Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Serbian Orthodox Generation Gap: In Which Our Priest Bitches Out His Congregation

Well before the end of Easter Sunday services at our local US church, at least half the congregation is already outside milling about in the spring sun. Some went out because their small children don't have the patience for a two hour service (the congregation is bursting with two and three year olds, Easter 2008 must have been a sea of pregnant bellies.) Others went out to socialize with family and friends. Still others never quite made it inside the church at all, many arriving more than an hour after service started, just to be together and enjoy the Church luncheon that will be served afterwards.

The parking lot, the overflow lot, and the streets all around are jammed with cars with plates from five different states. Many people, like us, have driven more than an hour to be here.

Most of the service is in Serbian. But one speech our young priest feels is important enough to be translated into English as well. No, it is not the Patriarch's annual letter. (If you want that in English, you have to give the priest your email address.) This translated speech is a lecture by the priest himself. He is upset with the low turn-out at last night's midnight service. He feels that many more of us should have been there. I look around at the young families surrounding us who have driven such a way with their two year olds today, and think, "He's certainly not a father."

His chastisement continues. Most of the people who were there at midnight didn't seem to know how to behave in a church service. And, after he led the march around the outside of the church, which occurs at about the half-way mark in the service, most people left for home! Then, as the midnight service continued, more and more people peeled out. By the end of the service there were fewer than a dozen parishioners left in the church with him. And one of them, he adds in damning tones, one of them was a Bulgarian!

I am struck once again with this evidence of the generation gap in the Serbian church, which I've noticed both in the US and in Serbia itself. The new generation of clergy seem fierce and evangelical. Their religion is Crucial. People should Pay Attention! I recently met one young monk in Serbia who has posted videos of himself on YouTube speaking on (and on and on) the importance of religion.

On one hand, these vigorous green shoots are marvelous. Exactly what the doctor ordered for a religion that had been ignored or suppressed for so many decades under socialism.

On the other hand, it puts them at odds with their own congregations. It's difficult for these fervent young clergy to understand, much less build a bridge of commonality with, the Serbs of my husband's generation who mostly grew up thinking of religion as something your ancient granny in the country knows about, but no one else, certainly not their parents so proud of their new Yugoslavia. They grew up without Christmas, without Easter. Tito's birthday and May Day were the big celebrations.

Those who did find their way to Orthodoxy in the past two decades often did so less from a religious impulse than from a cultural one. Orthodoxy was part of a Serbian identity they were exploring now that being a Yugoslav was closed to them.

Others, including I suspect many in our local congregation which is mainly made up of Serbs who came to the US as adults, came to to the church for social purposes. The Easter luncheon is the one of only times in the entire year that you can be in a room full of people speaking your own language!

Also, if you are new to our area, the Church is one of the first places you stop in to try to meet people. For example, I met a young Serb from New Zealand at a Church picnic last summer, who had clearly trotted over as soon as he moved here to see if there were any nice girls in the congregation.

Lastly, given how far apart many of the expat community live from one another, not to mention the busyness of every day life here, the Church is one of the best places for extended family and friends to get together and see each other. Easter Sunday is a clearly an important reunion. You've never seen to many hugs and cries of welcome in a parking lot in your life.

All of this, for our young priest, is clearly beside the point.

I felt a little sorry for him. And, I wanted to go up and give him an education. So what if people come to your church for what you think are the "wrong" reasons? So what if they are not as fervant as you are?

Don't be angry. Instead, be glad that they are coming at all. If you know what you are doing, if you are a good "fisher of men", you can turn this gathering to your advantage. Just look at all those toddlers who'll be ready for Sunday school soon! But, you have to thoroughly understand, empathize, and work with your congregation to be able to turn their thoughts toward the call of heaven.

Harrange them, and they'll slip through your net to return to the ocean.


RNSANE said...

I think this is probably true for many religions. The priests and ministers just tend to alienate younger parishioners instead of working on their skills at drawing them in and making them feel welcome. Back when I was a the wife of a Serbian in the U. S. ( I
divorced long ago ), I encouraged my husband to participate in his orthodox church and club because I wanted my two sons to know about their culture and heritage. My husband really didn't care and, often, I would find myself going alone!

tinica said...

The midnight vigil service is my favorite religious experience of them all, be it Orthodox or Roman Catholic. But I don't have any squirmy little ones. And the orthodox priests I have known have all been fathers themselves.

Srećan Uskrs!

jeju said...

I totally agree Rosemary. The Church needs to move with the times and realise people are doing the best they can in a busy world. Atleast some turned up to midnight mass, they probably had to go home early because of work the next day, the kids...

Ivan K. said...

It seems to me the behaviour of such priests is plainly unchristian. A Christian needs to emulate Christ, and Christ didn't seem to care about the number of his followers. This man complains that ordinary people are ignorant about the ceremony, but it's obviously not what he claims to be.

Not even a worldly lecturer or performer would treat people with such lack of empathy.

This seems to be an attitude of a virtual state religion where the "priest" is, essentially, a state official. (Rebecca West indeed makes a similar remark about Orthodox priests.)

This guy here seems to be a great scholarly authority


And he says something that strikes me very much: "The basic thing in Christianity is the Liturgy and Liturgy is a dialogue between the believer and the priest. If someone has a notion of Liturgy as a sermon or prayer, he is mistaken."

ana.the.serious.cat said...

What a beautiful and insightful post! Thank you, Rosemary.

ZeljkaR said...

Dear Rosemary, you sketched Serbian mentality surprisingly good. I laughed so much while reading blog about Serbian teenagers and how the rest of family treat them. Your article about religion is unfortunately very true, I was also the witness of similar attitude and behavior here in Serbia. At the end I felt very uncomfortable in the place where I had come to find peace and sympathy. You are very perceptive, I really enjoyed your writing.
Regards from Belgrade!

Dragoslav Kosic said...

I just wonder, why my comment was never published. I wrote a long comment a year and a half ago, or right after I was told about this post. Since, most of what you wrote is not true, I thought it was fare to post my response to it.

Priest from your post