What can Orthodoxy expect from the new Serbian Patriarch?

Patriarch Porfirije. Photo: UOJ

The Serbian Church has elected the new Patriarch Porfirije. What is he like and what should world Orthodoxy in general, and Ukraine in particular, expect from him?

On February 18, 2021, the Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Porfirije (Peric) of Zagreb-Ljubljana a new patriarch. Let's remember how the election took place.

Already at the stage of the secret ballot, many analysts faced the first surprise. Contrary to the opinions circulating before the elections, neither Metropolitan Hrizostom (Yevic) of Dabar-Bosnia nor Bishop Joanikije (Mićović) of Budimlja and Nikšić was among the candidates – instead of one of them, a note with the name of Bishop Ephraim of Banja Luka was put in the third envelope. The appearance of the names of two other candidates, Bishop Irinej of Bačka and Metropolitan Porfirije, did not come as a surprise to anyone.

Yes, it was the latter, according to the media, that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic wanted to see at the patriarchal throne. But taking into account everything that happened at the Council, it can be argued that Vucic could have influenced its outcome.

The elections were recognized by the Holy Synod as legitimate and already on February 19, the day after the election, the enthronement of the newly elected Patriarch of the Serbian Church took place. So who is he?

Biography of the new Patriarch

The new Serbian Patriarch was born as Prvoslav Perić in Bechei, on July 22, 1961. He finished primary school in Čurug, and the Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj Gymnasium in Novi Sad. He was ordained a monk at Visoki Dečani monastery on 21 April 1985 In 1986, Porfirije earned his bachelor's degree in Orthodox theology from the University of Belgrade. Immediately after that, he attended postgraduate studies at the University of Athens from 1986 until 1990.

On 6 October 1990, upon the blessing of Bishop Irinej Bulović of Bačka, Porfirije joined the Kovilj Monastery in Kovilj, near Novi Sad. On 21 November 1990, he was ordained as hieromonk and became hegumen of the Kovilj Monastery.

Hegumen Porfirije made sure that the life of the monks a the Kovilj Monastery was organized in the manner of the monastic communities of Mount Athos. The monastery soon became famous for its beautiful Byzantine singing and openness to society. The brotherhood of the monastery multiplied many times, and if at first there were practically no ascetics, then at the time of Porfirije's resignation from the post of hegumen there were 25 monks in it.

At a regular meeting on May 14, 1999, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church elected him vicar of the Bačka Eparchy.

Already in the status of a bishop, Vladyka Porfirije defended his doctoral theses "Possibility of the knowability of God in St. Paul's understanding according to the interpretation of Saint John Chrysostom." (2004) at the Theological Faculty of the University of Athens. At the Faculty of Theology in Belgrade, at the Department of Pastoral Psychology, he replaced the famous academician and professor Vladeta Jerotić. Since 2015, as an associate professor, Vladyka has taught basic disciplines, pastoral theology and psychology, New Testament theology, and other courses at the master's and doctoral levels. Fluent in Greek, German and English.

In 2005, Bishop Porfirije organized a therapeutic community at the Kovilj Monastery, which was recognized at the state level as the most successful project for drug addiction treatment. In total, on his initiative, four such therapeutic communities were formed, which received the general name "Land of the Living". For 16 years of its existence, almost 4,000 people have gone through drug addiction rehabilitation.

At the Kovilj Monastery, Vladyka Porfirije was for a long time engaged in the rehabilitation of young people who had suffered from destructive sects. He participated in numerous disputes with sectarians and gained an excellent reputation among the youth of Belgrade in particular, and Serbia in general.

In 2010, the Bishops' Council entrusted Porfirije to establish military chaplaincy in the Serbian Armed Forces. He was the military chaplain until 2011, whereupon he was a coordinator for cooperation between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Army. On May 24, 2014, the Holy Synod of Bishops of the SOC elected Bishop Porfirije as Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana, and already in 2016 Metropolitan Porfirije received the prestigious Order of St. Ignatius in Sweden for his contribution to the pacification of the Balkans. In 2019, the Association for Religious Freedom in the Republic of Croatia awarded Metropolitan Porfirije the prize for his peacekeeping contribution to the promotion of a culture of dialogue and religious freedom.

On February 18, 2021, Metropolitan Porfirije became the Patriarch of Serbia.

UOC, Phanar and OCU

For us, Orthodox of Ukraine, the most important aspect of the future patriarchate is the attitude of Vladyka Porfirije to the situation in Ukraine. His Beatitude Onuphry in his welcoming letter expressed the hope that "the good fraternal relations between the Serbian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, during your Primate ministry, will develop and strengthen in Christ". In addition, the attitude of the new Patriarch to the actions of the Phanar to legalize Ukrainian schismatics and to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in general is very important. By and large, not only the attitude of the SOC towards Orthodox Christians of Ukraine but also the unity of the Orthodox Church in general largely depends on the position of Patriarch Porfirije.

Many in Serbia consider Metropolitan Porfirije a Grecophile. This reputation allowed the supporters of the OCU in Ukraine to joyfully welcome his election to the post of Patriarch and to paint bright prospects for the further development of the "Ukrainian question".

However, as people who personally know Vladyka note that his Grecophilism is rather an honour and respect for the Greek patristic culture, Greek Orthodoxy and theology. He has absolutely no piety towards the Phanar, which is most characteristically expressed in the last theological works of Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Zizioulas).

That is why we may assume that Patriarch Porfirije will seek to resolve the "Ukrainian issue" through dialogue. Perhaps it is he who will become the person thanks to whom the process of the conciliar discussion of the Phanar's actions in Ukraine will move forward. Here are his words about the crisis of modern Orthodoxy: “We very much regret and grieve for the violation of the unity of Holy Orthodoxy. It is necessary to restore the former blissful love and unity of the holy Local Churches of God. There is nothing more necessary and precious than love, peace and unanimity among us, brothers in Christ God. I am convinced that a way will be found to resolve this painful issue in the spirit of the sacred canons."

