Vatican cardinal congratulates new Serbian Orthodox patriarch on election

CNA_5dc0ccf5f35bd_169643.jpg Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in Rome on Oct. 23, 2019. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

A Vatican cardinal on Friday congratulated the new leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church on his election and said he hoped that relations with the Catholic Church would "continue to grow."

In a Feb. 19 message, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, congratulated Metropolitan Porfirije after he was chosen as patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The 59-year-old was elected on Feb. 18 during an assembly of bishops at the Temple of St. Sava in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. 

Koch wrote: "Learning with joy of your recent election and enthronement as Patriarch of Serbia, I express my warmest congratulations in the assurance of my spiritual closeness to Your Holiness and to the Serbian Orthodox Church entrusted to your pastoral care."

"It is my heartfelt prayer that the Holy Spirit may bestow upon you every gift for the spiritual good of the faithful of your flock, and for the common witness to the Gospel of Orthodox and Catholics 'that the world may believe' (John 17:21)."

He continued: "I ask the Lord in a particular way to grant that our cooperation, which had already been so fruitful with your venerable predecessors, may continue to grow and may strengthen our commitment to fostering relations between our Churches."

Serbia has a population of almost seven million people, around 85% of whom belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church, an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church.

While the Church is based in Serbia, a majority of the populations of Montenegro and Republika Srpska, one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are also Serbian Orthodox. The Church has around 12 million members worldwide.

The new patriarch previously served as Metropolitan of Zagreb in Croatia and Ljubljana in Slovenia from 2014 to 2021. Before that, he was a chaplain to the Serbian army. According to media reports, he has a good relationship with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

His election comes three months after the death of the previous patriarch, Irinej. Porfirije's predecessor, who had led the Church since 2010, died at the age of 90 after testing positive for COVID-19.

The new patriarch's election took place in two stages. In the first, a ballot of the bishops, he reportedly won the largest number of votes. In the second, his name and the names of the other two leading candidates were placed in envelopes that were then put in a copy of the Gospel. Porfirije's name was drawn out by a senior monk in a process believed to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

No pope has visited Serbia, but Porfirije's election will raise hopes in Rome that Pope Francis might one day be invited to the country, where approximately 5% of the population is Catholic.

During a visit to Serbia in 2018, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that a papal visit could only take place "under the right conditions and when everyone agrees."

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Catholic bishops' conference, also sent a congratulatory message to the new patriarch, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA's German-language news partner.

"We look forward to further ecumenical exchange and are sure that you will help promote this dialogue," Bätzing wrote.

In his message to the patriarch, Koch said: "I am trustful that we will be able to continue to work together in different fields of ecclesial and cultural life, in the awareness that the ultimate aim of dialogue is the fulfillment of the crucial aspiration of Jesus Christ, our Lord, that is, the full communion of all his disciples."

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