I have to admit the awareness that I had known, seen, and for a brief period of time, felt the same warmth of God’s sunlight and breathed the same air with a saint of Serbian origin fills me with joy and pride. I kissed his right hand and took away a gentle look of his eyes with me. This was the Holy Bishop Varnava Hvostanski the Confessor (Nastic).
In 1964, they gathered us, beardless boys, and reopened the famous Sremski Karlovci seminary.
Being too young, we could not have known nor even imagined that we were in a certain way heroes. As soon as we embarked on God’s path in those repressive times (lit. “woolen times”), we were ostracized from “this world,” became a rejected caste, and exposed to mockery and derision. As I realized later, our teachers and educators were also heroes. It is clear to me now that the invitation of the Holy Bishop Varnava, who was maligned by the communists and subjected to great suffering, to visit the students and instruct them, amounted to irrational and unheard of act of courage. On the eve of his martyrdom on November 11, 1964, Bishop Varnava shared our simple meal with us and remained in our company following it. We showered him with our boyish curiosity, asking him numerous questions which he answered cheerfully.
During all this time, this small and agile man was accompanied by two giants, one on his left and one on his right side. They guarded the man who was “a danger to the state.” And when they left, the last thing that was left in my eyes, was the two of them, huge, in the back seat of the car, and he, almost invisible, in the middle.
Our meeting, of course, should have taken less time, however, we would not let him get up; there was a question after question, an infinite number of them. That is how the Holy Bishop remained with us until the evening prayer. It is together with him that we departed to the Congregational Church of Sremski Karlovci for the evening prayer, where we engaged in prayers to dear God; and finally, following the evening service, we saw him off with gazes filled with love.
Being poisoned, he suddenly died the next day.
I believe that the meeting with students of theology was crucial in bringing about the villains’ decision to shorten his life. He was poisoned at a time when he was in prime of his creative power: he was fifty years old.
Now you will get to hear who the Holy Bishop Varnava Nastic was:
He was born on the last day of January, 1914, here in the United States, in Gary near Chicago, the state of Indiana. When he was eight years old, his parents returned to the fatherland, and brought the child Vojislav to Sarajevo. In Sarajevo, they owned a restaurant called “the American.” Vojislav completed his education in Sarajevo, including high school.
Young Vojislav expressed his desire for monastic and ascetic life early on. Together with his father he visited the Holy Bishop Nikolaj, however, he postponed this act for later. Instead, he directed Vojislav to the Theological Faculty of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
His friends at the faculty testify that Vojislav Nastic displayed an exceptional mastery of foreign languages and general culture. He graduated on time and at the time of his studies, published his works in theological publications of that time.
In 1940, the Lord fulfilled his desire for monastic life and another Serbian saint and martyr, Metropolitan Petar Zimonjic, cut his hair and accepted monastic vows of young Vojislav. He was elected as Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church on May 20, 1947, and ordained at the end of that same year. He never inherited Bishop’s chair; the political regime would not allow it. From the very beginning, the power holders demanded that he signs a declaration of loyalty and compliance with the regime, as a condition. Bishop never consented to it; not even after numerous and frequent visits by UDBA and the bloody beatings he had to endure at their hands night after night.
It was necessary to find a parallel to the criminal Stepinac within the suffering Serbian Church, and the lot fell to Bishop. At the end of 1947, he was condemned to 11 years of prison. Bishop was imprisoned in several prisons and he proclaimed Christ everywhere, without hesitation. Even when this martyr completed his sentence, he never got to see his freedom. We should be aware of the fact that all individuals who were intertwined with Bishop’s plight were the Serbs.
Perhaps you ask yourselves sometimes how sainthood is earned. Everything that you have just heard concerning the Holy Bishop Varnava Nastic should satisfy you as an answer. There is a great deal more to be related. The Holy Bishop’s faded, brownish robe constituted his entire earthly possessions. And that is how I remember him. It is said that underneath his robe he always wore torn pants. He gave away all his possessions to those around him. Rare were the days when he did not undertake rigorous fasting. Those who were close to him testify to the following: on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he did not eat anything; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he undertook water fasting, and on Saturdays and Sundays, oil fasting. He consumed fish on the most important feast days, and never ate meat.
Martyrdom was a conscious decision on Bishop’s part. He could have easily avoided it; one signature and there would have been peace, honour and human dignity in excess. Not to mention that the Headman offered him leadership of the so-called Croatian Orthodox Church. It is understandable why Bishop rejected this offer easily.
I am referring you to the internet site containing Bishop’s inaugural address spoken on the occasion of his ordination. His homily allows us to see that Bishop was well aware of the times in which he lived and the kind of calling he responded to. “The office of bishop is Golgotha – says he – because bishop must place Truth above his life, and we know that there were many instances throughout history when telling the Truth meant loosing one’s life.” “According to Christ’s criterion, the degree of honour assigned to people depends on the extent of their readiness for sacrifice. He who sacrifices a little, will receive little honour. He who has received the greatest honour among people, submitted to the ultimate sacrifice prior to it. For He had to undergo great suffering in order to enter into His glory.”
Holy Bishop Varnava Nastic, Christ’s witness of the bygone days, knew that he was condemned to Christ’s suffering with his elevation to bishop’s dignity. “All I can say, and the most I can say – he says – is that I will not replace this honour with any other honour under the God’s sun.”
Bishop perceived his own times, discerned the times which follow with his far reaching vision, and prophetically invited us to follow him on his path of martyrdom which leads to God.
These were the words from Bishop’s inaugural address; let us accept them as his testament, covenant, and advice, and retain them in our souls during our journey through this world.