It is one of the great wonders of the Church that anyone can become a saint. The Church honors those who have done great deeds or led holy, self-sacrificial lives, or died for the faith; she numbers among her saints some who have first been great sinners and others who have been pure from their youth. There are saints who were severe ascetics, some who were actively involved in the tribulations of the world; some were simple, uneducated holy people and others intellectuals with advanced education. Whatever our situation in life, no matter what our background has been or our current circumstances are – we should all strive to become closer to God, to be like him, to become holy.
One of our more recently glorified saints who led the life of a theologian, a teacher, and a writer was St. Justin Popovich, whose feast day, June 1, is also the feast day for St. Justin the Martyr (or Philosopher), whose name he took when he entered the monastic life.
St. Justin was born on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1894 into a long line of priests (Popovich is Serbian for “priest’s family”). At the age of eleven, he began studies at the Theological Faculty of St. Sava in Belgrade from which he graduated in 1914. There he met his life-long mentor, Hieromonk (later Bishop and Saint) Nikolai Velimirović, who encouraged the bright young man to further his education.
World War I stood in the way. When the war began, at first Justin served as a student nurse, but he contracted Typhus and spent some time in a hospital recovering. He returned to the duties of a soldier during a devastating time for the Serbian army and a year later, in January of 1916, he left the army and entered the monastery at the cathedral in Skadar.
Soon Justin was able to pursue both his life as a monk and his life as a student. He and several others were sent to the Orthodox seminary in Petrograd, Russia, where they learned about the great Russian saints while leading a disciplined monastic life. Then, at the encouragement of Fr. (St.) Nikolai, he entered the theological school of Oxford University in England, where he remained from 1916-19. Unfortunately, the University did not accept his doctoral dissertation on “The Philosophy and Religion of Dostoevsky”, but when he became an editor of the periodical The Christian Life, he was able to publish it there.
The doctorate denied him by Oxford University was finally received at the University of Athens in 1926, where his dissertation on the subject, “Personality and Cognition According to St. Macarius of Egypt”, was accepted. During his studies there, Justin translated many of the lives of the saints from Greek, Syriac, and Slavonic into Serbian, and also homilies by St. John Chrysostom, St. Macarius and St. Isaac of Syria.
Teaching opportunities which followed during 1930-45 were at the Theological Academy of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Prizren; the Theological Faculty of St. Sava in Belgrade and at the University of Belgrade. During this time, he also assisted in helping to return to Orthodoxy those Carpatho-Russians who had been taken into the Uniate church in Czechoslovakia. A prolific writer, many of St. Justin’s books and articles are available in English translation.
The aftermath of World War II changed everything again. The educational work of the monk Justin came to end when Serbia came under the control of the Communists. Christians were forced out of their positions of prominence in all institution. So Archimandrite Justin returned to full monastic life at the Monastery of Ćelije and spent the remainder of his life saying his prayers under the surveillance of the Communist police. St. Justin’s life came full circle when he reposed on his birthday – the Feast of the Annunciation – March 25, 1979 (April 7 new calendar).
Having devoted his entire life to studying and teaching the word of God and about his saints, and living the life of prayer that so many saints before him had led, St. Justin Popovich was formally declared a saint by the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2010. Holy Justin, pray for us.