The priest began chuckling when I asked him if he had any hope regarding the future relationship between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church.
“They say that unity will come on the judgement day…but late at night. So yes…I have hope.”
The division between the two churches is complex, reflecting issues from local history, ethnicity, and culture as well as the theological issues stemming from the historical separation between the Eastern and Western church in 1054 AD. To be Croatian is synonymous with being Catholic, and to be Serbian is to be Serbian Orthodox.
But there are always exceptions. This particular Catholic priest, A., was not only a former atheistic Communist in the Yugoslav army, but also Serbian by ethnicity. Traversing so many boundaries seemed pretty revolutionary to me, but this devout man shrugged it off with insouciance. “It was God’s will!” he laughed when I asked him why he thought God called him into the Catholic Church instead of the Serbian Orthodox.
“You have no idea?”
“Of course I don’t! Everything around me was Orthodox, but circumstances happened so that I directed myself to the Catholic church…so what to say? God wanted me there so I am there!”
From my perspective as an outsider, individuals like A. who straddle seemingly fixed boundaries stand as a prophetic witness regarding the future state of the church. Since Christ has torn down the hostile barriers between ethnic and religious groups, we can be now one in Him. This oneness that transcends boundaries is both a means of mission and image of the coming kingdom: “….I in them and you in me so that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me,” Jesus prays to his Father on the night before his death (John 17:23, emphasis mine). Unity testifies to the world that Jesus is sent from God and that God loves them?
Perhaps this somewhat strange concept rings of truth, and perhaps this is the way toward peace, but how can this be anything other than a hollow idea in a world that greedily salivates after power?
“Humans are sinners and the structure of power, even in the church, promotes that somebody wants more power than others, ” A. explains. ” I have to say I am praying like everyone else…but looking at the condition of the human soul right now I’m not so much optimistic that it will happen very soon. Nobody wants to be one with the other…because this asks for conversion and conversion means to abandon yourself…your will. Christ is one and we have divided him in many directions.”
A. has the demanding task of living hopefully in a challenging reality. However, it is faithful people like A., fluidly moving through boundaries, who stand as a living prophecy of the possibilities found in God’s power and love. A former Communist Serbian who is now a Catholic priest? Absurd! Yet perhaps it is in the absurdities where one can find God at work.