Hundreds of the faithful of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America joined hierarchs, clergy and well-wishers from around the world in Pittsburgh on October 1 in welcoming His Grace Bishop Irinej (Dobrijevic) as their new Hierarch and Archpastor.
Bishop Irinej was elected in May by the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church as the new Bishop of Eastern America, replacing His Grace Bishop Dr. Mitrophan, who was elected at the same meeting as the new Bishop of Canada. This is a homecoming for Bishop Irinej, who was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who left the former Yugoslavia at the conclusion of World War II. Bishop Irinej has spent the past ten years as Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Australia and New Zealand.
A new bishop is presented to his flock and received by them in a special service of enthronement, when he is led to the bishop’s seat of authority, the cathedra, where he addresses the faithful for the first time as their archpastor and imparts his blessing upon them. This impressive and meaningful rite took place in Pittsburgh’s Holy Trinity Cathedral following the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy concelebrated by nine bishops, numerous priests and two deacons.
The faithful began arriving early on the morning of Saturday, October 1. They were joined by special guests, Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Alexander and Princess Кathеrine of Serbia, who made a special effort to attend by altering a busy, previously-set travel and appearance schedule.
Accompanying them was His Excellency Mr. Djerdj Matkovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the United States. The honored guests were greeted at the entrance to the cathedral with the traditional bread and salt by children of the cathedral and members of the “Talija” folklore group visiting from Serbia, all in traditional Serbian dress. Their Royal Highnesses were seated in a place of honor in special chairs on the left side of the solea, the raised dias in front of the iconostasis, for the service.
At 9:30 AM the clergy entered the church in procession, first the many who were present but not serving in the altar, followed by the serving priests, the altar servers, sub-deacons and deacons, and the hierarchs. Serving at this historic event were the following hierarchs, in addition to the newly-enthroned Bishop Irinej: His Grace Bishop Longin of the New Gracanica and Midwestern American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, His Grace Bishop Mitrophan of the Canadian Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, His Grace Bishop Maxim of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (Ecumenical Patriarchate), His Eminence Metropolitan George of Guinea and West Africa (Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa), His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas (Romanian Patriarchate), His Eminence Archbishop Melchisedek of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania (Orthodox Church in America), and His Grace Bishop John of Worcester and New England (Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese).
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, all the hierarchs took their places on the solea as His Grace Bishop Longin, on behalf of His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Irinej, read the official act of the Holy Assembly of Bishops electing Bishop Irinej to the Throne of the God-protected Eastern American Diocese and asking the clergy and faithful of the Diocese to welcome and receive him as their spiritual father and teacher, giving him the loyalty and obedience due their hierarch and archpastor. Bishop Longin led Bishop Irinej to the throne, his cathedra, and Bishop Irinej addressed his flock for the first time as their shepherd from that seat of teaching authority. He began his homily by recalling the encounter of Moses with the Burning Bush and the awe and fear Moses felt as the Lord told him to remove his shoes, for the ground upon which he stood was holy. “I am reminded by this passage that the ground beneath us is in verity holy, having been dedicated to the glory of the Triune God in this fair City of Pittsburgh….” Bishop Irinej then offered his thanks and faithfulness to His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Irinej and the Holy Assembly of Bishops for their confidence and trust in him, and his thanks and prayers also for the clergy and faithful of the Metropolitanate of Australia and New Zealand with whom he had worked and served as Archpastor for ten years.
Bishop Irinej then called to mind those who had gone before him as bishop of Eastern America: His Grace Bishop Stefan (Lastavica), His Grace Bishop Dr. Sava (Vukovic) and His Eminence Metropolitan Christopher (Kovacevich), all of blessed memory, and most recently His Grace Bishop Dr. Mitrophan, who served the Diocese for 25 years before his recent election as Bishop of Canada. Despite the awesomeness of the task of carrying on their good work in this Vineyard, he avowed, “I, too, stand firmly with trembling knees in this sacred place. However, having been summoned by our Lord, the Great High Priest, I am emboldened by the prayerful presence and fervent support of you who have ushered me into this Throne on this day: my brother Hierarchs, Royalty, clergy, monastics and faithful laity of our Holy Church.” Recalling a sermon by the Holy Bishop Nicholai of Ochrid and Zica delivered in New York in 1921 about the firm foundation rock of Christ to be found deep within every believer, he reflected, “I am comforted knowing that the episcopal authority bestowed in the Holy Spirit upon my uncertain hands and the pastoral staff which I now hold rest firmly on the most certain of foundation stones: Christ, the rock of the Petrine Confession (cf. Mat. 16:18) upon which He built His Church.”
