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November 12, 2019

Holy New Confessor Varnava (Nastic), Bishop of Hvosno (+ 1964)

St. Varnava of Hvosno (Feast Day - November 12)

Saint Varnava was born Vojislav Nastić in Gary, Indiana on January 31, 1914 into a family of Serbian immigrants. His father and mother were Atanasije and Zorka Nastić and the family attended the Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church of Gary, Indiana which is now located in Merrillville, Indiana. This was the place where Varnava was baptized, served as altar boy, and was first recognized as a youthful prodigy in reciting Serbian folklore and old ballads.

When Vojislav was a nine years old, his parents returned to their homeland. Vojislav attended high school in Sarajevo, graduating in 1933. Desiring to serve God in His Church, the young man graduated from the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Belgrade in 1937, taught for three years as a catechist in Sarajevo and then, in 1940, took monastic vows in the ancient Mileševa Monastery. He took Varnava (Barnabas) as his monastic name and was soon ordained as a Hierodeacon.

Vojislav as a student

The Mileševa Monastery of the Ascension of our Lord (founded 1234-6) has survived and been restored through much persecution in its long history. In the fifteenth and again at the end of the sixteenth century, Ottoman Turkish rulers attempted to burn the monastery buildings down and in the latter attempt, burned the relics of Saint Sava, the patron saint of Serbia, making him a posthumous martyr. Two famous fresco icons – one of the angel at the Resurrection and one of Saint Sava – have survived these disasters. As a monk at this monastery, Hierodeacon Varnava would have been spiritually prepared for persecution by the enemies of the Church.

In the turmoil of territorial boundary changes during World War II, a “Croatian Orthodox Church” was formed by Serbian fascists, but Hierodeacon Varnava was opposed to this idea and had to leave Sarajevo, where he had been serving, in fear of his life.

Varnava serving as a Bishop

Ordained priest and made chancellor at the end of the war in 1945, Father Varnava was elected to be an auxiliary bishop to Patriarch Gavrilo in 1947 and was given the title Bishop of Hvosno. Because the new bishop was vocal in his criticism of the new Communist government’s treatment of the Church, he was soon arrested. The charge against him was that he was an American spy and had been teaching his sister English so that she, too, could spy for America. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

The bold behavior of Bishop Varnava at the trial is evidenced by the fact that when the public prosecutor asked if he considered Comrade Tito an illiterate person, the Bishop answered in the affirmative, adding that this refers to “him and all the others who do not want to know these three letters: GOD." At the end of one of the interrogations, the confessor boldly answered the court: “It doesn’t surprise me that you judge me and that so many priests have already been convicted, because it was done by Turks, Ustashi, and Germans. I only regret that there are atheists among my people, 'For among My people are found wicked men; they lie in wait as one who sets snares; they set a trap; they catch men. As a cage is full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit' (Jer. 5:26)."

Bishop Varnava in the courtroom

On 15 March, 1948, The New York Times reported that, in connection with the condemnation of Bishop Varnava, a special service was held in the local Church of Saint Sava, after which Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich spoke about the confessor. The priest Dushan Shukletovich who spoke after this referred to the injustices and biases of the legal proceedings against the Bishop-Confessor Varnava.

Treatment for a Christian bishop in a Communist prison was not good. Bishop Varnava was tortured, deprived of food, and kept in isolation for long periods of time. It was even arranged for him to have an “accident’ in which he broke his leg but, although medical treatment was denied, the bishop recovered. During all this time, he remained steadfast in his faith by continuing to say his prayers daily, singing the hymns of the Church, and remembering the liturgical cycle.

Bishop Varnava at Gomionica Monastery

Following his recovery from the “accident”, Bishop Varnava was sent to the Gomionica Monastery for women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and placed under house arrest until his release in 1960. He passed from this life of tribulation to the next of glory on November 12, 1964. Due to the suspicious circumstances of his death, some believe that he was poisoned by the Communist secret police (OZNA). The body of the Confessor was buried in the church of the Ascension of the Lord Monastery at Beoćin. The Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church glorified Bishop Varnava of Hvosno on May 15, 2005 and added his name to that great army of saints who continue to pray for us in our struggles here on earth.