On February 18th, the Serbian Orthodox Church elected its new patriarch—59-year old Porfirije Perić. The new Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovac and Patriarch of Serbia, is a theologian who served for a year as the bishop of the Serbian army, represented the Serbian religious communities in his country’s Broadcasting Agency Council, and spent the last six years as the Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana.
Even before he was elected, those familiar with the Orthodox Christian world pointed to the difficult work awaiting the new Serbian patriarch. As Andreja Bogdanovski wrote on this blog, the patriarch will have to face the demands for the autocephalous status of the Macedonian Orthodox and Montenegrin Orthodox churches. While these requests are not new—in the Macedonian case, they are more than half a century old—that long history does not make them any less pressing. To address them, Porfirije will have to navigate the institutional and theological disputes along with profound political and territorial issues that still shape the life of the region.
Porfirije’s work gets only more complicated once we turn attention to Kosovo, and the Serbian patriarch knows this all too well. While frequently perceived as a modernist who will now be leading a conservative church, when it comes to Kosovo, Porfirije will likely stay the course of his predecessors. “Kosovo is for us,” he declared upon his enthronement, “an umbilical cord that links us with the essence of our identity,” it is “our covenant.” Porfirije’s pronouncement, it ought to be underscored, happened before the second part of his installation rites, which are yet to occur at the Peć monasteryin Kosovo.
The questions surrounding the true character of Porfirije’s modernism and changes that he will want or be able to introduce only deepen with the considerations of the immense public influence that the Orthodox Church enjoys in Serbia, and especially with regard to the long-standing and unambiguous closeness of the country’s religious and political elites. Considering the implications that Porfirije’s election might have for the current Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, some journalists from the region were quick to note that Porfirije proved his proximity to Vučić’s government even before becoming the patriarch. Porfirije, we are told, was central for firing the faculty members of the Belgrade’s Faculty of Theology who spoke publicly about corruption and abuse at their home institution. Just a few months ago, Porfirije publicly criticized the icon of the Serbian civil society, Sonja Biserko, who has been working on behalf of human rights since Milošević’s time. Biserko’s forceful criticism of the current Serbian president, Porfirije suggested in this occasion, was constitutive of “an orchestrated” campaign against the government and “almost the entire Serbian people.”
But just as the commentators from the region and beyond highlighted that Porfirije’s future steps will be constrained by the internal affairs of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the burdens of politics and history, most public figures in Croatia gushed about his election with enthusiasm and joy. For them, Porfirije as the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church was a sign of the new beginnings in the relationship between Croatia and Serbia, and the Croatian Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church—the relationships burdened by conflicting narratives of suffering and destruction during the 1990s’ war in Croatia, by the differing accounts of the role of the Catholic Church during the Ustaše Nazi-puppet regime in World War II, and the disputes about the numbers of Serbs murdered during that time.
Despite such long-standing contentions and recent violent conflicts between Croatia and Serbia, anyone familiar with the Porfirije’s tenure as the metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana is not surprised by the outpouring of support and high expectations for his new role. Over the last six years in Zagreb, Porfirije became known not only for his active presence in the life of the Croatian capital and this country, but even more for his active engagement in creating the spaces of dialogue. For two years, he was a quiet driving force behind the monthly meetings of public figures of all backgrounds—Christian, atheist and agnostic thinkers, political and religious leaders, academics and public intellectuals, feminist activists and journalists—during which they discussed social, ethical, and political themes, and which became known as “Porfirije’s Circles.” Due to his role in providing the space and organizational impetus for these circles, Porfirije earned the respect and trust of many as, in the words of the former Croatian president and a participant of these circles Ivo Josipović, a wise and soft-spoken man. Above all, Porfirije became known for his unambiguous commitment to ecumenism. In his first public address as the metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana, Porfirije professed that “he was a Serb, but before all other things…a Christian, and that is a universal value.”” In yet another occasion, just as in his concrete humanitarian actions during the recent earthquakes in Croatia, he affirmed the universality of Christianity as a “faith of love and peace,” arguing for the equality of all people and affirming the task of the Church as the servant of “peace and unity.”
Yet, in Porfirije’s emphasis on ecumenism, it is not the Christian theological language of universality and Christian unity that requires attention: these tropes have become commonplace in discussions about ecumenical endeavors. What requires more probing and has been neglected in most reports about Porfirije’s work, is his discourse about attachment to the people he encountered and worked with while living in Zagreb. As Croatian journalist and Porfirije’s friend Drago Pilsel wrote, in the most consecrated moment of his establishment as the new Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in the middle of Belgrade, Porfirije declared that Croatia became his “second homeland.” The Croatian and Slovenian people he met as the metropolitan, he also stated, were exemplary: they became the model for him, what he’ll aspire to nurture “in the years to come.”
In Porfirije’s case, the concrete experiences of living with, and fully engaging, in a dialogue with citizens of all kinds of national backgrounds and ontological commitments, the sense of embeddedness in places and belonging to specific groups of people—that did not take away from the new patriarch’s commitment to ecumenism, it emboldened it. If the new leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church will inaugurate a new chapter in the relationships between the Orthodox Christian world and the Roman Catholic Church, it will be left to scholars of religion and theologians to explore the true sources of Porfirije’s ecumenical endeavors. And, I would argue that it will require different, more open analytic tools and normative perspectives to understand how the notions of Christian dialogue and unity can arise not from the opposition, but from the intersection, of Christian theological universalism and one’s particular attachment and belonging.
Slavica Jakelić is the Richard Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Valparaiso University’s honors college. She is the author of Collectivistic Religions and is currently working on two books, Pluralizing Humanism and Ethical Nationalisms.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.