Bishop Fotije: We all need to preserve the shrines

We are conveying an integral text of the interview of His Grace Bishop Fotije of Zvornik-Tuzla, published in the Večernji novosti on December 20, 2020.

Within this short period of time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Serbian Orthodox Church lost Patriarch Irinej, Metropolitan Amfilohije and several hierarchs, all at a time when relentless attacks on Orthodoxy in the world and (in media) on the Serbian Orthodox Church in the region have been underway, and in Serbia itself. How would you assess the current moment in which the Serbian Orthodox Church finds itself?

The Church lives in the space of the Cross and Resurrection, every day and every hour. Sometimes it seems to us that one dominates and sometimes another. The Church Fathers view the Cross and the Resurrection as a twofold Mystery - the mystery of faith. To be clearer, the Cross is in the fact that we have lost Patriarch Irinej and Metropolitan Amfilohije, but the Resurrection is also in the fact that we faithful know that they are now in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, this crucifixion of Orthodoxy on the universal level awaits its resurrection by re-establishing unity, which is currently violated due to the so-called Ukrainian issue. Media struggles, on the other hand, have become a part of everyday life, but the only thing we can fight with is fasting and prayer. In all these mentioned conditions, the Church, according to the Holy Apostle Paul, should bear witness to the Word of God, which is needed even during this unprecedented pandemic, both for us Serbs and for the whole world.

Will the election of a new Patriarch in the spring, as speculated in the local public, be at the same time a test of unity in the Serbian Orthodox Church itself, because different, often opposing attitudes of individual bishops have been taking place for some time now?

At the moment, we have the biggest job ahead of us in the Church, and that is the election of a new Patriarch. Only when a Church Primate reposes, both as a Church and as a people, do we see how much he meant to us, although we are often not aware of it. It is a great work before all of us - the election of a new Patriarch, the spiritual Father of our people. We should all pray to have a Patriarch who will lead us through the Resurrection at this crucified time (division, conflict and disease). It should be our common work, each according to the gift and place in the Church. The Patriarch is the guarantor of the unity of the Church, but also of the people, because in his person all divisions are overcome. That is very important for us Serbs, and we know why.

What should be the position of the Serbian Orthodox Church in this sensitive time that is trying to suppress everything that is spiritual in a person and impose exclusively worldly values ​​on him?

The struggle between the spiritual and the secular (material, physical) is constantly waged in the world, and in every human being as an icon of the Living God. The Church is within that struggle, she is the way and the measure of how to establish that harmony. It is known that Orthodoxy does not strive for the complete spiritualization of the world and man, as do some Far Eastern religions and teachings, nor for gross materialization and consecration, as is unfortunately happening in the West. We walk along the path of the God-Man. In Christ is the perfect harmony of the divine and the human, the spiritual and the material. Every Orthodox Christian, as well as our entire people, should live in that harmony. At a time of weakening faith and spirituality, secular principles are strengthening among the people, and unfortunately man becomes a slave to the world and death, and thinks he is living in freedom.

How can the Church help people not to sink into the spiritual abyss, especially in times of pandemic when it is not advisable to gather in large numbers at liturgies, prayers, confessions and communions in fear of a viral plague?

There has been a pandemic in history and they have taken their harvests - human lives. It has always been a period of tragedy and the cross. So, even now the Church does not run away from it, it does not run away from realities. However, the Church always points to another reality, the reality of Eternal Life, which we taste in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. In other words, if we live in the Church we have no fear of death in the way other people experience it. Death has been defeated for us by the Resurrection of Christ, and even a pandemic cannot take away that joy. That is why the Church, even in such times, should be a spiritual consolation to our people, a place where they will meet the centuries-old experience of the Resurrection, and not fairy tales and fantasy.

For three years, you have been a Hierarch to the people of the Diocese of Zvornik-Tuzla, which has 220 priests and about twenty monasteries. Are Serbs in that part of Republika Srpska committed to their Church and religion?

Thanks to God, this pandemic fails to separate our people from the Holy Mysteries of our Church. People still come to liturgicalservices and receive communion, with the observance of measures and prescribed conditions, but they do not deviate. That is why we priests can now be strengthened by the faith of our people. In our Diocese, thanks to God, people live with their Church. I have celebrated liturgies in a large number of parishes; the people are good and grateful. However, there are also a number of those who rarely come to church. We must make more efforts concerning them so that our people as a whole become more church-minded. Unfortunately, secular powers and many media are fighting against that, but we, as the Church, must also fight for every soul entrusted to us.

Before coming here, you spent eighteen years in the Diocese of Dalmatia, where people and the Church suffered in the 1990s, and our people there, in addition to construction, needed and still need spiritual renewal. Are you happy with the condition you left there?

