Metropolitan Joseph on the lives of some of the Saints of the first Christian millennium
Distinguished members of St Dunstan’s Church, dear guests, dear parishioners, I start by thanking you all for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today when we celebrate 50 years of Orthodox services in this historic Anglican Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West. The first Romanian Orthodox Liturgy was celebrated here at St Dunstan’s in 1964 on Christmas Day, with only five people in attendance. Over the years, our community increased in number – especially after 1989 – and constantly benefited from the generous support of the Church of England.
In the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this 50th anniversary brings us closer; we share not only the joy of Gospel partnership, but also our common struggle in preaching Christ’s Gospel to the modern world. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, his teaching and his love for humankind seem to appeal less and less to our busy modern man. His Gospel is very often mocked and his friends – the Saints – completely ignored. What can we do to rediscover the fervour of the Early Church? We can look at Christ and we can look at his friends, the Saints. Their struggle is our struggle and their victory is our victory.
Therefore, we have chosen The Saints of the 1st Christian Millennium – a common legacy for Eastern and Western Christendom as a theme for our 50th anniversary, hoping that these Saints – through their lives and teachings – will inspire us. In my talk today I will only give a short account of the lives of some of the Saints venerated by both Eastern and Western Churches.
Friends of God
There are biblical grounds for the veneration of the Saints. Living Saints were counted as friends of God. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ said to His holy disciples: ‘You are my friends’ (John 15.14). There are also patristic grounds for the veneration of the Saints. Following the Iconoclasm, at the second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 it was decided that: ‘We observe the Lord’s words, the apostolic and the prophetic words which taught us to honour and glorify firstly the true Mother of God, the holy Powers of Angels, the Apostles, the Prophets, the Martyrs, the God-bearer Saints and all holy men and ask for their intercession, because they can cause us to please God, the King of all’.
We learn from the New Testament that in the Apostolic times, Christians were called ‘Saints’ – this was the way St Paul addressed Christian communities: ‘Salute Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints which are with them’ (Romans 16.15).
Gradually, the meaning of the word ‘saint’ shifted towards a holy person who exhibited some extraordinary attributes. The feeble beginning of the Church which started on the Pentecost day followed a humble trajectory, martyrdom being quite often the price paid by those confessing Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Others, reluctant to live in the Christian Empire established by Constantine the Great, fled to the desert to continue their spiritual struggle.
Inevitably, the Lives of Saints writings appeared. Very soon, these became an important literary style throughout the first Christian millennium. These writings contained both historical facts and legends. However, the main purpose of these writings was to offer an account of the life of a particular Saint and to inspire people in following Christ. Or, as George Dion Dragas puts it in Ecclesiasticus II – Orthodox Icons, Saints, Feasts and Prayer, ‘The Saints are Christ continued or extended throughout the ages, Who is the same yesterday and today and on to the ages of ages (Heb. 13.8).’ Chronologically speaking, the first book which contains accounts of Christian martyrs were the Martyrologies, covering the first three Christian centuries.
For Britain, its first Christian martyr was St Alban, who lived in the third or fourth century at the time when Christians began to suffer persecution. He offered shelter in his house to a wandering priest who was fleeing from persecution. When it was discovered that the priest was sheltering in St Alban’s house, Roman soldiers came to seize him. St Alban was tortured for his faith and in the end beheaded. He refused to worship the pagan gods and confessed Christ: ‘I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things’ (Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History). St Alban suffered martyrdom for Christ not far away from these places. He is venerated as Britain’s Protomartyr.
The writings concerning martyrdoms were followed by monastic related writings which flourished from the fourth century onwards, the genre for this period being the Paterikon (also known as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers), writings which provide a rich account of the life of the monks who lived in Upper and Lower Egypt.
The list of the saints began with the martyrs and continued with the monks, hierarchs, preachers and apologists of the Church, scattered all over Eastern and Western Christendom. Saints from the East went to the West to begin or to continue the work of preaching the Gospel.
St Theodore of Tarsus
In the sixth century a notable presence in the British Isles was St Theodore of Tarsus. Of Byzantine origin, St Theodore was educated in Antioch and Constantinople. He was the seventh Archbishop of Canterbury and remained in the memory of the undivided Church for his great work for the English Church: the establishment of the School of Canterbury where teachings were conducted in both Greek and Latin, the reform which he introduced in his Diocese on canonical and liturgical matters and the reorganization of the English Diocese in northern England. Owing to his Antiochian background and to his connections with Syrian music and culture, St Theodore is also credited with the introduction of the Litany of the Saints in the Western Church.
