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  • Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (1880–1956) and His Studies in Bern within the Context of the Old Catholic–Serbian Orthodox Relationship*
  • Urs von Arx

On May 19, 2003, the Synod (of bishops) of the Serbian Orthodox Church formally canonized bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, who had already been highly venerated by the faithful for a long time. He had now been added to the list (canon) of the saints who are officially recognized by the Church (his feast days are March 18 and May 3). Because of this fact, the Old Catholic Faculty in Bern can count a saint among its alumni.

A Look at the Person and the Work of Nikolaj Velimirović

Nikola (his Christian name) Velimirović was born on December 23, 1880 (according to the new calendar: January 4, 1881) in the village Lelić, close to Valjevo1 in the Princedom (since 1882 Kingdom) of Serbia.2 From 1919–20 and from 1936 until his death on March 5 (March 18, respectively), 1956, he was bishop of Žiča. Between those periods, he was bishop of Ochrid.3 He [End Page 307] strongly believed in the idea that Gospel and Church have a foundational significance and task with regards to the spiritual well-being of all people, and that the realization of this mission so far had been an amalgamation of apostasy and betrayal on the one hand, and of witness and sanctification on the other hand. The conviction that Slavonic, especially Serbian4 Christendom, rising from its “Golgotha experience,” and positioning itself between Asian religions and Western rationalism (also seen as the dominant force at work in an ecclesial context) had a special task to fulfil—especially in regards to the spiritual rebirth of a Europe that has been cut off from its Christian roots—is intrinsic to this spiritual evaluation of the history of reception (Wirkungs-geschichte) of the Gospel. To what extent such religious/philosophical visions have been abused in the recent past of Serbian history5 is a matter of an ongoing debate. This also applies to the effect of statements by Velimirović from the period of time after 1930 and especially during his brief imprisonment in Dachau, which have been classified as anti-Jewish and as fascistic in later times. [End Page 308]

Apart from the folklore traditions of the old exemplary Serbia (which was, in view of St. Sava, later on also called “svetosavlje”),6 the Serbian struggles for independence of the 19th century against the Ottomans and both World Wars (which in his view had a destructive effect on Europe’s Christian vocation) were highly formative for bishop Nikolaj. During the First World War the young priest monk was living mostly in England and in the USA, where he gained much attention and sympathy, especially in England, with his lectures on the Serbian ideal of freedom and Orthodox religion.7 He also involved himself in the nascent ecumenical movement.8 During World War II [End Page 309] the bishop experienced house arrest under the Germans and in the end—for about three months—he was imprisoned in the concentration camp Dachau; during the course of the war his eight siblings are also said to have met their deaths. After the communist putsch in Yugoslavia, he preferred exile in the USA, where he continued his activities as preacher and spiritual teacher.

His literary oeuvre, published by the former bishop for the Serbian diaspora in Western Europe, and the present leader of the diocese of Šabac [–Valjevo], Lavrentije Trifunović (*1935—Christian name: Živko),9 fills up 12 volumes.10 The voluminous work shows not only the charismatic preacher who is conscious of his mission, but also the untiring spiritual writer, who received in his own Church the honorary name new “Chrysostomus” (that is: mouth of gold, in Serbian: zlatoust).11 In newer editions the following works are available in a Western language: a life of St. Sava, who is regarded as the founder and the embodiment of Serbian Christianity,12 the so-called Prologue of [End Page 310] Ochrid, a collection, published in 1928, of saints’ lives, hymns, sermons,13 and individual writings for every day of the year, also printed in the later collection A...