Fr. Peter Alban Heers · April 9, 2011
In this podcast, Fr. Peter takes a short break from his series on life in Greece to address a question raised by a listener in Moscow: Why did Fr. Peter refer to Fr. Daniel Sysoev as a "New Martyr" when he has yet to be officially declared one by the hierarchy of the Church of Russia? Fr. Peter takes this opportunity to briefly address the issue of authority in the Church and who it is that first and foremost recognizes the holiness of the saints—the people or the hierarchy?
In this program we are going to take a short break from our new series on life in Greece, and we will continue in the next program talking a little bit about Great Lent and the approaching Holy Week.
In this program I want to answer an inquiry from one of our listeners, in particular, a listener from Moscow, who asked a question and made some inquiries about our use of the title “New Martyr,” for Fr. Daniel Sysoev: the New Martyr Father Daniel. He wanted to, for the record, ask why we use that title, because he said that he had not officially been proclaimed a New Martyr by the Church in Russia, so he felt that this was an inaccuracy and that the term should not be used because he has not been officially proclaimed a saint by the Church in Russia.
The question is a good question, I think. Maybe perhaps many people have this question and are a bit startled by our use of the term “New Martyr” for Father Daniel. It goes to the heart of the difference, as we say, between Orthodoxy and the West, in terms of the question of how one is understood or proclaimed to be a saint in the Church.
In the West, among the Roman Catholics, that is, there is a very elaborate process, or stages, toward final sainthood, one being beatification. We just read in the news about the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II, which is a whole other issue which we are not going to get into in this program. That is one stage, and there is also devil’s advocate in the West, and a very kind of legal process that one goes through before they can proclaim someone officially to be a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Orthodox Church, this is definitely not the case. The Orthodox Church does not refer to making saints or canonizing them, but recognizing their glorification by God, and that they have already been glorified, and so the hierarchy come behind the veneration of the people. It comes at the end, as a stamp of a final surety upon the already recognized and existing veneration.
Therefore, the first declaration is by faithful members. Glorification is from the people, and it was ever so. This is the case going back from the beginning of the Church. When we look at the ancient Church, we see that for hundreds of years, obviously during the persecutions, before Constantine the Great, there was no way of having a formal declaration of sainthood. At least I don’t think we have any witnesses to that case, of holy synods being gathered, and saints being recognized in any formal way.
That, I think, remains throughout the Eastern Church. Of course, later on there are formal declarations in synod by the hierarchy. But what doesn’t change is that the people declare by their veneration, and God reveals, by signs and wonders, either during the life of the saint, or immediately after, or later, through the incorruptibleness of the relics, or the miracles after the repose, that God works through the saint.
It is definitely the consciousness of the people, the veneration of the people, that is the first step, the most important step, and, let’s say, the declaration before the final declaration of the hierarchy. There are many examples, many, many, many examples throughout history. The period of the Turkish domination over the Orthodox peoples in the Middle East and in Greece, when the hierarchy was in a very difficult situation, is similar to the ancient Church’s situation. Obviously, the hierarchy could not come out and proclaim, especially martyrs for the faith to be saints.
There were many, many cases in which the Turkish authorities, or the Muslim authorities, would put a martyr to death, and then try to hide the relics, or, as in the case of St. Gregory V, throw the relics into the sea, so if the hierarchy would, after that, declare him to be a saint, this would be a flagrant show of disobedience to the authorities. So during the Turkish period there were many martyrs that were never officially declared saints in any formal declaration, but it was obvious to everyone in the Church that these were saints of the Church, especially when they were martyred.
So there is no reason, and in fact it is incumbent upon the faithful, not to wait for a final declaration, to show veneration of the saint, because otherwise a final declaration will never come, because the hierarchy is waiting for the voice of the consciousness of the Church, and is coming behind that, not going ahead of it.
Let me give you some examples from the 20th century, and this is obviously the case here in Greece. In the case of St. George Karslidis, Elder George. He came from Georgia, initially was ordained in Georgia, came and lived in Drama and reposed in the 1960s. The monastery outside of Drama here in northern Greece, Macedonia, is dedicated to the Ascension, and this monastery has held the relics of this great elder there. In his life, of course, he worked a number of miracles, but after his repose also worked a number of miracles.
