most difficult times.
All of history is a sign of the Apocalypse. However, the authentic
and positive Apocalypse is the revelation and the discovery of God's
infinite love towards all of us in the Person of our Lord Jesus
Christ and in the event of His birth. May the peace of God be upon
you, Christ is born! A blessed and happy Christmas to you and to the
readers of Pečat!