Farewell to Father Pantelejmon
Yesterday we went to the monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit for a farewell party for Father Pantelejmon (Jovanovic), who was leaving South Africa after serving for 11 years as the Rector of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in Sunninghill Park in northern Johannesburg.
I first met Fr Pantelejmon when I went to Vespers at St Thomas’s on 15 March 2003, soon after he had arrived in the parish. We occasionally went there for Vespers as it was for a long time the closest parish to where we live that has Saturday-evening Vespers, but it was usually poorly attended, often only by the priest and his wife. This time there were 10 people present, and Fr Pantelejmon, a young priest, was encouraging the people to sing.
About 10 days later I visited the church again. I was taking an overseas visitor to the bishop’s office in Johannesburg, and took him past some of the other churches to show him the variety of parishes in our diocese — the Greek parish of the Annunciation in Pretoria, the Russian parish of St Sergius in Midrand, and the Serbian parish of St Thomas in Sunninghill. We arrived at St Thomas’s as they were about to start a Requiem Service for those who had been killed in the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia four years previously, and Fr Pantelejmon invited us to stay for it. There were only three other people there, all members of an immigrant family recently arrived from Serbia, who told us afterwards that Fr Pantelejmon had been in a monastery since he was 22, close to God, and was having a rather difficult time with the very secularised Serbian community in Johannesburg. Fr Pantelejmon asked me to write some articles on mission for his parish magazine, which I later did.
Father Pantelejmon produced the best parish magazine in the diocese, in Serbian and English, lavishly illustrated, with news of the church, and teaching, and it was in itself an instrument of mission and evangelism. Through this and other means he built up a core of spiritual people in the parish, who took their Christian faith seriousdly. He encouraged them to take an interest in mission too. Unlike some clergy, who simply stick to their parishes, he always tried to attend diocesan clergy meetings, and tried to visit other parishes.
When, in 2004, as a result of the funeral of Fr Simon Thamaga, a group of people in Tembisa expressed an interest in Orthodoxy, and with the blessing of the then Archbishop Seraphim we began holding services there and in nearby Klipfontein View, Fr Pantelejmon, as the priest of the nearest parish church to Tembisa, was very supportive, and the first group of people from there were baptised at St Thomas’s, with parishioners of St Thomas’s as their godparents.
Sometimes Fr Pantelejmon was joined by other monks from Serbia, which almost turned St Thomas’s Rectory into a skete, and when there were two priests it was easier for one of them to become involved in mission outreach, and so they helped, especially in Tembisa and Mamelodi.
Fr Pantelejmon and Fr Spiridon spoke at a gathering on youth day in 2006, telling the young people how they had had a monastic vocation after growing up in an atheistic communist society. And in December 2006 Fr Naum, another monk, spoke at a diocesan youth conference, with Fr Pantelejmon translating. I rather hoped that this might encourage some of the young people to consider monastic vocations themselves, but that hasn’t happened yet. There have been several attempts to start monasteries in South Africa, but as soon as one monk comes, and is joined by another, the first one leaves, or dies, or is ordained and sent to be a parish priest somewhere, and the whole thing fizzles out.
Over the years we got to know Fr Pantelejmon quite well, and St Thomas’s became a kind of second home for us. Because it was between Johannesburg and Pretoria, it was a good central meeting place to plan activities such as the youth conference, or mission out reach in various places.
Exery year in October, at their patronal festival, a visting bishop came from Serbia, and all clergy and parishes in the diocese were invited to join in. The local Archbishop was usually present, and there was often some special teaching from the visiting bishop.
Our family had adopted the Serbian custom of Slava, which we thought especially suitable for Africa, and Fr Pantelejmon sometimes came to our Slava, and helped us to make sure we did it the right way. One especially memorable one was in 2009, when it fell at a weekend, and we had it at St Nicholas Church, Brixton, after Vespers. You can read about it (and see pictures) here: Vespers and Slava.
Ather Pantelejmon also arranged for a mission society in Serbia to undertake the printing of Reader’s Service books in Zulu and English, an enormously useful resource for our mission congregations.
Now Father Pantelejmon has been recalled by the Patriarch of Serbia, and yesterday quite a large crowd from his old parish of St Thomas’sm turned out for a farewell party for him after the Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Gerardville, west of Pretoria. It was quite impressive, because these are some of the people whose lives he has touched in his 11 years in South Africa, and who have become more spiritual as a result, so his 11 years have certainly not been wasted.
He does not know what will happen to him next, and will have to wait till he hears from the Patriarch of Belgrade about that. Perhaps he will return to his home monastery at Black River and spend some time there, and perhaps that is good for a monk who has spent a long time as a parish priest. But I have a niggling hope that he will get a blessing to return to South Africa, not as a parish priest, but as a monk, and that he will get a blessing from our bishop to bring four or five other monks with him, in the hope that they can reach critical mass, and that Orthodox monasticism will take off and grow in Southern Africa. In 11 years Father Pantelejmon has learnt quite a bit about South African life and culture, and that could make it easier for other monks from elsewhere to settle in.