Svetosavlje as a Platform for Church Unification: Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović

Vladimir Cvetković
Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade

Svetosavlje as a Platform for Church Unification: Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović

The Serbian national idea shaped in the 19th century included, among other things, two important components: one was national liberation from outside domination, both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian; the other had to do with the unification of the liberated people into a single state. The Serbian Church gave an immense contribution to the fulfillment of the idea of national liberation, both through its educational activities and by mounting revolts against the occupiers. In line with its congregational nature and the main task of the Church – to gather its spiritual children into a shared union with God, the Serbian Church wholeheartedly supported the idea of unification into a single state under one ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The political idea of Yugoslavism as the liberation of South Slavs from occupiers and unification into a single state was congruous with the idea of the Serbian Church to bring together all of its scattered jurisdictions and believers under a single institutional umbrella. The centuries-long efforts of the Serbian Church to realize the idea of national liberation and unification ultimately made the national idea, or nationalism, the central pillar of its identity, pushing faith and its confession into the background. However, nationalism as a pillar of the identity of the church was not only a characteristic of the Serbian Church or Balkan churches in general; according to Nikolaj Velimirović, nationalism is a defining feature of European churches as well. Already in his lectures delivered at Westminster in London (1917), he emphasizes that, unlike the early church, which triumphed over Jewish nationalism and Roman imperialism, the church in Europe became a servant of European nationalisms and imperialisms. Serving particular national or imperial objectives is, however, very much at odds with the panhuman nature of Christianity. Although Nikolaj condemns nationalism as a pillar of ecclesiastical identity, he believes that nationalism is not necessarily bad because it derives from the notion of nation or people and acts as a shield against imperialism.

In line with his mission in Great Britain during World War I, championing the policies of the Serbian government, Nikolaj condemned Austro-Hungarian imperialism and glorified the nationalism and patriotism of the Yugoslavs – Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, whom he saw as ‘one and the same people.’[1] Nikolaj’s wartime lectures and writings already imply the role of St. Sava in the new Yugoslav project and the creation of a new – or restoration of the old – national and religious identity. Nikolaj believed that at the root of both the Catholic and Orthodox faith stood the same Christian spirit that motivates the shared national struggle, and the supreme manifestation of this Christian spirit was sanctity. That common spirit, according to Nikolaj, strives to be realized on the national level through Yugoslavism and on the ecclesiastical level through sainthood. Therefore, in his construction of a new historical memory, Nikolaj insists that the shared history of Yugoslavism did not begin with Njegoš and Strossmayer, or with Patriarch Arsenije Čarnojević, Karađorđe Petrović, Ljudevit Gaj, Valentin Vodnik or Count Jelačić after them, but with St. Sava, who was the forerunner of Yugoslavism and the founder of the national church.

The Yugoslavism that, after the Great War, became the state policy of King Alexander Karađorđević enjoyed the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Yugoslavia.[2] The feast day of St. Sava (27 January) was celebrated as the school slava in schools throughout Yugoslavia. After King Alexander dissolved the Yugoslav parliament as a result of a state crisis that had emerged due to the assassination of Croatian deputies in the parliament and introduced a personal regime on 6 January 1929, Patriarch Varnava (Barnabas) Rosić endorsed the king’s state-building policy and efforts to complete the unification of ‘brothers of the same blood’. From 1929 to 1934, many religious organizations were accused of being ‘tribal’ and banned because their spirit was at odds with the project of integral Yugoslavism. Strong opposition came from the Roman Catholic Church, which had the second-largest following in the country. One of the responses to the forcibly implemented state policy of Yugoslavism was the ban that forbade Catholic schoolchildren from taking part in celebrating St. Sava in state-sponsored school feasts in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Some parish priests were the first to order the ban, but Catholic bishops confirmed the decision in 1933.

Nikolaj began a debate in the press with Antun Bauer, Archbishop of Zagreb, about the significance of celebrating St. Sava’s day as the official school celebration in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, highlighting the importance and role of St. Sava in the joint Yugoslav project.[3] The debate reached its peak in 1935. That year marked the 700th anniversary of St. Sava’s death and was fully dedicated to his commemoration. Nikolaj’s lecture ‘The Nationalism of St. Sava’, delivered at Kolarac People’s University on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, should be seen in the light of this debate between Nikolaj and Bauer. The lecture discusses the place that St. Sava should have in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The nationalism of St. Sava, Nikolaj believes, is evangelical in nature because it protects the integrity of the human person and contributes to its betterment; it is also organic because it safeguards the individuality of the nation/people, preventing it from straying into imperialism or dissolving in internationalism.[4] Consequently, for Nikolaj, the nationalism of St. Sava or Svetosavlje represented an evangelical platform to be used as a model for establishing the national church.

