Commemorated February 6
Our Holy Father Photios the Great was born into one of the great families of Constantinople in 810. His father, the spatharios Sergios, was the brother of the Holy Patriarch Tarasios (Feb. 25) and his mother Irene’s brother had married the sister of the Empress Theodora. His parents loved the monks and were martyred during the iconoclast persecution, bequeathing their son a more precious legacy than wealth and high rank, namely, love of the true Faith unto death. He received the best possible education in every branch of learning, both sacred and secular. He spent whole nights in study and, possessing exceptional intellectual ability, there was no field of contemporary knowledge in which he did not become proficient. In breadth and depth of learning, he was the greatest scholar of his time and a central figure in the intellectual renaissance of Byzantium after the turmoil of iconoclasm. He occupied a professorial chair at the Imperial School established in the Megnaura Palace, where he taught the philosophy of Aristotle and theology. In the course of an embassy to the Caliph at Baghdad, he composed from memory, for the benefit of his brother, a critical summary of around 280 books of all kinds – his Myriobiblos (Library), a proof of the extent of his knowledge. On his return from Baghdad with his mission accomplished, he was appointed chief secretary to the imperial chancellery (protasecretis), but he still had time for his academic duties and for his beloved studies.
In 857 Bardas, the uncle of Emperor Michael III, assumed power with the title of Caesar. He forced the resignation of the Holy Patriarch Ignatios (Oct. 23), who had denounced his immoral behavior, and prevailed on the clergy to elect the wise and pious Photios as his successor. Photios held out against his election as strongly as he could, since he regarded death itself as preferable to that perilous office in those troubled times; but, in the face of injunctions and threats he at last gave way, and agreed to give up the peace of his study and philosophical discussions with like-minded friends. He was consecrated Patriarch of Constantinople on 25 December 858, having been raised through all the degrees of the priesthood in the previous six days. In a letter to Caesar Bardas, he wrote: “Our promotion has not been willed by us and we are enthroned as a prisoner….” The more extreme supporters of Ignatios then used every means to oppose and discredit the new hierarch, alleging the irregularity of his sudden elevation from layman to Patriarch. Photios sought to avoid confrontation and did all in his power to re-establish unity and peace in the Church by strengthening Her in love, the “bond of perfection”. He took firm action against the remaining Manichean and Iconoclast heretics, and took in hand the restoration of the many churches, monasteries and charitable foundations damaged by the Iconoclasts, and took a special interest in missions to spread the Gospel among the barbarians. But his attempts to appease the supporters of Ignatios failed; and, while expressing disapproval of the violent measures taken against them by the government, he was obliged to summon a Council in 859, which confirmed the deposition of Ignatios and exiled him to Mytilene and then to Terebinthus. Agitation against Photios continued however and, in 861, another Council, known as the “First-Second”, assembled in the Church of the Holy Apostles with the official purpose of approving the restoration of Orthodoxy and of pronouncing the definitive condemnation of iconoclasm. In addition, the Council recognized the validity of the nomination of Photios, with the full agreement of the papal legates there present, who, although acting contrary to the Pope’s instructions, thought that they had thus achieved the triumph of papal authority.
The arrogant and ambitious Pope Nicholas I (858-68), who supported Ignatios, took the opportunity of the controversy to assert openly for the first time the pretension of the Popes of Rome to jurisdiction “over the whole earth and over the universal Church”. To the primacy of honor of the Roman Church and her authority as arbiter in matters of dogma, which had always been acknowledged by the other Churches – especially when the Arian, Monothelite and Iconoclast heresies were being promoted by Emperors in Constantinople – the Papacy now ascribed to itself the hegemonic claims which the Frankish Empire, after the death of Charlemagne and the Treaty of Verdun (843), could no longer sustain. On the initiative of authoritarian Popes, the Papacy sought to exercise a supremacy over the whole Church that was supposed to have been granted by Christ Himself and to have given the Popes the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of other Churches, and to impose on them all the usages of the Roman Church, such as clerical celibacy, Saturday fasting and unleavened bread for the Eucharist.
The opposition of Pope Nicholas I and his interference in the internal affairs of the Byzantine Church, when he had only been requested to pronounce decisively on Iconoclasm, drove Saint Photios to condemn the novel usages of the Roman Church. “Abolition of small things which have been received through tradition”. he wrote, “will lead to complete contempt for the dogmas.” Incensed by this response, the Pope wrote to all the bishops of the East accusing Photios of adultery as being in illicit possession of another’s See, and he decreed on his own initiative the deposition of the Patriarch of Constantinople – a thing never before heard of. Moreover, asserting the right of Popes to judge Councils, he declared that the decisions of the “First-Second” were invalid. Nor did he stop there, but summoned to Rome a Council of Western bishops, which declared Photios deposed and excommunicated all the clergy ordained by him. When Emperor Michael III objected to these proceedings, the Pope informed him (in 865) that he derived his supremacy over the Universal Church from Christ Himself. Then, in successive letters, he subjected Photios to a litany of insults, to which that true disciple of the Savior made no reply.
The Holy Patriarch did not allow these conflicts and cares to hamper his apostolic activity. With the support of the Emperor, he promoted the evangelization of the Slav peoples, engaging his learned friend and colleague Constantine (whom we venerate as Saint Cyril) and his brother Methodios, an ascetic from Mount Olympus, to undertake a preliminary mission to the Khazars of Southern Russia in 860. Three years later, at the request of the Prince of Moravia, he sent the two brothers on that great missionary endeavor which marked the beginning of the conversion of the Slav peoples of the Balkans.
