The Good Shepherd has departed. He received the call from his Master: “Well done, you good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Mat. 25:23). Father Varnavas has reposed in the Lord. May his memory be eternal.
We were deeply shocked and saddened on that Tuesday, 22nd June, to receive a call from Presvytera Maria telling us that Father Varnavas had passed away. Just ten days before, we had been with him in Labasa, serving Liturgies and making plans for the future. He, who had been in good health during our visit, rejoicing to be with his Archbishop, found himself unexpectedly and suddenly unable to breathe on that morning. The same day, within a few hours of being taken to hospital, he took his last breath and reposed.
A hidden weakness of his heart, (Cardiac Insufficiency) most probably caused by the gradual progression of diabetes, so common among the impoverished people of third world nations, has once again prematurely taken a life in the Pacific.
But everything is the Providence of God, the Good and Heavenly Father. It was the Lord who called him, who found him ready, fulfilling the duty into which he had been ordained exactly eleven years and eleven days previously. He practised in simplicity and obedience the advice that he had received from his Geronta: “Love everyone, pray for everyone, plant the seeds and they will bear the fruits.” And the fruit indeed did grow.
The humble house church of St. Nicholas and St Athanasius, by the Grace of God, and selfless service of Father Varnavas, became a vibrant parish, great in numbers and exemplary in activities, filled with people from non-Christian backgrounds who rushed into that spiritual oasis in the middle of a spiritual desert to find Christ.
We arrived in Labasa a few days after we had first heard the news. The Metropolitan came to pay his last respects and to serve the funeral. People had already started to visit the house and Presvytera Maria. On the eve of the funeral, and throughout the night vigil, on the morning of the funeral, and for the funeral itself, hundreds of people visited, prayed, and expressed their deep sorrow and condolences; people of all religions – Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox and other Christians – all whose lives had been deeply affected, even changed, through their encounter and friendship with this true and good servant of Christ.
The sight of those crowds was in equal share both sad and joyful. Their individual feelings too, reflected joy and sorrow. They will miss this Good Shepherd but their own lives have been changed forever for the better. A man approached the Archbishop: “It’s very difficult to find a good man like him.” Another one passed by and said “Please, can you send another priest to us like he was?” And that man was not even a member of the church. The Imam, towards the end of the funeral, came and made a deep bow before the body of the priest. For years, the local people, including medics, knew that if you were sick, even with an illness with which the doctor couldn’t help, or if you had been affected by some witchcraft, you should go and look for the priest in the black robe and ask him to pray for you, which he would always do for anyone, at any time, and without payment. And the miracles were many. The stories were amazing and never-ending.
Thus the grief when we brought the body in the open coffin from the morgue was intense. Many of the people present, who were unable to fit within the church or even its grounds, had never attended an Orthodox service before. In the all-night vigil, the sight of his face during the reading of the Gospels was encouraging and comforting to all. Three priests with their Metropolitan read Gospels, and with the help of the faithful, some of whom had travelled from distant Savusavu, served evening and morning services, including the Divine Liturgy at dawn. Standing close by one another in the packed temple, around the coffin where the body of their shepherd lay, vested in priestly robes, radiating peace, everyone had the feeling that time stood still, as it does in those rare, critical moments in life.
Once in the church, Presvytera Maria stayed close to the coffin throughout the night. She said afterwards
“As soon as we started reading the Gospel after we had brought him into the church, his face lost that initial expression of disturbance and became calm. His lips were expressive, and almost smiling.”
She said, fondly, that she recognised that expression as a smile he would make whenever he had tricked her.
At the end of the funeral, the Archbishop called everyone to approach the coffin and to kiss the Gospel and the hand of their priest and to thus receive the final blessing from him and to greet him for the last time. The number of people was great, but with patience, everyone approached and kissed the hand which, after seven days, was still soft and pliable.
Besides the Imam and the Hindu priest, there were many there present whom that hand had blessed and healed – probably even that Muslim girl who had touched his robe in the market and was healed from the flow of blood some years previously. Other people also, prisoners, orphans and the homeless whom that hand had cherished and given support selflessly and often secretly.
When Father Varnavas and Presvytera Maria became Christian, it was very difficult for them. Many of their friends and family rejected them for some years. Over time, most were reconciled, experiencing the positive change in them and the power of his priestly prayer. But one particular cousin couldn’t accept them, and even to his face, accused him of practicing witchcraft, to which he would respond to her “How can I do witchcraft with the Gospel?” On the day of the funeral, though, even with pain in her leg, and hobbling, she was there. Presvytera observed her holding his hand, taking time to pray. The next day, the same cousin came to the house again. She was smiling this time and obviously walking normally. She said to Presvytera “My cousin died, but even in death, he healed me. Look – I am well!”
Our dear Father Varnavas, truly, according to the blessing and the wish of our Geronta, Metropolitan Amphilohios, the small Orthodox church in Vanua Levu was indeed through you transformed into a spiritual oasis and point of reference. Christ, even crucified, became your strength and enthusiasm and He worked through you. You became an imitator of the Apostles, as they were of Christ. The parishioners will forever cherish you, and all Vanua Levu, Fiji and our Holy Metropolis will forever rejoice in you, and our Holy Orthodoxy will forever be proud of you. Amen.