The following are remarks shared by Father Tom Kazich during the luncheon taking place immediately following the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the new Orthodox Cemetery at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church November 12, 2016.
The day is also recognized as the annual Patron Saint Day of Saint Varnava, the first Serbian-American born person to be glorified a Saint in the Orthodox Church who had personal ties to this St. Sava parish.
Saints were ordinary people, sinners, who never gave up the battle
Sometimes we think that saints are somewhere up there in heaven. We pray to them to intercede before God for us. But we don’t always connect them to our own lives. This past year, a visitor was standing in New Gracanica Church and marveling at the saintly images that cover the walls from the floor to the ceiling. And he remarked, “We must never forget that the saints were ordinary people, sinners, who never gave up the battle.” We can always look to them for intervention and inspiration.
We here in Gary St. Sava’s are blessed. We don’t have to look any further for saints that have a link to us. Born in Gary in 1914 Vojislav Nastic, who later became Bishop Varnava, was canonized by the Serbian Church in 2005. This was the first Serbian American born to be glorified as a saint. He was the first baby to be baptized at St. Sava’s Church in 1914. When he was nine years old, he returned to Serbia with his family.
There he studied for the holy priesthood, was tonsured a monk, and later consecrated a bishop. Both St. Bishop Nicholai and St. Fr. Justin Popovich were his mentors. It was during WWII that he spoke out against the communists and for freedom – freedom of conscience, freedom to worship God, just like the old heroes of Kosovo. He confessed Christ and suffered for the Truth and Righteousness of God’s Kingdom. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He died in 1964 as a confessor. He never forgot his roots and felt it was honorable to declare himself both an American and a Serbian.
St. Varnava, in his short lifetime of fifty years, somehow captured the width and depth of Christianity. He breathed in the same spirit of those fearless witnesses of Christ from the early Christian period, living in the sea of paganism. His asceticism gave him energy which was no different from the early monks who went into the desert to preserve the strength of Christianity. He was rooted in the Serbian lands, and the historic stream of Svetosavlje flowed through him, even though he was born outside of the country.
Finally he adapted the same love of freedom that the Serbs showed on Kosovo Field, with the freedom he breathed in the American land of his birth. That freedom which God instilled in every human being that He created in His “image and likeness” projected him into a much greater witness during and after WWII. Standing up to Nazism, Communism, and all other forms of dictatorship, he truly made Christ the center of his confession. And lastly, through it all, he loved His Church, his people at Gary St. Sava’s, and was truly the “conscience of the Church” in his times.
Feast of St. Varnava connections with St. Sava Church today
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Varnava. And what makes our celebration so special is that many of the things you accomplished and are recognizing today were dear to St. Varnava.
1. The Church Beautification
We know of Varnava’s love from a very young age of the church. There is that cute anecdote that tells of how in church on Sunday morning he soon tired of standing during the Liturgy. Becoming restless, he asked his father when the service would be over. “Now,” his father calmly told him. Varnava waited obediently and patiently and asked again. “Now” came the answer. He again waited and finally humbly asked “Daddy, when is now?” He was already showing himself as a philosopher, as a theologian, and a lover of beauty of the church.
Everything that happens in the church is a miracle of God’s love and our cooperation. Look how you have beautified St. Sava’s, with the installed new floor, carpet and lighting. Thanks to all of you for taking care to beautify God’s house, under Fr. Marko’s leadership. Each gift we offer or do out of love for God and His Church is acceptable and pleasing to God.
2. The Cemetery Blessing
Varnava lived at a time in history where he was surrounded by wars and killings and death. It’s no surprise that this always came up whenever he wrote someone. “I not only hear voices of the living, but also greetings from the dead. Greeting you are shadows of your forefathers whose shade falls on each foot of these bloody hills and mountains.”
When we read the accounts of the early martyrs they speak of the great respect the faithful showed for those who had departed and were being buried. That’s why we remember the departed continually in our church services. We pray to God for their eternal rememberance. With this cemetery, you here, though there are other cemeteries in the area, have chosen to declare your the love and connection between the the church and the departed.
This is a tradition that you rarely see anymore, except is the old churches in Europe and some here in America. They always had a cemetery in back or on the side of the church, to show that the departed also are a part of our Church body, the Body of Christ.
Those responsible for this project are to be commended. Especially we are happy that it will be open to all Orthodox.
3. Finally the Museum
Varnava was so immersed in living history, that he referred to historic events as everyday events in his letters, and all this through the backdrop of Serbian history. He says, “Do not forget that you are the offspring of the Prince of Kosovo, who sacrificed the earthly to gain the heavenly. Do not forget either that you are the children of a nation that does not possess anything great for which it hasn’t paid the price of great sacrifice.”
Several years ago the Historical Society of St. Sava established a museum here. St. Varnava is their Patron. Over the years we have seen wonderful exhibits highlighting – Serbs in the Steels Mills, Serbian Weddings, Serbian Sisters Circle, Serbs in Sports, Serbs in the Military and many others. When we preserve our history, then we have something that we can hand down to our children to build on for the future.
Continuing a mission
We all know that the saints are alive in Christ and they are here with us constantly whenever we need their help. You at St. Sava’s are living examples of this, through the recent projects of your church. You have connected with St. Varnava in a unique way. St. Varnava has you here continuing his work, in preserving the beauty of the church, protecting the history of the parish and people, and respecting those who have departed in a most important way. You have continued his mission.
There’s still a lot more out there to do, to develop. May we all strive to be numbered with God’s saints one day, and let’s fulfill the words we pray at every Divine Liturgy: “With all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and our whole life unto Christ our God.”