ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Tenacious Christian Spirit

The spectacular landscape of the Macedonian region of Yugoslavia provides a dramatic setting for Christian observances.

In sight of the Albanian frontier, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Eucharist each day inside Yugoslavia. On Sundays and holy days, worshippers come from all parts of Macedonia to pray in an ancient church that houses the tomb of Sveti (Saint) Naum.

Yet yards away in sealed-off Albania, religious worship is forbidden. Indeed, Macedonia’s Christians have endured centuries of oppression. Yet the tenacity of the Christian spirit demonstrates the strength of their faith. In southwest Yugoslavian Macedonia, ten miles from the ancient Christian city of Ohrid, the monastery and church of Sveti Naum is a focal point for the celebration of faith which outlasted Turkish oppression and now endures Communist intolerance.

Over 1000 years ago Sveti Naum built a monastery and church overlooking Lake Ohrid. He was one of the “Great Enlighteners” of the Slavic nation, along with his contemporary, Saint Clement of Ohrid. Both men were devoted disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius, whom Pope John Paul II honors as “the Apostles to the Slavs.” Through Naum, Clement, and other men of learning from the university and monasteries founded along the shores of Lake Ohrid, Christianity and literacy spread throughout the Slavic world and eventually to Russia.

Today’s Christians maintain the living spirit of faith in this monastery and church. Although the government has turned most of the monastery into a hotel, and despite the museum-like status accorded it by guide books, the church remains an active place of worship.

Decorated with frescoes hundreds of years old, the church is often filled with the fragrance of incense. The celebrations here could be from eras long passed.

On July 3, Sveti Naum is especially honored in this remote site. On this, his feast day, thousands of faithful wearing embroidered peasant costume or the traditional black garb of widows converge on this little church set high above the placid lake. They come not only from Yugoslavian Macedonia, but also from all over Europe. The economic advantages of northern Europe may have lured many from this region, but they still want to be “home” to honor Sveti Naum. They want to return to renew themselves at this place of their spiritual heritage.

Their merrymaking is done with simple traditions: the music of traditional Macedonian instruments, the lighting of candles, and the grilling of meat. All the while Sveti Naum is most honored by the affection in his people’s hearts. Children light a candle and kiss his tomb or icon. Elders bring gifts to lay on his tomb as offerings for the poor – perhaps shirts, shoes, or other apparel which reflect the occupation of the donor.

In Ohrid, a few miles to the north, many who cannot get to the ancient site celebrate the saint’s day in a small chapel next to Saint Clement’s Church. True to its heritage, Ohrid remains a Christian city, and a city of Christian art and culture at its finest.

The conversion of the Slavs to Christianity made Ohrid, where Saints Naum and Clement built their monasteries, into a dynamic religious and cultural center. The city reached its zenith in the 10th and 11th centuries. when it became the capital of a Slavic Macedonian state under Emperor Samuel. These were the great days of the Macedonian Church. Ohrid was made into a patriarchate that extended far south into present-day Greece.

Those great days did not last long, however. After the conquest of Macedonia by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the patriarchate was abolished and replaced by an archbishopric that endured well into the 18th century. Byzantine rule lasted until the mid-14th century, when Ohrid was incorporated into a medieval Serbian state. This rule also was shortlived. By the end of the 14th century, Christian rule ended as most of the region was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Turkish Muslim rule lasted until 1912.

The churches of Ohrid represent a rare and valuable collection of early and late Byzantine art. Some churches were destroyed during the hundreds of years of Turkish rule. Others were turned into mosques in which the frescoes and paintings were covered with plaster and tar. Nonetheless, many of these structures have been preserved intact, and others have had their works of art painstakingly restored after the plaster has been chipped away bit by bit to reveal the hidden beauty.

The historic and cultural value of the churches of Ohrid is clearly recognized. The government grants them the status of museums or historical monuments worthy of preservation. To the Christian here, however, the greatest value of these churches is in the witness they provide to the living faith. Despite centuries of non-Christian rule from the Middle Ages to the present, the people still celebrate the Eucharist, still worship the living God. It is this faith of the ordinary people and the ever present aura of the saints which has saved Ohrid from falling into neglect and obscurity.

Gerald Ring, a free-lance writer and photographer traveling extensively in the Near East, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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