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L’œcuménisme selon Saint Justin Popovic (1894-1979)

Saint Justin (Popovic, 1894-1979), a Serbian saint, was a theologian and archimandrite of the Celije Monastery. St. Justin was a renowned scholar on Dostoyevsky, an anti-communist, and a renowned writer. He was the son of a priest, from a family with a tradition of priests. He studied at the faculty of Theology at the renowned seminary school of St. Sava in Belgrade and graduated from there in 1914. At the seminary in Belgrade, he met hieromonk Nikolai (Velimirovic), Ph.D. (later St. Nikolai), who became his spiritual father and most influential person in his life. However, that does not mean that he had exactly the same views as his spiritual father, which we will see later on. St. Justin continued his studies in Russia, The UK and Greece. He studied many years in London, but his doctoral thesis, “The Philosophy and Religion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky” was not accepted at Oxford due to its criticism of Western society, Western humanism, rationalism and the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings (mostly what he saw as human-centric/anti God-man view on the papacy). However, this thesis was published years later when St. Justin became the editor of the Orthodox journal, The Christian Life, which he, together with his colleagues from Oxford, edited and published for twenty years. St. Justin translated many texts by the Church fathers into Serbian. After the Second World War, St. Justin was removed as professor from the Seminary in Belgrade and was under strict communist control at the Monastery of Celije until his death. Many, including Bishop St. Nikolai Velimirovic, had to flee the country; however, what perhaps “saved” St. Justin was the fact he was not a bishop, but a priest-monk. He was a very feared and powerful opponent of the communist regime, and played a large part in organizing the Serbian Church after the Second World War. He is also known, or rather presented, as a great opponent of ecumenism and in particular a critic of the Roman Catholic Church and what he considered their heresies, mostly the fall of the papacy, which he considered to be the third fall of man in history, after Adam and Judas. He is highly venerated as a pious and educated holy man who fought to keep Orthodoxy pure, who fought for the Church during Communist times, and as a spiritual giant that fostered many of today’s bishops and monastics in the Serbian Church.1

St. Justin was a puzzling figure during his lifetime, and remains so, more than 35 years after his repose in the Lord. He was himself never a bishop, which allowed him to speak and write even more freely and openly about the issue of ecumenism. It is very important to understand that while St. Justin was very hard in his descriptions of the Western Christian churches (especially the Roman Catholic Church), their, from his point of view, heresies and errors, he was a loving man of God. Many people have tried to use his writings against ecumenism to justify comments and behavior that is very unchristian and very fanatical, especially his thoughts about what he called “papism”2. But that’s very shallow and disrespectful towards the saint. Instead it is vital to look at the whole picture when analyzing his rejection of (a particular sort of) ecumenism. He was a deep spiritual thinker, as intellectually gifted as blessed with many spiritual gifts. While we read what St. Justin thought, we must look at it with the knowledge that he spoke the truth in very direct ways, in ways that are very harsh, yet he always remained loving towards all humans. He just despised sin. He saw heresy and schism as grave sins against Christ and his Church.

St. Justin never himself participated in any ecumenical meetings, but never critiqued participation in them as such. He knew St. Nikolai Velimirovic personally and his participations in these meetings, yet he considered him a saint even during his lifetime, as Bishop Atanasije Jevtic (spiritual son of St. Justin) writes3. I will here look into notes4 left by St. Justin about the topic of ecumenism. These notes are from the end of his life (1972) when he was writing his book, The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism, which is by many seen as a great analysis of ecumenism from the Orthodox standpoint. I will use here not so much that book itself, but instead the much more personal and raw notes that St. Justin wrote while writing this book. These notes have recently been published for the public in the book I am using and so offer a lot of new insight into the thoughts of the saint. They are seen not only as a base for his above mentioned book, but also as material that offers us a much deeper insight into the thoughts of the saint.

Meaning of the word “ecumenism” for St. Justin.

In order for us to even attempt to understand St. Justin, it is important to first and foremost know what the word ecumenism meant to him from an Orthodox perspective. The covering sheet of his notes stated: “The Orthodox Church = Ecumenism by catholicity (Russian: sobornost = “to gather”).”5Let us for a moment focus on the understanding of the term catholicity/catholic (sobornost). The word is understood in the Russian sense of meaning,6 namely a “spiritual community of any jointly living people,” “to gather,” which has its core in the cooperation between people and the denying of individualism. The difference in the Western understanding of the word is almost non-existent, it is just important to understand that “catholicity/catholic” in this case has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church, but rather refers to the word “catholic” itself. The Western use of the word is often understood as “universal”, which can be seen as having the same or roughly the same meaning as the Russian “Sobornost”. Therefore: the “catholicity” of the Christian Church is about gathering all into one. Hence, the word “ecumenism/ecumenical” can now in this context be understood as St. Justin himself explains: “Ecumenism: The catholicity (sobornost) of heaven and earth, of God and man, the soul of universality, of evangelic and orthodox ecumenism: We live on earth but we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20). Everything was the holy catholicity (sobornost); which lies in the unity of the theanthropic (Divine-human) Church = the God-man Christ the Lord. Body on earth, heart in heaven: Our wishes should be catholic; and they are such when they are holy (Matt 6:21). And man’s holiness is in God, more precisely: in the God-man. And in the Person of the God-man: God transfers all his attributes, including holiness, to man. Without God – man is a tiny mosquito (…) everything was created for the holy theanthropic catholicity and unity (Matt 6:25-34) (…) ‘Whoever receives you, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me’ (Matt 10:40). Therein = in Him the entire catholicity, the entire universality, the entire ecumenism. Where He is—all of those are present and more; the Entire Holy Trinity [is present]. Everything from Him and everything in Him! Everything towards Him.”7 The saint spends a lot of time deepening his explanation of ecumenism as he sees the Orthodox Church seeing it. But to show and explain it all would take up too much space. Instead focus has been put on the one that is at the core of all else—the one that is the foundation of St. Justin’s understanding of his own title: “The Orthodox Church=Ecumenism by catholicity”. Ecumenism is only real if it places the God-man in the center. The WWC statement from Amsterdam 1948 in a similar fashion states: “The World council of Churches is a fellowship of churches that accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior”8