Another notable presence in the English Church of the seventh century was St Paulinus. Formerly a monk at St Andrew’s Monastery in Rome, he was sent by the Bishop of Rome, St Gregory the Dialogist, as part of the second group of missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Venerable Bede, in his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gives a short account of the life of St Paulinus. He converted King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity, and many of Edwin’s subjects. He also built churches, among which were a wooden church in Campodunum, the Roman name of today’s Leeds, and also a church in Lincoln. St Paulinus became Bishop of York (625–33) and later, Bishop of Rochester, in Kent (633–44). He is also credited with the baptism of a future saint, Hilda of Whitby.
Why is St Paulinus an important figure for the English people as well as for us, the Romanian immigrants in these lands? For the English people, St Paulinus remains an important Church figure as he was the first Bishop of York, the second Metropolitan See in the Church of England. With us, the Romanian immigrants, St Paulinus shares his Latinity and his place of abode – the British Isles – where some of our compatriots decided to live.
It might be worth mentioning that our first Romanian Monastery established in the British Isles, on the isle of Mull, is dedicated to All Celtic Saints.
Learning from the Saints
What do we learn from these Saints? We learn ‘from their integrity and from their unrelenting courage, from their vision of God – so holy, so great, possessed of such a love, that nothing less than one’s whole being could respond to it. These were men and women who had reached a humility of which we have no idea, because it is not rooted in a hypocritical or contrived depreciation of oneself, but in the vision of God, and a humbling experience of being so loved. They were ascetics, ruthless to themselves, yet so humane, so immensely compassionate not only to the needs of men, but also to their frailty and their sins; men and women wrapped in a depth of inner silence of which we have no idea and who taught by ‘Being’, not by speech: ‘If a man cannot understand my silence, he will never understand my words’. If we wish to understand the sayings of the Fathers, let us approach them with veneration silencing our judgments and our own thoughts in order to meet them on their own ground and perhaps to ultimately partake – if we prove to be able to emulate their earnestness in the search, their ruthless determination, their infinite compassion – in their own silent communion with God’ (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, preface to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).
One legitimate question may arise here. Who decides that a person should be recognized as a Saint?
Saints are those who are recognized by the whole Church for their holy life, for their unaltered faith, for their special contribution made towards Christianity and the Church and for the miracles worked by God at the intercession of the Saint, either when alive or after death. Very often the sainthood of a person is revealed by their body being free from physical decay.
An autocephalous Church, through its Synod and Hierarchs, takes notice of this occurrence, makes the necessary research, checks and proceeds with the canonization of the Saint. The commemoration date is then established – usually the date on which the Saint passed away – liturgical texts are composed for the service of the Saint and an icon of the Saint is painted. Before the solemn canonization takes place, the last memorial service is performed. Quite often, new churches are dedicated to the memory of the newly proclaimed Saint.
Indeed, the sainthood is an attribute of a dynamic life in Christ. It was manifested throughout the two Christian millennia and it will continue to manifest itself until the end of time. A Parisian priest, in an attempt to inspire the youth from his congregation, said these words: ‘You seek evidence, saying that nowadays there are no longer miracles or saints. Why would I give you theoretical arguments when today there is a Saint who walks on the streets of Paris – Saint John the Barefoot?’ The priest was referring to St John Maximovich, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, one of the most recent and most venerated Saints of the Orthodox Church.
The Saints remain our criends and our companions in this world. We find protection in our Patron Saint, in our Parish Saint and, perhaps, in a couple of other Saints whom we venerate. These Saints intervene and intercede to God for us. They are partakers with the suffering, they urge prayer for each other and themselves, and pray for everyone. They are examples of intercession, teaching others to do the same. They are role models for us in a world which claims that there are no longer role models to follow. Ultimately, they are Christ’s witnesses in this world.
For the prayers of all your Saints, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!
His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph Pop is Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan of South and West Europe, and Archbishop of Paris.
This address was given at the Guild Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet St, at a service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on 19 February 2015. ND