New Saint …

New Saint … November 15, 2004

Father of Parma priest to be canonized; Communists killed Serbian pastor

It had all the makings of a classic Balkans tragedy. A father survives the Nazis, but is executed for his faith by the Communists. The son, surviving on a young boy’s memories of a loving parent, must deny the father publicly lest the same authorities put him to death.

After immigrating to America, the Rev. Vasilije Sokolovic continued to be haunted by all that he did not know of the fate of his father, who was dumped in a shallow grave in an unmarked field in Serbia in 1945. But the longtime pastor of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma never lost faith. And now the remarkable fidelity of a father and son bonded in life and death across six decades is being rewarded.

The Serbian Orthodox Church next May will canonize Sokolovic’s father, the Rev. Budimir Sokolovic, as a priest-martyr, entering him into a select pantheon of saints that the church declares led lives so holy that the faithful may pray to them for inspiration and divine protection.

An icon is being made of Sokolovic’s father, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the world will be able to celebrate July 11 as a feast day honoring St. Budimir of Dobrun and 29 other priest-martyrs of World War II.

It is extraordinarily rare for a saint to be a part of the living memory of the church. For a new saint to be the father of a beloved priest in your community is an extraordinary event in the religious life of Northeast Ohio. For one man, it is nothing short of a miracle.

The 66-year-old priest makes the sign of the cross and lets the tears flow as he speaks of the wonder of moving from a lifetime of praying for eternal peace for his father to being able to pray to him in heaven. “He is closer to God,” Sokolovic said in an interview at St. Sava. “I’m not anymore sorry for what I suffered all my life. Thank God.”

‘You are my life’

In 1944, the Rev. Budimir Sokolovic rode into the Serbian village of Milanovac on horseback, scooped up 6-year-old Vasilije and his brother and told them, “You are my life.” It is the last memory Vasilije Sokolovic has of his father, who returned to the battlefield during World War II as a spiritual counselor to a Serbian group that fought against the German occupation of Yugoslavia.

The elder Sokolovic lived to see the expulsion of the Nazis, but did not survive the ensuing anti- Communist struggle. He was jailed and later executed sometime in May 1945, his body buried in a field where no one could find it. The sons he left behind were taught by their mother to deny any relation to the priest for fear that they, too, would be killed.

In the Gospel accounts, fear of retribution causes the apostle Peter to deny Jesus three times. Sokolovic understands the pain of the early church leader forced to deny a loved one. As a young conscript, he was asked by an Army sergeant if he knew of a priest named Sokolovic from Bosnia. “I don’t know him,” Vasilije replied. “I’m from Zagreb.” But he followed his father into the seminary, becoming the 42nd generation of Sokolovics to enter the priesthood.

Sokolovic feared revealing his heritage even in the seminary, telling his story only to trusted older priests. He still is overcome with emotion at the memory of priests who knew his father hugging him and giving thanks that he and other members of his family were alive.

A tale of two countries

In 1966, Sokolovic left Yugoslavia under a false name and immigrated to America. He worked in steel mills and construction in Gary, Ind., before he got his first parish in Masontown, Pa., in 1970. He served there for five years and was a pastor in Steubenville for a decade before coming to St. Sava in 1985. He served as pastor of the Parma church until 1999, when he became pastor emeritus.

He never forgot his father

The pain of a boy without a dad became the suffering of a man haunted by not even knowing where his father’s body lay. It “was thrown into the ground like a dog, never any prayers.” Sokolovic’s daughter, Mirjana Damljanovic, remembers that on family trips back to Yugoslavia, her father would put on his liturgical robes and say a memorial service over a patch of ground near where his father was killed. He told his children that his father was a good man, “and a great priest.” But Sokolovic struggled to achieve closure, family members said.

It was only after the fall of communism that an open Serbian Orthodox Church could raise up the lives of those who died for their faith during World War II. When a Serbian Church official told him that the Holy Assembly of Bishops approved his father’s cause for sainthood, Sokolovic “just burst into tears he was so overcome with joy,” his daughter said. In October, he received word that a priest investigator found part of a skull, a wooden cross, myrrh and a prayer book in a field where Budimir Sokolovic was believed to have been murdered. The remains need DNA testing.

The series of events this year seem almost “surreal,” said the Parma priest’s daughter. Only two years ago, Sokolovic suffered a stroke and at one point slipped into a coma. Today, he is writing the hymns to be sung on his father’s feast day, and “he lives now with a real mission,” said his wife, Zorine. Added his daughter: “It’s kind of a closure that he never had.”

Saying goodbye

Catholic and Orthodox faithful pray that departed loved ones go to heaven, but it is only in the cases of saints that the church speaks definitively of an individual’s place in the afterlife. Before the canonization ceremony in May, Sokolovic will say one last memorial service for his father in the area where his father was believed to have been buried. The boy who grew up afraid to tell anyone “who I am, who my father was” has lived to see his father achieve sainthood. “The great suffering,” Zorine Sokolovic said, “led to great glory in the end.”

Sunday, November 14, 2004; David Briggs, Plain Dealer Religion Reporter

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