Introduction: Saints and Non-Saints
Practising Orthodox Christians are aware of several holy men and women, often elders or eldresses, from different Orthodox lands, who are thought by many to be saints. Indeed, the question is often raised: ‘Why have they not been canonised yet?’ These figures include, for example, from Greece Fr Paisios of Athos and Fr Porphyrios, from Romania Fr Cleopa and Fr Arsenie (Boca), from Russia Fr John (Krestiankin) and Fr Nikolai (Gurianov). However, some figures from the Diaspora are also sometimes mentioned, for instance, Metr Philaret of New York and Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose). And there are several other less well-known figures, both in the Diaspora and in Orthodox countries, who are also spoken of as possible saints. It must be said that some of the less well-known figures are relatively controversial, even divisive and some of them are honoured only by tiny groups of initiates.
We should not be surprised by any of this. We only have to recall the history of some recently canonised saints. We recall St Xenia of St Petersburg. It took nearly two hundred years for her canonisation to take place. It took nearly seventy tears to canonise St Seraphim of Sarov and over fifty to canonise St John of Kronstadt and twenty-five years, a generation, for St Nectarios of Pentapolis to be recognised, and even then he was maligned, as he was in his lifetime. As regards St Nicholas of Zhicha (still maligned by some), St John of Shanghai (maligned in his own lifetime and for some time after) and St Justin of Chelije (also maligned by some until very recently), canonisation also took between one and two generations and the processes were not without controversy.
However, this does not mean that the bishops, elders, eldresses, monks and nuns who are often put forward for canonisation by some are all saints or will necessarily ever be venerated as saints. It would be a great error to venerate as a saint one who was not, but, on the other hand, it would be no less an error to deny holiness to one who was holy. What are the signs of holiness we should look for?
Unanimity of Veneration over Time and Space
First of all, we should look for popular veneration, or ‘glorification’, which is universal, lasting and accepted by all. This meets the criteria of catholicity, eloquently expressed by the fifth-century Church Father, St Vincent of Lerins, that we believe what has been believed ‘everywhere, always and by all’. In other words, we should make sure that our veneration for a particular person is not purely local, or only short-term, or is accepted only by a small band of ‘initiates’, wherever they may live. In the last case, there is always the primitive but all too common, cultist danger of self-flattery: ‘We knew a saint, therefore we are also saints, or at least we are far above the level of the rabble who do not venerate him’.
Thus, we can think of one whose veneration is limited to one particular locality. We can think of another who reposed only a few years ago amid great secular publicity, but who is now very much forgotten. And finally, we can think of one whose veneration stretches to many countries, but is accepted only among tiny, modernistic, highly intellectual and esoteric groups in various countries. Veneration must be universal, lasting and shared by many different sorts and conditions of people. If all these three conditions are not met, any talk of canonisation is premature, even if icons (with or without haloes) are painted, books and articles written and talks given in honour of the particular ‘hero’.
A good example of one who has been canonised and whose veneration has spread around the world is St Nicholas of Zhicha, also called St Nicholas of Ochrid and, in Russian, St Nicholas the Serb. Another example is St John of Shanghai, also called St John of Shanghai and Western Europe, or St John of Shanghai and San Francisco and, by yet others, St John the Wonderworker. The mere fact that these saints have so many titles shows the universality of their veneration. The fact that their writings and sermons (an external criterion of their holiness) have been translated into many languages, especially into ‘Orthodox languages’, is another clear sign. Of contemporary non-canonised, this seems to be true of Elder Paisios the Athonite.
Conclusion: Other Signs
We should also be aware of other external criteria for canonisation which are also very important. These may include the incorruption of relics, for example, in the case of St John of Shanghai. However, this is not compulsory. Cases of mummification can occur. The relics of St Nectarios of Pentapolis crumbled to dust. Another external criterion is miracles. However, it is important that miracles should not consist of only dreams and circumstances that could be interpreted as ‘coincidental’. Miracles must always be clear, objective signs, not subject to personal and private interpretation. These too are often deluded and self-flattering: ‘I had a special revelation from a saint, therefore I am a saint’.
We should be careful of groups who appear to place the veneration of their ‘hero’ above God. This was the case with some who were called ‘Johannites’, who ‘venerated’ St John of Kronstadt even before his repose. Certain others seem to have had a kind of ‘hero-worship’ for St Nectarios of Pentapolis. Let us be clear. Veneration of a saint is not anywhere near the worship of God, neither is it the same as secular ‘hero-worship’ with its ‘personality cults’ and ‘legacies’, as, for example, among Catholic orders, from the Franciscans to the Jesuits and Opus Dei, with their private saints. Even the very words ‘hero’ and ‘legacy’ are purely secular. We belong to Christ, not to Paul or Apollo or Cephas (I Cor 1, 12). We follow the legacy of Christ and of no man, for every man is a sinner. Here we should be aware of those cultists who ‘attribute’ certain sayings to elders, things which they probably never said. We are thinking of those who would disturb the memory of Elder Paisios.
We will not discuss here who of these elders and bishops we think might one day be canonised. It is hardly for us even to have an opinion on such a matter. It is vital to understand that human-beings do not make saints. God makes saints, revealing them and proclaiming them through His Church with Her common mind, the consensus and communion of the saints. Therefore, if we should, for some reason, be anxious to venerate a reposed elder or bishop as a saint, let us wait for signs from God and let us obey the Church. God, and not man, makes saints. God reveals His saints to His Church at the right time, when we need their spiritual support and witness. Just as the Church is not ours, neither are the saints, for they are a free gift given to us by God for our edification.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
Holy Apostles Peter and Paul
29 June/12 July 2010