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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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Witness of the Early Church.
In the first centuries of the Christian Church, three basic types of saints were recognized.
These were: a) the Old Testament patriarchs, prophets (among whom St. John the Forerunner is
pre-eminent) and the New Testament apostles; b) the martyrs, who gained crowns of glory
through the shedding of their blood; and c) outstanding hierarchs who served the Church, as well
as people acclaimed for their personal struggle (the righteous and the ascetics). As concerns the
patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, membership in any one of these categories carried
with it recognition as a saint.
It is known from history that prayer meetings were held in honor of the martyrs as early as
the first quarter of the second century (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch). In all probability, they were
begun in the period immediately following the first persecution of the Christians — that of Nero.
It is apparent that no special ecclesiastical decree was required to authorize the prayerful veneration
of this or that particular martyr. A martyr's death itself testified to the reception of a heavenly
crown. But the numbering of departed hierarchs and ascetics among the choir of the saints was
done individually, and was naturally carried out on the basis of each one's personal worthiness.
It is impossible to give a general answer as to which criteria the Church employed for recognition
of saints belonging to this third classification. As regards the ascetics in particular,
without a doubt the fundamental, general basis of their glorification was and still is the working
of miracles. This is because supernatural evidence is free from human whim or bias. Prof. Golubinsky
considers this indication the sole basis for the glorification of ascetics in the history of
ecclesiastical canonization. Despite his opinion, however, one may conclude that the commemoration
of the great Christian desert dwellers of old, the leaders and guides of monasticism, was
kept by the Church for their didactic gifts and their lofty spiritual attainments, apart from a strict
dependence on whether they were glorified with the gift of working miracles. They were
numbered among the choirs of the saints strictly for their ascetic life, without any particular reference
to such a criterion [miracle working].
The ancient Church's glorification of holy hierarchs should be viewed somewhat differently.
Their lofty service itself was the basis of their glorification, just as the martyrs' holy ends were
for them. In the Carthaginian Calendar, which dates from the seventh century, there is the superscription:
“Here are recorded the birthdays (i.e., the dates of martyrdom) of the martyrs and the
days of the repose of bishops whose annual commemoration the Church of Carthage celebrates.”
Thus, judging from ancient Greek liturgical calendars, one may surmise that in the Greek Church
all Orthodox bishops who did not sully themselves in any way were numbered amongst the choir
of the local saints of their diocese, on the basis of the belief that as intercessors before God in this
life by their vocation, they remain such even in the life beyond the grave. In the ecclesiastical
calendars of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, all the patriarchs of Constantinople who occupied
that see between AD 315 (St. Metrophanes) and 1025 (St. Eustathius), with the exception of
those that were heretics or for one canonical reason or another were deposed, are recorded in thelist of the saints. This compilation, however, was scarcely done in the sequence in which the patriarchs
occupied their see. In all probability, the most renowned bishops were recognized as
saints immediately following their repose; in the other cases, this inclusion was carried out at
some other time.
The names of all departed bishops were entered in the local diptychs — the lists of the departed
which were read aloud at the divine services, and every year, on the date of the repose of
each of them, their commemoration was kept with special solemnity. Sozomen, the church historian,
states that in individual churches or dioceses, the celebrations of their local martyrs and the
commemoration of their former priests (i.e., their hierarchs) were observed. Herein he uses the
term “celebration” in reference to the memory of the martyrs, but “commemoration” in reference
to the hierarchs, leaving it to be understood that in the ancient Church the latter events (if one
may speak of an overall plan and not of individual cases) were of lesser stature than the former.
Prof. Golubinsky conjectures that, as regards hierarchs, after a certain number of years of fervent
prayer for them, the annual celebration of their memory was transformed into a day of prayer to
them. According to the testimony of Symeon of Thessalonica, from the earliest times in Constantinople
the hierarchs were interred within the sanctuary of the largest church, that of the Apostles,
like the relics of the saints, because of the Grace of the divine priesthood.