At about the same time, Boris (Michael) the Khan of Bulgaria, who had recently been baptized by Photios with the Emperor Michael as his godfather, bringing his whole nation into the Christian fold, turned away from Constantinople, which had refused to grant him a patriarch, and looked to Rome for support (866). Seizing his opportunity, the Pope immediately sent Latin missionaries to Bulgaria with instructions to spread their innovations in this young Church which the Byzantines had evangelized, especially the addition of the Filioque to the Creed. Seeing the peril of an innovation which touched on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Saint Photios estimated that it was time “for the meek to become a warrior” (Joel 4:9 LXX) and that he would have to break his silence and issue a rejoinder. He addressed an Encyclical Letter to all the bishops of the East in which he vigorously condemned the errors of the Latins, especially the Filoque. He summoned a great Council to Constantinople, which in 867 proclaimed the victory of Orthodox doctrine over all the heresies, and anathematized Pope Nicholas and his missionaries in Bulgaria. The two Churches were thus separated by a formal schism, which was a precursor of the final break in 1054.
Michael III was assassinated at the end of 867 and Basil I, the founder of the Macedonian Dynasty, became Emperor. He immediately deposed Saint Photios, whom he imprisoned in the Monastery of the Protection, and recalled Saint Ignatios. In spite of the irenic efforts of Ignatios, the enemies of Photios then began a regular persecution of all the clergy ordained by him. In view of the continuing disturbance, the Emperor decided to refer the case of the two claimants to the Patriarchal throne to Rome for judgement, which was a godsend for the Papacy. Hadrian II, Nicholas’ successor, assembled a Council in 869, which once again condemned Photios, declared the Council of 867 invalid, publicly burnt its Acts and ordered that a new Council should meet in Constantinople. The bishops, few in number, who attended this false Council – called the “Eighth Ecumenical Council” (870) by the Latins – were overawed by the Emperor and, in their cowardice, condemned the Beacon of the Church and exiled his supporters to the boundaries of the Empire. More than 200 bishops were then deposed and many priests were deprived of their orders. Haled like a criminal before the synod and summoned to answer the accusations made against him, Saint Photios, after a long silence, replied: “God hears the voice of him who keeps silent. For Jesus Himself by keeping silent did not escape condemnation.” As they insisted that he answer, he replied: “My justification is not of this world.” As a worthy imitator of the Passion of the meek and long-suffering Jesus, Saint Photios, in spite of illness, bore for three years the pain of harsh imprisonment, deprivation of books and company without a word of complaint. Imputing no responsibility to the blameless Ignatios for these cruelties, he encouraged his suffering friends by letter and prayed for the Emperor and his persecutors.
Meanwhile, the bishops took cognizance of the fact that their cowardly opportunism had led them to submit their Church to the dictates of Rome; and they persuaded the Emperor to declare invalid the decrees of the Council of 870 and to release Photios. The Saint was then received at court with great honor, and Basil appointed him as his children’s tutor. Photios lost no time in making his peace with Ignatios. The two Saints, victims of the rivalry of contrary parties which had made use of their names, embraced warmly, and Photios gave his entire support to the aged and infirm Patriarch, whom he visited daily. On the death of Saint Ignatios on 23 October 877, the Church unanimously placed Photios once again on the Patriarchal throne. Veneration of the memory of Saint Ignatios was introduced not long after by Photios himself, and the Church thus befittingly eulogizes them together in the Synodikon read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy: “Eternal memory to the very blessed, very Orthodox and very illustrious Patriarchs Ignatios and Photios!” A Council was convoked at Constantinople in 879-880 attended by 383 Fathers under the presidency of Photios and in the presence of legates from the Pope. The Council confirmed the rehabilitation of Photios, annulled the Council of 870 and restored communion between the two Churches, anathematizing all innovation and especially the heretical innovation of the Filoque to the Symbol of Faith. With the restoration of peace and unity in the Church, the greatest desire of the hierarch was fulfilled. He immediately set about the task of peacemaking, seeking reconciliation with his enemies and showing a fatherly care devoid of bitterness for the former partisans of Ignatios.
When Leo VI (886-912) succeeded his father Basil I, he summarily deposed the Holy Patriarch, holding him indirectly responsible for making known to his father a plot which Leo had hatched against him. Saint Photios was imprisoned as an evildoer in the Monastery of the Armenians and was confined there for five years, lacking all human consolation but shining like gold tried in the furnace of manifold temptations (1 Pet. 6-7). This was the period which, without books of his own, he wrote the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit – a systematic refutation of the Filioque heresy, in which he shows that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Person of the Father, the “Source of the Divinity”, and is sent to us by the Son in order to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Leaving this treatise as his testament to the Holy Church in view of conflicts to come, he departed to join the choir of Holy Fathers and Doctors on 6 February 893. The miracles which soon took place in plenty at his tomb helped to convert even his inveterate enemies.
Humble, serene and long-suffering in tribulations, this true Confessor of the Faith, unjustly called a fanatic by his enemies, remains one of the great luminaries of Orthodoxy and a wholly trustworthy witness to the spirit of the Gospel.*
Feast Day: February 6
* The calumnies spread about St. Photios by the extreme partisans of St. Ignatios, accepted for centuries by historians and Western apologists alike without serious examination, made him responsible for all the discord and division which paved the way for the Great Schism of 1054. Fortunately, the researchers of modern Roman Catholic historians (notably F. Dvornik, The Photian Schism, Cambridge 1970) have reestablished the facts of the matter, which in all respects corroborate the tradition of the Orthodox Faith.