Ecumenism and catholicity of the Church could only be true and correct for St. Justin if it was a theanthropic viewpoint, placing the God-man in the center of all things. “God-manhood is the fundamental catholicity of the Church (=ecumenicity, as the atom is to the planet): up to Triadicity: but through the God-man who both leads into and unites with the Holy Trinity: as the ideal and reality of perfect Catholicity (=ecumenicity) (…) Therefore the Church [is]: the most perfect workshop for the creation of perfect man. Everything else apart from the God-man: pseudo society and pseudo personalities—an unfeasible humanistic hodgepodge. Only: Christ [is] all and everything. By her very nature the Church is ecumenical, for she is catholic”9

9.4 Humanism and Ecumenism

Now that it is made clear what St. Justin means when using the words “ecumenism” and “catholic”, it is safe to move forward into his criticism of the ecumenical movement and of the whole of Western European society. This is important to do because St. Justin`s view on ecumenism is colored by his criticism of his contemporary world and the ecumenical movement of his time.

“Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8)—this is something that must be the core of the Orthodox understanding of ecumenism, according to St. Justin. In other words, we (humans) can’t change Christ, we can’t decide what he thinks about x or y. We can only put the God-man in center of everything and especially of ecumenism, and work from there. That is the only way for St. Justin, and a theme seen throughout his writings. The God-man solves all the eternal problems of man and mankind—no human can do that. Hence his critique of Western humanism. If the Church can’t solve the eternal problems (with the God-man Christ in the center) of mankind, “She sinks into petty humanistic and hoministic problems”10. This leads to the Church becoming earthy only. She kills people (St. Justin uses crusades and inquisitions as examples11), solving all earthy problems with earthly measures, namely with fire and the sword. This in turn, according to St. Justin, kills the God-man, it kills Christ who is the Church. The Church must follow the first two commandments of God: Love of God first and then humans, “From God to man: from the God-man to man”12. Humanism, however, always takes the reverse order according to St. Justin. This is something he calls “papal humanism”13, as he sees the Pope as the leader, cause and head of humanism (something we will get back to later). This “pan heresy,”14 as he calls it, leads to constant shedding of human blood in the world and the slaughter of human souls as a result.

St. Justin saw humanism as evil, pure evil and totally opposite to God, the Gospel and the Church. The source of this humanism and its entrance and increased influence in society has its roots in the papacy and the “infallibility” of the pope, according to St. Justin. St. Justin sees the pope as the model of the anti-Christian theory of “the ubermensch”. The fall of the pope, as well as the fall of Adam and Judas, the saint sees as the three biggest falls of mankind. St. Justin sees “papism” and its earthly and human power as the pan-heresy of humanism, as the putting of man before the God-man in the center, instead ending up where man is the measure of all things, and no longer God. St. Justin also sees the pope as the father of Protestantism, which he sees as the final stage of “papism”: “each [Protestant] believer – a self-appointed and separate pope”15 (This is why the term “papism” also for St. Justin includes Protestants, who according to St. Justin all consider themselves as popes.) By this he is referring to the fact that the pope is (in his understanding) held infallible in questions of faith according to how he understands the Roman Catholic teaching, while every human is infallible in understanding the bible in Protestantism, according to St. Justin`s understanding of these confessions. Both of these he sees as man-worship, humanolatry, scholastic and rationalistic bacchanalias. “Hence so many sects [Protestants]: it is actually all one, having been fathered by the pope, by his humanolatry and by his man-godhood. In opposition to: the God-man.”16 European humanism is essentially anti-human and equal to “papism”, according to St. Justin. Humanists have one soul: “a papistic-protestant soul”17. He calls the humanistic society of Europe the “mount Olympus of the Roman-Protestant Europe; Zeus=the Pope”18. Through humanism, the European man degenerates himself into a homunculus, a non-man. For St. Justin, at the heart of humanism lies rationalism, which he also sees at the heart of scholasticism: “For scholasticism and rationalism gauge everything ‘according to man’, by man; but man is incomparably more extensive than all this, in the same proportion as the God-man is more extensive than man”19

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