At the same time, his position on the OCU is very clear and canonically definite: "We do not recognize unrepentant Ukrainian schismatics as members of the Church, let alone them as an autocephalous Orthodox Church."

It is worth noting here that along with the reputation of a moderate Grecophile, Vladyka Porfirije is also known as a Russophile. According to him, “we are connected with Russia by the issue of identity, and this is a matter of faith. We are united by the Orthodox Church. We have absolutely the same values, the same view of the world. Of course, not only with the Russians but also with the Greeks and with all Orthodox peoples. However, due to consanguinity, to a special extent, both our history and our identity are intertwined with the Russian people." In turn, Patriarch Kirill, in his congratulations to the newly elected Primate of the Serbian Church, stressed that he had no doubts that “in the difficult times we are experiencing, our Churches and the peoples of the same faith, as always, will support each other and work together for the faith, once for all entrusted to God's holy people (Jude 1: 3)."

We do not recognize unrepentant Ukrainian schismatics as members of the Church, let alone them as an autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Porfirije

That is why we can express the cautious hope that the centrist position of Patriarch Porfirije will help solve the deep problem of schism in Orthodoxy.

Political views and principles of dialogue

In Serbia, Metropolitan Porfirije is called the “conciliator”. It is believed that he is the person who will be able to smooth things over, reconcile opposing parties and find a common language both with fellow bishops and with representatives of other religious groups and political parties. After becoming Metropolitan of Zagreb-Ljubljana, he declared that he was always and sincerely "ready for dialogue with all people". “Dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation will be the principles that I will try to put into practice,” he said then.

In one of his interviews, Vladyka emphasized that he would always be ready “to participate in the construction of bridges between people and nations, knowing full well that there are those who from both banks will throw stones at the bridge builders. But the Lord himself, who through His Only Begotten Son overcame the gap between God and man, commits me to this."

Patriarch Porfirije is not a nationalist. He has repeatedly emphasized that he is, first of all, a Christian, and only then – a Serb: “I am a Serb, but above all, I’m a Christian, and this is a universal value, so I will preach and testify about Christ. I love my people, but I also love all other nations, every person, every icon of God."

I am a Serb, but above all I’m a Christian, and this is a universal value, so I will preach and testify about Christ. I love my people, but I also love all other nations, every person, every icon of God.

Patriarch Porfirije

In 2020, he said that "the Kosovo martyrs suffered not to preserve their national identity". According to him, nationality is important, but if it begins to occupy a dominant place in our life and if it is not placed in the context of our relationship with God, then national identity will turn into an idol.

Patriarch Porfirije claims that “I became a monk because I was looking in the Church for what She actually offers, and the thing why we exist in this world. God is neither a Croat, nor a Serb, nor a German. He is Love."

The future Patriarch also said that "division into patriots and traitors" should not be allowed in Serbia, and "bishops and priests should not choose between parties" because "for us, politics is like Scylla and Charybdis, which we are passing by, testifying to the truth of the Gospel”.

"Kosovo issue"

At the same time, the bishop's peacekeeping position on the Kosovo problem is very important for the modern Serbian authorities. The fact is that according to Georgy Engelhardt, a researcher at the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “it is important for the government, which is now actively involved in the process of concessions and a possible final deal on the Kosovo issue, that the Church does not oppose this ... The authorities are interested in the most cooperating Patriarch who will not accentuate uncomfortable questions on Kosovo." And it seems that Patriarch Porfirije really stands for a peaceful solution to the "Kosovo problem".

God is neither a Croat, nor a Serb, nor a German. He is Love.

Patriarch Porfirije

Thus, in one of his interviews, he stated that “with God's help, the efforts of the state should be supported to resume dialogue between Serbs and Shiptars (Albanians – Ed.) to establish some kind of coexistence that has been in this region for centuries. I believe that now it is clear to the world powers and the Albanians: we will never give up Kosovo and Metohija. It would be easier for all of us if those who live there, Serbs and Shiptars, negotiated about Kosovo and Metohija. Our job is to always strive to find a peaceful and lasting solution."

At the same time, the Vucic government must understand perfectly well that any negative moves in the direction of the Church will unequivocally run up against resistance from the new Patriarch. For example, he strongly criticized the Montenegrin authorities for adopting anti-church laws, as well as the “temporary government in Pristina” for attacking Orthodox churches: “We see what awaits the churches in Kosovo if we yield to lawlessness. It is necessary to support the efforts of our state to revive the dialogue between Serbs and Kosovans ... The attitude of the authorities of Podgorica towards the Serbian people, the Serbian Church, Orthodoxy and even towards democratic order and principles is no better than the attitude of the provisional bodies in Pristina. The authorities of Pristina ... clearly showed us all that will happen to the churches if we do not protect our shrines."

***

So, from what is known about Patriarch Porfirije today, we can conclude that he has every chance to become the person who will be able to influence the existing inter-Orthodox crisis.

Moreover, there is no doubt that Patriarch Porfirije will defend Christian values in the face of the modern secular world. While still a metropolitan, during the presentation of the already mentioned Stockholm Order of St. Ignatius, he declared that “the source of freedom and human dignity is the Church of Christ”, and only Christianity brings into this world “freedom of choice, freedom of conscience, free movement of people and ideas, and also the material security of every person". According to him, "this does not mean that Christianity stands for transient human values, but that it affirms eternal values in which man and his salvation are at stake".

We prayerfully wish the temptations of this world bypassed Patriarch Porfirije and he remained true to his words and principles, which he preached before he ascended the patriarchal throne.

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