February 6, 2024

The Controversial Canonization of Saint Photios the Great

There is evidence showing that the veneration of Patriarch Photios I the Great of Constantinople as a saint has origins going back to the 10th century, as we see also in his veneration in the West until the 12th century.

His official canonization as a saint, however, was accomplished by the Patriarchate of Constantinople under Patriarch Anthimos VI in 1848, in the context of acute opposition to the proselytism of Catholics and other Western confessions in the territory under Ottoman rule. Because Patriarch Anthimos VI had issued anti-Russian statements during the Crimean War and later proclaimed the Bulgarian Schism in 1872, the canonization was not accepted in the calendar of the Russian Church. On the 1000th anniversary of the death of Saint Photios, on February 6, 1891, an official celebration took place at the Theological School of Halki; the Russians were not invited.

There were three different views of Patriarch Photios among the Russians at the time: Slavists, who valued Patriarch Photios for his role in the Christian education of the Slavs; Graecophiles, who demanded that the name of Patriarch Photios be included in the Russian calendars; Anti-"Eastern Papists", who recognized the historical and theological merits of Patriarch Photios, but firmly stood on the non-recognition of his canonization because Constantinople instituted it.

The reluctance of the Russian Synod to accept the canonization caused the indignation of Terty Filippov, a Russian official who supported the Greeks in the Bulgarian Schism. Filippov’s reaction prompted the Church historian and professor at St. Petersburg Theological Academy, Ivan Troitsky, who was close to Konstantin Pobedonostsev, to defend the position of “our Church’s avoidance of honoring the memory of Saint Photios in an ecclesiastical manner.” On the 1000th anniversary of the death of Patriarch Photios, on February 6, 1891, a modest memorial service was held at the Slavic Philanthropic Society and a number of papers were read. Filippov condemned the modest memorial by the Russian Church for not fully embracing the canonization of Saint Photios. He argued that the Russian Church should remember that it is a daughter of the Great Mother Church of Constantinople.

In an anonymously published article, on the occasion of honoring the memory of Patriarch Photios by the Slavic Philanthropic Society, Troitsky, indignantly citing the words of his opponent Filippov, that in the matter of honoring Photios the Russian Church did not form “a single body and a single spirit with the Church of Constantinople,” he accused Filippov of “completely papist views regarding the Church of Constantinople and on the attitude of other Orthodox Churches towards it.” In fact, he accused Filippov of lacking in patriotism and creating a papism "worse than the Roman one." Troitsky further stated: “Apparently, it does not even occur to him that by thus belittling the Russian Church before Constantinople, he is also belittling the Russian Empire with it. Let him know that the international position of this or that private Church is determined by the international position of the state in which it is located, and not vice versa... The thesis about the complete solidarity of the interests of the Church and the State in the sphere of international relations in the history of the Orthodox East stands firmly. A clear example of this is the history of the struggle of Patriarch Photios with Pope Nicholas I. In this struggle, the Pope supported the principle of opposing interests of the Church and the State and on this principle wanted to found a coalition of the Eastern and Western Churches against the Byzantine Empire, and Photios supported the principle of solidarity of interests of the Byzantine Church and the Empire, and on it he founded a coalition against Papal Rome. This is the greatness of his service to the Byzantine Empire and the Church.” In March of the same year, Troitsky noted with satisfaction: “Now it has finally become clear that the name of Photios is not included in the calendar of the Modern Greek Church.”

Much of this controversy really just came down to the Russian Synod feeling insulted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate for not receiving from them an official message about the canonization, nor did they receive an invitation to participate in the 1000th anniversary at Halki. The insult was felt so great by Troitsky, that it brought out his venom against the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which he viewed as inferior since the Fall of Constantinople to Russia, a currently thriving empire. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs adopted the position of Filippov, finding in it an opportunity to lessen the tensions between the Churches of Constantinople and Moscow. According to the consulate in Constantinople, it was due to Filippov's peaceful position that the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not cut off communication with the Russian Synod due to the Bulgarian Schism.

The name of Saint Photios has been constantly present in the official calendars published by the Moscow Patriarchate since 1971; previously it was included in the synodal calendar for 1916.

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