From the 1960s on, immediately, the people began to venerate him as a saint. Icons would circulate and the life of the saint was written, and services were written, long before last year, just six months ago, when the hierarchy declared him to be officially a saint. Long before St. George was enrolled into the diptychs or into the official Synaxarion of the Church, he was recognized and venerated by the faithful as a saint. They prayed to him, they painted icons. They did not, nor did they need to, wait for a pronouncement to do so.
The same goes for the New Martyr Ephraim of Nea Makri, who was just recently, by the patriarchate of Constantinople, recognized as a saint of the Church. From the 1960s, when he miraculously appeared and his whole life became known to the Church. Photios Kontoglou painted icons of the saint. In fact, if you go to the temple where his relics have been for decades, in the middle of the temple there in the monastery at Nea Makri, right next to it is an icon of the saint by Photios Kontoglou from the 1960s on, when he became known to the people through various miraculous appearances, and the miracles that he worked are just endless. There are, I think, six books written just with his miracles and the various miraculous appearances and the rest. Well, just this year, he was glorified officially by the patriarchate, and by the Church of Greece, and recognized. So long before he was recognized officially, he was venerated by the faithful and called a saint, a holy person.
Let’s look at the word again, because in the Latin translation, it is sanctus, “saint” in English. It sounds more like a title in Greek. It’s the words said in Divine Liturgy are: Holy, holy, holy, agios, agios, agios, Agios Ephraim. St. Ephraim. Holy Ephraim.
The recognition of holiness is something that, in the life of the saint, immediately after, or for other reasons, long after, in the case of St. Ephraim, the faithful recognize that. The faithful see in this holy Wonder-worker, or New Martyr, or whatever the case might be, that this is a man of God, that he has truly witnessed that his life, and death in the case of the martyrs to Christ, and so there is absolutely no question that in the consciousness and the hearts of the faithful that they can and should venerate his memory.
We have other contemporary elders that have not yet been glorified officially, recognized officially, by the Church, but they certainly have been glorified by the people. There is no question about Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain who reposed in 1994, and has many, many, many spiritual children, many monasteries. Just right here near us we have three monasteries established by his spiritual children with his blessing. Countless, countless pilgrims visited, thousands and thousands, it is hard to even imagine how many pilgrims have personally gone to his keli there when he was living, and received benefit, and so the whole Church declares with one voice here in Northern Greece, the holiness of Elder Paisios.
Does that mean that we are somehow being disobedient to the hierarchy? Of course not. That’s absurd. Does it mean that we need to wait for an official declaration to venerate him, in other words, to venerate his memory and hold him to be a saint of the Church? Of course not.
What does come with the official recognition is the seal of approval, the stamp of approval, the final word, which is just a confirmation of what the Church already understands and knows. That is very, very important. I don’t want to downplay that at all. It is absolutely an important step, and the Church does it in different ways, whether it is an official declaration, or whether it is just enrolling the saint, over time, into the Synaxarion, the very saints that have written the Synaxarion have done that, and they have entered into local churches at various times and various ways, always with an official declaration.
In our day, of course, we wait for that, we pray for that, and of course, the spiritual children of Elder Paisios, for instance, are not running ahead of the hierarchy. They are very reserved. Of course, they venerate him as a holy man, as a contemporary saint, but, for instance, they would not insist on chanting his service, for instance, on his feast day, although that does take place in one monastery; they do chant his service. There is already a service written for Elder Paisios; there are already icons painted of Elder Paisios, in churches.
Some say this is rash. Others say this is fine. I don’t want to get into that. My point here is not to analyze each and every saint, but just to generally try to explain and understand, very briefly here, how we understand the process and who has the first word and gives this the first witness, and it is certainly not the hierarchy. It is the faithful. The hierarchy comes, again, as I said, behind the already established veneration, or recognition, of the faithful, to give the stamp of approval.
There are other cases where there are people who are venerating someone as a saint. I have in mind someone who many people consider to be St. John of Santa Cruz, a Greek priest who was slaughtered, who was killed, by what most people consider to be Satanists. There is a history there, it is written in Orthodox Word. I am not sure, I don’t know much about that, and I’m not going to get into the details. Here is a case where there is a portion of people who are declaring him a saint. There is a monastery here in Greece. There are miraculous things that have happened around his repose, and his memory. That veneration has not spread as much as the veneration, for instance, of Elder Paisios, so it is unclear what will finally happen in terms of officially recognizing his veneration.