His Grace reminded those assembled that many in the world are being seduced by false beliefs about God and mankind that isolate people within themselves and deprive them of a true community of relationships, first of all with God and then with others, even extending to a displacement of family, marriage and identity as person in communion with others. “Today, the meaning of life itself is quickly removed and replaced by distorted societal shadows in which our children are taught about self-seclusion and in which a mother and father are no longer required; in which marriage that is according to God’s will is no longer essential; in which brother and sister are no longer an integral part of our existence. A person in this world is reduced to an individual, one which lives as a self-sufficient and lonely being, without the mutual sharing of God-given talents and life, completely devoid of the sanctity of community.”
He went on to reflect on the fact that he, in contrast, is himself a son of this community of the Serbian Diaspora to which he has been called home, and he gave thanks to God for having been born and nurtured in such a family and community in the Holy Orthodox Faith in the tradition of St. Sava. “I truly rejoice and am grateful to God for the devout and good people of God into which I was born and by whom I was brought up and in whose Holy Orthodox Faith I was baptized. For the fullness of the Way of Saint Sava is understood precisely as our common and living Orthodox Christian inheritance, and in no way a sealed and isolated, lifeless path.” He concluded with a prayer that God will strengthen and guide him as he cares for the people of the Eastern American Diocese. [The full text of his enthronement homily is available on the diocesan web site.]
Following the enthronement all present came to venerate the Precious Cross and receive Bishop Irinej’s blessing as they extended their best wishes to him. Each received from His Grace a small copy of an icon of the Assembly of Serbian Saints made in commemoration of the reunification of the Serbian Orthodox Dioceses in Australia, and a small illustrated prayer book in both Serbian and English as remembrances and blessings of the occasion.
The celebration then moved to the breathtaking Marble Room at the Carnegie Museum for a cocktail hour and banquet in honor of Bishop Irinej. A choir made up of the many singers present greeted the entrance of the hierarchs with “Ton Despotin,” followed by the singing of the United States and Serbian national anthems and the Lord’s Prayer. Following a delicious dinner graced by background music by a classical string ensemble playing from the balcony, the very full program began with The Honorable Branko Terzic serving as Master of Ceremonies. Speaking first was His Grace Bishop Longin of New Gracanica and the Midwestern Diocese, who reflected on the bishop’s calling to be an icon or image of Christ the Good Shepherd and expressed his conviction that Bishop Irinej will do exactly this. He said that the Eastern Diocese deserves such a good spiritual father, and appealed to the faithful to accept him, love him, listen to him and pray for him, for it is only with God’s help and theirs that any bishop can fulfill his calling.
His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas extended his congratulations and as chairman of the Committee for Canonical Regional Planning of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States expressed his expectation that Bishop Irinej will be a strong supporter of Orthodox unity and cooperation and will take an active role in the work of the Assembly, which was to begin its annual meeting in Detroit two days hence.
His Grace Bishop Mitrophan, longtime Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Eastern America and newly-enthroned Bishop of Canada, said that he would keep things “short and sweet,” since most there had heard him speak much over the past 25 years. He expressed his conviction that the Eastern American Diocese is one of the best organized and functioning in the Serbian Diaspora and urged Bishop Irinej to work to continue to improve and grow it, safeguarding its unity and focus. He told Bishop Irinej that he could count on the help of a cadre of good clergy and faithful people, and promised that as Bishop of neighboring Canada he looked forward to working with Bishop Irinej in many ways.
His Eminence Metropolitan Savas of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh expressed joy and gladness at the return of Bishop Irinej to America, having known him for many years. He drew on his experience in Gary, Indiana, where he said the Serbian and Greek parish churches were in close proximity geographically, but not in common work, and hoped that our churches will grow closer in their common work and activity in the future.
Mr. Milan Mrkal, Vice-President of the Diocesan Council of Eastern America, spoke on behalf of the people of the Diocese in welcoming Bishop Irinej, characterizing this as a new milestone in the history of the Diocese. He expressed his thanks to Bishop Mitrophan for guiding the Diocese well for so many years and wished him every good thing in his service in Canada. He said that this event with its liturgical services and prayers, the many hierarchs, clergy, and faithful people present, its multi-lingual and multi-ethnic character and its celebratory multi-cultural music and dance brings together all aspects of our life in Christ. He pledged the prayers and support of the people of the Diocese to Bishop Irinej as he leads us closer to the Kingdom of God.
