Orthodox America

  St. Mitrofan of Voronezh

+ November 23, 1703

      Having remained faithful to the Apostolic Tradition, the Russian Church never called for the kind of doctrinal reforms which revolutionized Europe in the 16th century. Nevertheless, it had its own weaknesses born of historical circumstances and human failings. The effect of more than two centuries of Mongol rule, the shameful witness of the Greeks at the Council of Florence, the subsequent Fall of Constantinople, and interference by the Catholic Poles during the Time of Troubles had combined to encourage a protectionist policy on the part of both Church and State. On a more general level this was translated into a provincial attitude which showed itself suspicious of anything and anyone foreign. The Church in particular, conscious of its position as the 'Third Rome" and the bastion of an Orthodoxy undefiled by compromise, was on guard against anything that might undermine the Faith, and placed great emphasis on uniformity, not only m matters of dogma but also in ritual practice. The vision of universal Orthodoxy--which allows for variation in ritual among local Churches gradually narrowed to a belief that Russian practice alone provided the criterion for truth. At the same time, due in large measure to a lack of educated clergy, ritual--the external signs of faith-had come to represent the key to salvation.

      Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the reforms in ritual insisted upon by Patriarch Nikon reforms based on the usage of the "tainted" Greeks roused such fearful anxiety and determined opposition. Following the Council of 1666 1667 which anathematized the Old Rite, the rift between the "Old Ritualists" or "Old Believers,'' as they came to be called, and the rest of the Russian Church exploded into a great religious upheaval that very nearly rivaled the revolutionary effect of Europe's Reformation a century earlier. The ultimate victor in Russia's "civil war" of religion was the State. In their stubborn "all or nothing" attitude, Nikon and the Old Ritualists' leader Avvakum both contributed to weaken the very Church which each had sought so zealously to defend. But if this tragic period in the history of the Russian Church exposed her weaknesses, it also gave opportunity for men of spiritual stature to stand tall and prove themselves by turning people's attention to the soul-saving essentials of Orthodox Christianity. Among those hierarchs who endeavored to do just that were St. Theodosius of Chernigov, St. Dimitri of Rostov and St. Mitrofan of Voronezh.


       St. Mitrofan was born in 1623 in the province of Vladimir. According to his own testimony, he was brought up by devout parents "in the unsullied piety of the Eastern Church, in the Orthodox Faith." He began his adult life as a married village priest, and even later, as a hierarch, he continued to manifcst a tender concern for his son, Ivan, who became a scribe in a monastery. Widowed at the age of 39, he decided to concentrate his devotion to God by leaving the world, and the following year he entered the Zolotinsk-Dormition monastery near Suzdal, where he was soon tonsured.

         Already a practiced Christian, it is not surprising that within three years he was chosen to be abbot by the brethren of the nearby Yakhromsky monastery, a position he accepted out of obedience rather than desire. He was strictly ascetic in his personal life, while he expressed himself as a loving father towards his monks who reciprocated his care for them with filial respect and obedience. The Saint's success in meeting the challenges of his abbatial responsibilities was communicated to the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia, Joachim, and after ten years at Yakhromsk he was entrusted with a larger monastery of some renown in the province of Kostroma, outside Moscow. Under his guidance the monastery flourished and expanded still further. One of his major undertakings there was the construction of a splendid heated church with a refectory and bell tower. The Saint's accomplishments in both the spiritual and physical arenas prompted the Patriarch to place several other monasteries under his supervision. Everywhere he won the hearts of men.


      He was a particular favorite with the young and pious Tsar Feeder who, together with the Patriarch, saw in St. Mitrofan a prime candidate for the episcopacy in a time which demanded forceful and enlightened leadership. The consecration took place in April 1682, just weeks before the death of the frail Tsar Feodor precipitated a bloody crisis over the question of succession between his much younger brothers--the mentally retarded Ivan, from Tsar Alexis' first wife, and the bright, high spirited Peter from Tsar Alexis' second marriage. Patriarch Joachim was among those whose support of Peter as heir to the throne threatened the ambitious designs of Ivan's older sister Sophia. Anxious to secure power for herself, she enlisted the support of the Streltsy, an unruly force of musketeers who not infrequently meddled in government affairs. The result was a bloody uprising which abated only when a compromise was reached with the double crowning of the two half-brothers, aged 15 and 10, and the recognition of Sophia as regent. The recently consecrated Bishop Mitrofan participated in the coronation where the tension between the two rival families was still all too apparent.

