In Serbia, Catholics and Orthodox gently engage in vital dialogue

"If the Catholic catechism is translated into Serbian, the Orthodox fear we want to convert Orthodox faithful to Catholicism. Therefore we need to go step by step."

By Esther Gaitan-Fuertes

NEW YORK—The Roman Catholic archbishop of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, described the Balkans as an ethnic trouble spot—in that regard, not much has changed since the end of World War II, said Archbishop Stanislav Hočevar. Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians continue to make for a highly flammable mix, with the countries’ religious leaders put in the difficult role of peace-makers.

Historical tensions between the different ethnic  and religious groups make daily coexistence quite complicated, the prelate said in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “Nobody is quite prepared to work toward a new reconciliation,” he said.

Archbishop Stanislaw Hočevar of Belgrade

“We should all together find new ways to reconcile with each other, otherwise it won’t work. Without an ecumenical dimension we won’t reach that reconciliation,” the prelate added Archbishop Hočevar stated.

Noting that the relationship with the Orthodox Church is good at a personal level, the archbishop stressed that the Churches must work hard to arrive at a joint perspective on important historical events. Different interpretations of history and many theological disagreements persist.

For example, the archbishop explained, for the Orthodox Church religious and national identity are very closely linked; Serbians tend to emphasize the small differences between Catholics and Orthodox instead of focusing on more important, universal issues that transcend nationality. The prelate acknowledged that this leaning toward nationalistic pride is in part a lingering reaction to the communist policy of eliminating personal and national identity in favor of a new “identity of  workers.”

The archbishop praised the current Serbian Minister of Culture for helping the Catholic Church repair and upgrade Catholic churches. In fact, in late October 2014 a diocesan synod was held that focused on organisational problems. The number of local Catholics has decreased and resources are scant. Besides refurbishing churches and other diocesan buildings, strengthening ministry to children and youth, along with providing transport for priests to attend far-flung parishes are key priorities.

Archbishop Hočevar is strongly committed to dialogue with the Orthodox; and the availability of theological material in Serbian is a key ingredient in this process. Besides, until now it was assumed that Catholics in Serbia spoke only Croatian but the children of mixed marriages in his diocese speak Serbian. However, there is a catch: “if the Catholic catechism is translated into Serbian, the Orthodox fear we want to convert Orthodox faithful to Catholicism. Therefore we need to go step by step.”

As Archbishop Hočevar stressed, the reconstruction of the Balkan states is a complex and slow process. For its part, he said, the Catholic Church can make a huge contribution by demonstrating the universality of faith communities—a universality that transcends the often overly narrow connection between national and religious identity. This broad view holds the key to Croats, Serbs and Bosnians being able to work toward living in harmony.

ACN photo: Archbishop Hočevar


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