St. Sava

(1174-1237)

These lines were written when the Balkan states, which we had come to call Yugoslavia, were engaged in an anguished military struggle for political independence. War was not news for the Balkans. They seem to have been in constant strife, religious and political, from the Middle Ages on. The odd thing is that the majority of the Balkan peoples, whether Croatians or Serbs or Montenegrins, or even Albanians, whether Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox or Muslims, are Slavs who moved into the Balkan area from the Ukraine area in the seventh century.

One of the largest of these Slavic groups is the Serbs. Although originally they were converted to Christianity by Italians, they were brought into the Byzantine rite and into Greek Orthodoxy through later contacts with Constantinople. A leading figure in their Christian organization was St. Sava, whom they acknowledge as their patron saint.

Sava was highborn, the third son of Stephen I, founder of the independent state of Serbia. Though a scion of a political family (and never quite able to escape political involvement), he nevertheless declared, at age 17, that he intended to become a monk. He went to the Byzantine monastic center on Mount Athos in Greece, and there was clothed in the monastic habit. Indeed, when his father Stephen abdicated his princedom five years later, he, too, joined his son in monastic life as a “second career”. Father and son then established on Mt. Athos a new monastery called Khilandari. It was for Serbian monks, and it still functions. Sava, made abbot of Khilandari, was not only a diligent translator of spiritual books into Serbian; he was also an able disciplinarian of his monks, noted for what he could achieve by gentleness and leniency.

Meanwhile, his brothers, Stephen II and Vulkan, had gotten into a fight over their inheritance. In 1207, therefore, Sava returned to Serbia. He found the Serbian morale low, spiritually as well as socially. He therefore decided to stay home and evangelize his countrymen, who were only nominally Christian. Choosing the monastery of Studenitsa as his center, he employed the services of the other monks who had traveled back  with him to engage in pastoral and missionary work. To facilitate their labors, he established a number of smaller monasteries strategically located. Meantime, despite his more active career, the princely monk built for himself in the Studenitsa neighborhood a hermitage to which he could retire from time to time for a little monastic peace.

Sava’s efforts succeeded in stabilizing the country politically. Rehabilitation also resulted in important religious developments. The Serbs set up their own church hierarchy, and through the influence of the Eastern emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sava was consecrated archbishop of Serbia. He supervised the Serbian church until his death thirty years later.

Because the Eastern Orthodox finally declared their independence of Rome, the Orthodox Serbs consider St. Sava not only the founder of their national church but the one who separated it from the Holy See. But the division of Eastern and Western Christianity was not yet fully accomplished in his day, at least in the Balkans. So St. Sava is venerated not only by the Serbian Orthodox but also by the Catholic diocese of the Greek Rite in Croatia, and by the local Latin Rite churches as well.

May the prayers of St. Sava of Studenitsa not only obtain peace in his country but the reunion of the Churches east and west!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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