It was completely different in Dalmatia. We can say that there was a trench spiritual struggle there. It was necessary to rebuild the war-torn and comfort the war-torn people. It was not easy, but God gave strength to preserve Orthodoxy in that apostolic Diocese. It was especially important to revive our Theological Seminary of the Holy Three Hierarchs in the Krka Monastery. It gave the Serbian people hope for survival in those areas. How much we have done and what we have done will be judged by history, but what is certain is that the love for Dalmatia and its shrines will forever remain in my heart.

Will the Orthodox Serbs in Dalmatia survive and how much can they be guided by the memory of the great people they gave there, such as Bishop Nikodim (Milas), writer of the famous book Orthodox Dalmatia, writers Simo Matavulj and Vladan Desnica, national worker Savo Bjelanovic, poet Mirko Korolija, author of Golubnjača Jovan Radulović ...?

That question can be said for Serbs in general, wherever they live. These mentioned great people were Serbs of the Orthodox faith in the first place, along with all the other gifts they had. We need to achieve that, wherever we live, to have our own spiritual identity card, which is the guardian of our spiritual and national identity, religion, script and language. Simo Matavulj in his novel  Pilipenda described the entire struggle of the Serbian people in Dalmatia for the preservation of their Orthodox faith, and consequently their survival. Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest scientists in the world, came to the conclusion that the primordial essence of the world is Light. The Serbs always gave great personalities, but they also pointed out to others the Greatest - God the Creator. That is still expected from great people, great Serbs.

We are witnessing attempts to seize the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the region - shrines in Montenegro were endangered until recently, our struggle to save them with the help of UNESCO continues in Kosovo and Metohija, and the situation in that sense is not encouraging in Northern Macedonia. What can we do to save these witnesses of Serbian duration?

These are all our crucifixes, everything you mentioned. We can preserve those shrines only if we are united, if we live by those ideals that erected those shrines. In that feat, we are all needed, from the Patriarch, political authorities, SASA, Matica Srpska to each of our people individually. In order not to sound like a phrase, but it is true, we are all needed by everyone. Here, the people in Montenegro are preserving the holy places with cross processions and how can preserve Kosovo. The blessed Patriarch Irinej often said that Kosovo is our Jerusalem. It is the Kosovo Covenant of the Holy Prince Lazarus, which should live in each of us, in order for us as a people to survive and preserve the great spiritual and cultural treasures that the "holy ancestors" left us.                 

How can the Serbian Orthodox Church help young people exposed to the relentless race for quick success and challenges such as drugs, and not trample down traditional, primarily family values?

The time in which we live brings new temptations. What is evident today is that these temptations attacked everyone, from small children to the oldest people. The variety of lies has prevailed so much on television and social networks that it leaves no one alone. We live at a time when this world, according to Saint Cosmas of Aetolia, is ruled by various gadgets and computers. The Church and all educational and health institutions in our people must point out to everyone the good and bad sides of modern technology. Whoever is not careful will become a victim, addicted to drugs and alcoholism. Everything must be approached with caution, especially what is the work of human hands. What God created is all good, but people have created a lot of things that are unfortunately evil, and that evil is already tyrannizing us.

If, as you once said, everything is worth keeping with love and sacrifice, do you believe that there is still enough love and sacrifice left in the Serbian people to preserve the Kosovo Covenant and unity?

I believe, because God always raises up his faithful witnesses in every people and at every time, who live by sacrifice and love. That is the philosophy of the Cross and the Resurrection. I believe that it is the same with us Serbs. There may have been more such people in history, but there are still some today. The Church therefore emphasizes the saints, because they are sublime examples of sacrifice and love, but there are also ordinary people who jump into the river to save someone and enter the flames to pull someone out. These examples should be placed on the front pages of magazines, and black chronicles at the bottom, in the margins. Not the other way around! That way, they would get the right order of things, which restores faith in life and good.

Your gift for writing gave birth to a poem about the corona, for which you say in the verse it was "thrown like an atomic bomb among us, to keep us away forever, to separate us, to have no more loved ones, to scare us ...". Christmas fasting is in progress, we are about to observe family patron saint days (slava)  in January. So, what is your message to the believing Serbian people regarding the celebration of these greatest Christian feast-days?

Church feast-days are our bond with eternity. They keep us from sinking into the grayness of everyday life. In poetic terms, the pandemic is separating us, and the feast-days are gathering us together. The Church will emerge victorious with these feast-days over this plague, because the law of love and faith is stronger than destruction and evil.

They can't move us away from faith,
we expect God's help
to celebrate every feast-day
from Christmas to Saint Sava;s Day
with our heads held upright,
Loving God and neighbor.

Peace of God! Christ is born!

interviewed by Jovanka Simic,
head of the correspondence office of Večernji novosti from Novi Sad