Nikolaj’s lecture on the nationalism of St. Sava was meant to reawaken the energy that the Yugoslav nation had had at the founding of the joint state and to harness this energy for creating a shared national and Christian identity; contrary to widespread interpretations, it does not represent his showdown with the political concept of Yugoslavism. However, we should not jump to the conclusion that the nationalism of St. Sava is to be equated with Yugoslav nationalism as the policy of the sovereign. The evangelical platform on which Nikolaj wanted to build Yugoslav unity is incompatible with the policy of force that the royal regime used to implement its Yugoslav idea during the king’s dictatorship. Nikolaj’s platform places sanctity rather than national unity at the center of the state-building project.

In recent research, Nikolaj’s attitude to the Roman Catholic Church has often been seen as negative. Jovan Byford, for instance, suggests that, despite Nikolaj’s earlier support for the Serbian government’s intention to sign a concordat with the Vatican as a gesture of sincerity and openness towards the Roman Catholic population of Serbia, there is continuity in his negative views about the Roman Catholic Church.[5] To support his claim, Byford argues that Nikolaj, despite having publicly backed good relations with the Roman Catholic Church in Serbia (and later Yugoslavia), in private conversations advocated severing all ties with the Vatican and founding a national-level (Yugoslav) Catholic church. Not unlike Byford, Klaus Buchenau believes that Nikolaj was ambivalent about this matter: he publicly accepted the Roman Catholic Church while secretly harboring mistrust of the same institution. While Byford expressly argues that Nikolaj expounded ‘Serbian Orthodox exclusivity’, Buchenau believes that Nikolaj’s motive for a rapprochement between the two churches remained unclear because the rapprochement could sometimes be seen as a political instrument and other times as a prerequisite for their unification into a shared Yugoslav church.[6] However, Buchenau comes closer to Byford’s position, arguing that Nikolaj saw the rapprochement between the churches as the conversion of Roman Catholics into Orthodoxy. According to these authors, Nikolaj’s attitude towards the Roman Catholic Church in his early works was either disingenuous (because he wanted to use the Roman Catholic Church in Yugoslavia for Serbian national and church objectives) or had yet to crystallize into a firm position in his own mind. In this case, the debate with Bauer about St. Sava’s role in the Yugoslav society and the 1935 lecture ‘The Nationalism of St. Sava’ merely confirm his negative attitude to the Roman Catholic Church, which he had artfully hidden in his earlier works or had yet to formulate.

However, besides these two possibilities, there is a third one, which could tie Nikolaj’s early prewar works with his postwar writings into a coherent whole without resorting to the arguments cited above. Byford is correct in his view that Nikolaj supported good relations with the Roman Catholic Church in Serbia (later Yugoslavia) both before and during the Great War, while at the same time advocating severing all ties with the Vatican and founding a national-level (Yugoslav) Catholic church, but this should not be seen as a result of Nikolaj’s duplicity. Already in his 1909 article ‘The Great Crisis of Roman Catholicism’, where he discusses the reception of Pope Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis of July 1907, which condemns modernist views in the Roman Catholic Church, Nikolaj mentions the view of the French Roman Catholic theologian Alfred Loisy, who argued that the Pope should ‘resume his educational calling and abandon all aspirations to global rule’.[7] At the end of the text, Nikolaj concludes that the encyclical of Pius X destroyed all humane efforts to make humanity feel as a whole and that the papal system, which limits and curtails everything and makes the Catholic Church groan in exhaustion, must disappear. At the end of the text, he asks whether Catholicism would disappear along with the Holy See and replies that Catholicism existed before the papacy and would continue to exist after it is gone because it is led by truth and directed at salvation. This suggests that Nikolaj’s advocacy of severing all ties with the Vatican and the Pope was not directed at Catholicism as such but inspired by the rapprochement of a ‘restored and revived’ Catholicism with ‘other parts of Christianity.’ In the context of the Yugoslav unification, Nikolaj mentions the document adopted by the Roman Catholic clergy of the Bishopric of Zagreb in 1848, which proclaims as its objectives the unification of Serbs and Croats, tolerating differences in the wording of the Nicene Creed and the use of Old Slavonic in the liturgical services of the Yugoslav Catholic Church. This suggests that the idea of unifying the Catholic and Orthodox churches into a single Yugoslav catholic church (where ‘catholic’ has its original Greco-Latin meaning of ‘universal’ or ‘all-embracing’) did not seem like an unattainable objective to Nikolaj. He even adds that the Yugoslav church would at first have about fifty eparchies, half of them Catholic and half Orthodox, and that these churches would have freedom in their teachings, devotional services and organization until the barriers that separated them for centuries can finally be removed, which Nikolaj believes would not be difficult at all.