Two presentations were then made. Milan Mrkal presented His Grace with a monetary gift from the Diocese to allow him to purchase a set of episcopal vestments made to his own specifications. Then Mrs. Valerie Backo, daughter of His Eminence Metropolitan Christopher of blessed memory, came forward and explained how close the Metropolitan and Bishop Irinej had been, and how moved the family had been when Bishop Irinej made the long trip from Australia for Metropolitan Christopher’s funeral in Chicago. At that time the family had wanted to give a heavy woolen cape that had belonged to the Metropolitan to Bishop Irinej as a token of their appreciation and respect. However, Bishop Irinej had explained that he could not take it back on the airplane, and besides, the balmy weather in Australia would make the cape unusable. She said that now, with his move to America and the sometimes chilly New York weather, it would certainly come in handy. Bishop Irinej accepted the gift with great joy and emotion and promised to put it to good use.
The elegant program then moved on to some wonderful entertainment. The “Talija” folklore group from Belgrade was planning a tour of the United States when they learned about the plans for Bishop Irinej’s enthronement, and they offered to alter their schedule for the chance to honor His Grace by performing. This outstanding group of singers, dancers and musicians specializes in the song and dance of Serbia and other areas of the Balkans. They opened with a marvelously choreographed dance set with stirring music and colorful costumes.
After a rousing opening performance by Talija the program shifted gears as professional tenor George Milosh offered several operatic and Serbian vocal pieces, accompanied by Djordje Nesic on the piano. Mr. Milosh is a native of Aliquippa, PA and that city’s St. Elijah Church. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he presented selections from Handel’s Messiah, Tosti. Verdi, and Rossini. He also gave moving renditions of Serbian compositions including Janicar, Sumadijo rodni kraju and Zepevajte pesme stare. His performance was met with resounding applause.
Talija then returned with new costumes and some rousing song and dance featuring some truly acrobatic Cossack style dance. At the conclusion of their set they went into the audience and invited those in attendance, including Bishop Irinej, to join in a closing kolo. Very many of the guests joined in the celebratory dance which wound through the hall and filled everyone with true joy.
Finally, His Grace Bishop Irinej addressed the gathering, thanking everyone for their outpouring of love and support, saying “My heart is overflowing and I am simply at a loss for words.” He extended special thanks to the many hierarchs who honored him by concelebrating and participating, to Diocesan Council Vice-President Milan Mrkal and past vice-president Rudley Mrvos for their tremendous efforts in organizing this event, to Cathedral Dean Fr. Rajko Kosic and the Holy Trinity Cathedral board and faithful for their hard work in preparing for and hosting the enthronement, to Talija and to George Milosh and Djordje Nesic for the wonderful entertainment, and to all those who joined in the morning’s enthronement services and in the afternoon’s banquet.
Bishop Irinej explained how he feels a special connection with the Holy Bishop Nicholai of Ochrid and Zicha, about whom he wrote his seminary thesis. He said that although he never met the saintly bishop he feels his presence and guidance constantly, having received the Bishop’s blessing while he was still in his mother’s womb. He continues to ask the saintly Bishop’s intercessions and guidance in his own archpastoral ministry. Bishop Irinej explained that the icon of the Synaxis of Serbian Saints which each attendee received as a commemorative gift was composed in honor of the reunification of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand which took place under his omophorion. That unity and oneness is basic to the Church’s very being, and he pledged to foster and encourage that kind of unity within the Diocese, within the Serbian Orthodox Church, and within the entire Holy Orthodox Church of Christ as did his namesake St. Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyon and one of the great post-apostolic Fathers and theologians of the Church. The Church is the family of God, and he gives thanks to God for that family, both for the part he shepherded in Australia and for the family to which he now returns home in America.
He concluded by issuing two challenges: to renew the St. Sava Cathedral in New York City, destroyed by fire on Pascha of this year, and to build a fourth diocesan cathedral church in Washington D.C., to establish a worthy Serbian Orthodox presence in the nation’s capital city. He emphasized that both these goals will need active support not only of the Serbs of those cities, but of all Serbian Orthodox Christians throughout the world.
The day concluded with the singing of “Dostojno jest,” the “It is truly meet…” in honor of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. It truly was a day worthy of celebration. May God grant wisdom, strength, discernment and health to His Grace Irinej, by the grace of God Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Eastern America, to rightly apportion and apply the word of God’s truth in every place and circumstance for the salvation of his faithful flock for many blessed years!
Eis polla eti, Despota!
Article by Fr Rade Merick
Photographs by Dragan Veselinov