In the Greek Church, until the eleventh century, only a very few of the choir of hierarchs
were saints universally venerated throughout the entire Church. The greater portion of the hierarchs
remained local saints of the individual Churches (i.e., dioceses), and each individual diocese/
Church celebrated only its own local hierarchs, with a very small number of hierarchs venerated
universally throughout the Church. With the eleventh century the transformation of the
choirs of hierarchs from local to universal came about, as a result of which there are a great number
of names. This was probably the reason why, from that century on, the numbering of hierarchs
among the choirs of the saints was carried out more strictly, and as a criterion for the numbering
of any of the patriarchs of Constantinople among the saints it was declared necessary to
have irrefutable evidence of their miracles, as was also required for the glorification of ascetics.
In local Churches (dioceses) the right to recognize individuals as saints belonged to their
bishops and their clergy or officials subject to their authority. It is also quite possible that the
bishops did not perform such an act without the knowledge and consent of the metropolitan and
the synod of bishops of the metropolitan province. At times the laity determined beforehand the
future glorification of ascetics, even while the latter were still alive, and in witness of their determination
erected churches dedicated to such ascetics, apparently in the certainty that the blessing
of the hierarchy would be forthcoming.
When Symeon the Pious, St. Symeon the New Theologian's elder and guide, reposed in the Lord after forty-five years of
ascetic labor, St. Symeon, knowing the intensity of his struggles, his purity of heart, his closeness to God and the Grace of
the Holy Spirit which overshadowed him, composed in his honor a eulogy, as well as hymns and canons, and celebrated
his memory yearly with great solemnity, having painted an icon of him as a saint. Others, perhaps, both within and outside
the monastery, followed his example, for he had many disciples and admirers among monastics and laity alike. St. Sergius
II, then Patriarch of Constantinople (reigned 999-1019), heard of this, summoned St. Symeon to appear before him, and
questioned him concerning the feast and the Saint who was being so honored. But perceiving that Symeon the Pious had
led such an exalted life, he did not prohibit the veneration of his memory, and even sent lamps and incense in Symeon's
memory. Sixteen years passed without incident. But later, a certain influential retired metropolitan who resided in Constantinople
objected to any veneration conducted on private initiative. Such a thing seemed to him blasphemous and contrary
to church order. A few parish priests and some layfolk agreed with him, and disturbances began over this point, lasting
for about two years. To attain their goal, St. Symeon's opponents did not stop at slander, directed at both the Saint and
his elder. St. Symeon was ordered to appear before the patriarch and his synod to give an explanation. His reply was that,
following the precepts of the apostles and the holy fathers, he could not refrain from honoring his elder, that he did notcompel others to do so, that he was acting according to his own conscience, and that others could do as they deemed best.
Satisfied by this apologia, they nevertheless ordered St. Symeon henceforth to celebrate the memory of his elder as modestly
as possible, without any solemnity. The controversy continued for about six years, however, and a full-scale vendetta
was launched against the icon of Symeon the Pious, in which he was depicted in the company of other saints, with an inscription
referring to him as a “saint,” and overshadowed by Christ the Lord in an attitude of blessing. The result of this
was that, for peace of mind and the establishment of peace, St. Symeon decided to leave Constantinople and settled in a
remote spot near the ancient church of St. Marina, where he later built a monastery. Concerning the question of the veneration
itself, the previous decree remained in force, viz. the celebration was permitted so long as it was not conducted
with solemnity (cf. “Life of St. Symeon the New Theologian” in his Discourses, ed. Bishop Theophan, 2 vols. [Moscow:
Ephimov Press, 1892], Vol. 1, pp. 3-20).
The incident cited above demonstrates, from one point of view, that knowledge of an ascetic's
righteous life in and of itself leads to a firm conviction regarding his sojourn in the company of
the saints after his death and to his veneration; on the other hand, it witnesses to the fact that, at
that time (the 11th century), the custom and procedures of the Church required definite confirmation
by higher church authorities and a special synodal decree sanctioning public veneration.
In the future the Greek Church was to know two classifications of newly glorified saints:
martyrs and ascetics.