So how are we to understand Nikolaj’s critique of the Roman Catholic Church in Yugoslavia? The arrows of Nikolaj’s criticism, in the lecture about the nationalism of St. Sava as well as his earlier and later writings, were not directed against this church in Yugoslavia but its dependence on Rome. Nikolaj’s criticism of the papacy does have continuity, spanning from his early works (1909) to the well-known speech against the concordat delivered at the Valjevo High School in 1937. While in his early works Nikolaj tended to focus on the reformist movements within the Church of Rome, the critique of the papacy in his writings and public addresses from the 1930s rests on his understanding of the Yugoslavian state and ecclesiastical interests. Nikolaj saw the Vatican’s policy, especially the initiative for signing a concordat between the Vatican and Yugoslavia, as an expression of Rome’s imperialist policy to the detriment of Yugoslavian unity. According to him, by acknowledging papal jurisdiction, the Catholics of Yugoslavia were renouncing not only their sovereignty but also the evangelical and apostolic underpinnings of the national church. However, it would be wrong to infer that Nikolaj’s critique of the Roman Church stemmed from his Orthodox agenda, as Buchenau suggests. Nikolaj also mentions the work of St. Sava in the context of the independence acquired by the Serbian Church through its unification into a patriarchate, citing the example of Sava’s transfer of its see from Constantinople to Žiča and the replacement of the Greek clergy and liturgical language with Serbian priests and language. In doing so, he calls on the Catholic clergy and believers to become independent from Rome, following in the footsteps of St. Sava, who made the Serbian Church institutionally independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Nikolaj would additionally insist on the idea of ecclesiastical independence from both Rome and Constantinople, again in the context of St. Sava’s efforts. In his Vidovdan address delivered on 28 June 1939 to mark the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo at Ravanica, Nikolaj describes St. Sava as the inventor of a third kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, between the Byzantine and the Roman – the jurisdiction of a free national church which is neither foreign nor international. In his work Serbian People as Theodule, Nikolaj writes that, following in the footsteps of his father Nemanja on the political level, on the ecclesiastical level St. Sava traced a path for the people and the church between Constantinopolitan Pan-Hellenism and Roman pantheocracy. This allowed him to fend off the Pan-Hellenic chauvinism of Constantinople, and he triumphed over the international papal theocracy of Rome by creating theodulia – service to God – centered on the person of the ruler. Of course, this work, written at the time when World War Two was in full swing, has neither a Yugoslav nor an ecumenical dimension, but it does employ similar arguments against international churches, both Roman and Constantinopolitan, as his lecture on the nationalism of St. Sava.

[1]Nikolai Velimirović, Two Churches and One Nation (New York: Živa Crkva, 2015), 4-6.

[2]Radimila Radić, ‘Religion in Multinational State: Case of Yugoslavia’, in: Dejan Djokić, еd., Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992, London: Hurst, 196-207, 197.

[3]Николај Велимировић, „Примедба на Окружницу Пресветлог Господина др Бајера, надбискупа загребачког“, Гласник СПЦ 2/9 (1935), 25–28. The text has been reprinted and published as Николај Велимировић, „Светосавска година. Свети Сава и савремена Југославија“, Вардар 12/2 (1935), 1–2.

[4]Николај Велимировић, „Национализам Светог Саве“, in: Епископ Николај, Сабрана дела Епископа Николаја у XIII књига, књига IХ, Шабац: Манастир Светог Николаја 2014, 305–318: 309–310.

[5]Jovan Byford, Denial and Repression of Antisemitism (Budapest: Central European University, 2008),30.

[6] Klaus Buchenau, Auf russischen Spuren. Orthodoxe Antiwestler in Serbien, 1850-1945 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011), 161.

[7]Николај Велимировић, „Велика криза у Римокатолицизму“, у: Епископ Николај, Сабрана дела у XIII књига, књига II, Шабац: Манастир Светог Николаја, 2014, 786.