SERBIA-NINKOVIC Oct-21-2008 (650 words) With photo. xxxi
'Fireworks on two legs': Priest shares faith with Belgrade Catholics
By Victor Gaetan
Catholic News Service
BELGRADE, Serbia (CNS) -- In Serbia, it's rare to meet a Serbian Catholic. The vast majority of Serbs are Orthodox, and the 8,000-member Roman Catholic community in Belgrade includes mostly ethnic minorities such as Croats or Hungarians.
So it is doubly rare to meet a Serb who is also a Catholic priest.
Father Aleksandar Ninkovic, 45, serves at Belgrade's Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But less than 20 years ago Father Ninkovic was a military officer, leading a technical support team at a Yugoslav helicopter base.
"I was an atheist, a communist military officer," said the enthusiastic, bearded priest, a bear of a man who resembles the sympathetic giant, Hagrid, in the Harry Potter film series. "Although I was baptized in the Orthodox church, as most everyone in Serbia is, I had no faith."
Father Ninkovic provides pastoral care to a sizable community of foreign Catholics living in Belgrade. He also plays the keyboard in a jazz duo, paints icons and sets up computer networks for fellow priests. His shares the rectory with his German shepherd puppy, Ola.
The priest spoke about his journey of faith with Catholic News Service.
After concluding that communism makes no sense because no man is perfect and all people experience greed, he said he came to the powerful realization that God exists.
"I was always fond of reading spiritual books, but in the military I had an unusual experience. I was left alone in some military buildings for several weeks while my friends were on a mission. No one was around," he recalled.
"And I developed a great fear of being alone. I had the feeling that I would live forever, with nothing to do, in boredom. This idea gave me tremendous power because I realized it was a picture of hell," he said.
"If you don't live with God you live by yourself, which is terrible. It's hell," Father Ninkovic added.
He left the army in 1989, eventually opening an information technology firm -- all the time searching for how to worship the God he knew exists. His younger brother was then considering Catholicism and took him to a Franciscan monastery outside Belgrade.
"I started reading books from the Franciscans and going to Mass. I was lazy on Sundays, normally, but suddenly I was waking up at 6 a.m. to get to church. My parents were astonished. Slowly, through God's mercy, they started to practice the faith, too," Father Ninkovic said, smiling.
In 1994 he decided that God was calling him to the priesthood. Although his bishop recommended study in Italy, a friar told him that people spoke Serbo-Croatian at a seminary in Szeged, Hungary. They did not, so he had to learn Hungarian before starting theological studies.
"I always felt the power of God. I felt like I was a donkey, being pulled by God. I never felt that I could fail despite the difficulty," he said.
Father Ninkovic was ordained in 2002. He did his doctoral studies in Rome and defended his dissertation there in early October. During his studies, he maintained ties to Belgrade by serving each summer as a spiritual helper in his current parish.
"I try to share my experience of faith with others," he said. "I am lucky because I am converted. If you live all your life as a Christian, your faith is like drinking water or breathing air. But for those of us who have chosen, it is the most important thing that has happened in our lives. As a convert, I'm like fireworks on two legs.
"I feel belief in my body, like I feel material," he said, cupping a big hand like he is holding something. "Politics, I'm not too much interested in ... except when it is troubling the church."
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