You can see that it is very important, and we do want, in times of peace, when we don’t have a persecution, like in the Turkish period, or in the ancient Church, there is no reason why we should not want, and ask for, the clarification of the hierarchy and the stamp of approval, and that certainly does come, in certain cases, to clarify things, when it is not actually clear, or at least, God has not revealed it to the Church, entirely.
On the other hand, there are countless saints that have never been recognized officially, that are not in the Synaxarion, that God alone knows, that people did venerate in their time. But then the veneration fell off and people forgot, for whatever reason, because the churches were driven out, or persecuted, for instance, as in Asia Minor.
So there are saints in which the veneration has fallen off. What does that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that they are not saints, or that they are not venerated in heaven, or that they are not beloved of God. We have to qualify, both generally, in terms of all the holy ones that are in the heavenly and triumphant Church, the role of the official declaration by the Church. At the same time, we don’t want to downplay its importance.
In responding to this inquiry from Moscow, I don’t want to belittle it, by any means, but I do want to focus it more away from the official declaration, and toward the essentials of what it means to be considered a glorified saint in the Church.
I suppose, some could say this could bring on anarchy in the Church if we allow that kind of thing to happen. Well, I think it is not that it is bringing on anarchy, but that it could be already an expression of an anarchic state, and I think the anarchy would come only in the sense that if Orthodox Christians, themselves, have fallen away so much from the life of the Church that they cannot recognize a saint.
There are signs that that is happening in our day and age, that the criterion of holiness is evaporating from many so-called Orthodox Christians in our day, because they are not living the life of the Church, and so they do not recognize, they do not have in them the Holy Spirit, crying out to God, and immediately recognizing the holiness in the contemporary saints.
There is reason to believe, from various saints and prophecies, that in the end times, the saints will be hidden. They won’t be hidden because necessarily they are trying to hide themselves, although saints do that, [or] they don’t want to reveal the miraculous things that God has done for them, God reveals them, but [because] it is more in the sense that the people themselves, of the world and the Orthodox Christians (most of them, not all of them), have become estranged from the life of the Holy Spirit, the life of Christ, and therefore they have lost the criterion. They cannot recognize it.
We can see that it is not an automatic thing. It is definitely not automatic in terms of the hierarchy. Even if the hierarchy declares it and there is no veneration, we could say this is problematic. But at the same time, if the people become estranged from spiritual life so much that they don’t understand and see holiness in the saints that are living around them or near them or in their time, that also is very problematic. It doesn’t mean that, by any means, that this is an automatic thing.
We are talking about, ideally, how the Church works, and when it is healthy, and things are healthy. Of course, that will always apply to some portion, the elect, the remnant of the Church. But in our day, increasingly, many, many people have become estranged. Baptized Orthodox Christians here in Greece have become estranged from the life of the Church, and therefore they are not providing that “infallible” criterion of the “yes” of the first declaration of holiness that the Church has always known.
There are no guarantees, and this is part of the problem, that when we are waiting for an official declaration, we want everything to be top-down; we are looking for some kind of legal guarantee. I think that is what a lot of Roman Catholics see in the papacy, and that is very appealing to them, and they don’t understand that in Orthodoxy, the question is asked, “How do you know for sure that this is a saint?” or, “How do you know for sure that this is the doctrine of the Church?” But there is no guarantee.
Well, in fact, there is no guarantee either in the papacy, and that is the delusion of the papacy, that they think that there is a guarantee in the institution. No matter the institution, no matter the power of the episcopacy, if the bishop or priest is not holy, is not illumined by God through a holy life, it doesn’t matter. There is no guarantee. The guarantee is the Holy Spirit when it dwells in the hierarchy, in the faithful, in the Church. That is the guarantee.
That is the infallibility of the Church: the Holy Spirit, God; certainly not men. And no formal institution, even the Church as an institution, without the Holy Spirit, without the ascetic life, the life of holiness, can be a guarantee. Nothing can be guaranteed without that.
It is a very good question, and I appreciate it. I don’t know if I have really done justice to it, or given it a full answer. I have tried to touch on some of the essentials, the consciousness of the Church, in which we mean the Church, we mean the faithful in the Church, are struggling to live an ascetic life, and acquiring and making progress in the spiritual life. The Holy Spirit is speaking in their hearts, and through that the saints are revealed, and long before an official declaration comes about.
In the next program we will return to our series of life in Greece, and we will talk about Holy Week and the Lenten Spirit here in Greece. Until next time, good strength, and good struggles, in this holy season.