      The Streltsy in particular were dissatisfied with the double crown solution, and when the Old Believers took advantage of the change in power to raise their grievances in a debate with the official Church, the Streltsy were only too willing to take their side. The confrontation took place in the presence of the Patriarch, various bishops, the two young tsars and their imperious regent. Here, too, Bishop Mitrofan witnessed the clash of inflexible wills, of anarchy and autocracy, defiance and despotism, an atmosphere which precluded any meaningful dialogue, any effort towards reconciliation. The debate very soon degenerated into a frenzy of insults and, instigated by the Streltsy, spread into the streets in the form of mob violence. It was several months before Sophie managed to subdue her erstwhile supporters, which she did by executing their leaders. At the same time she sanctioned an intensified persecution of the Old believers who had long been pitted against the State by virtue of its rigorous enforcement of the Nikontan reforms.

      The fires of rebellion had not yet subsided when Bishop Miltofan left the capital to take up his archpastoral responsibilities in the newly formed diocese of Voronezh. It was a difficult assignment which placed him in the midst of those very elements whose disruptive influence on the life of Church and State he had just witnessed. Located along the Don some distance from Moscow, Voronezh was a vast area which attracted malcontents of every description: fiercely independent Cossacks, Old Believers and' schismatics, outlaws... Although formerly under the jurisdiction of Ryazan, its remoteness discouraged frequent visits by its ruling hierarchs; there was a shortage of priests, and most of the existing clergy were poorly educated and ill-equipped to battle against the loose morals and pagan influences still present among the populace; resentment towards authority extended even into the ranks of clergy and monastics, many of whom had lost sight of their high calling. Indeed, the holy bishop discovered that "people of every class have grown accustomed to live as they please."

      Despite such formidable obstacles, Bishop Mitrofan proved himself worthy of the Patriarch's confidence in appointing him to such a post. He turned his attention first to raising the spiritual level of the clergy, exhorting them to set examples of righteous living: "You, the shepherds, must offer to the sheep of the Scriptures the prepared manna of the Word of God, like the angels prepared the physical manna in the desert. You, as intercessors, must in your prayers imitate Moses and Paul, who prayed with such fervor for their people...!" He chastized severely and even defrocked priests guilty of serious offenses, while he upheld the authority of those priests who suffered from disrespectful parishioners. He visited all the monasteries of his diocese and shored up their spiritual foundations, recalling the monks to a disciplined life of prayer and fasting and putting a stop to the worldly influence exercised for so long by lay benefactors. Among the rest of his flock he worked hard to root out superstition, to correct immoral behavior-unlawful cohabitation was widespread, to teach them the principles of true Orthodoxy, and to win back into the Church's fold those who had strayed into heresy. The episcopal residence became a haven for the poor and homeless, and the saintly bishop set an example for his clergy in paying frequent visits to hospitals and prisons. To everyone he recommended the same rule: "Employ labor, preserve moderation--and you 'will be rich; drink with restraint, eat little--and you will be healthy; do good, flee from evil--and you will find salvation."

       The combined effect of his actions, his preaching and his prayers was to renew the strength of the Church's authority among the people. This was symbolized in the construction of the large, Annunciation cathedral in Voronezh. The magnificent hierarchical services attracted not only the local populace to prayer, but also the young Tsar Peter who spent long periods of time in Voronezh overseeing the building of his fledgling navy. A deep friendship developed between the youthful tsar and the aging hierarch. Bishop Mitrofan helped to dispel the hostility which many natives bore towards the 'heretical' foreigners employed in the shipyards and to develop respect for their technical innovations. At the same time he strictly cautioned his flock not to mix too freely with the foreigners so as not to be influenced by their bad morals and erroneous religious beliefs.

    This concern gave rise to a confrontation between Bishop Mitrofan and the Tsar – the most memorable incident in the Saint’s life. At the Tsar’s invitation, the Bishop was approaching his island residence on a visit when he noticed that the entrance was adorned with statues of pagan gods. The holy Bishop was offended by the display of these enemies of Christianity, seeing in them a great temptation for his flock. He refused to go further and returned home. On hearing of this, the Tsar – who was stubbornly attached to European fashion and to having his own way – flew into a rage and demanded that the Bishop present himself or accept the penalty of death for disobeying the royal will. “To me to live is Christ,” quoted the Bishop, “and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Preparing worthily to meet his fate, he ordered the bell to be rung for a solemn vigil. The Bishop’s strength of conviction brought the Tsar to his senses and he ordered the statues to be immediately removed. One has to know the Tsar’s character to appreciate the height of respect which this action represented.

    In August, 1703, the Bishop became ill unto death and took the great schema with the name Macarius. He reposed in peace a few months later on Nov. 23, having left a final exhortation to his flock in a will expressive of the great beauty of his soul. News of his repose reached the Tsar on his way to Voronezh, and he asked that the funeral be postponed a few days until his arrival. The monarch himself was among those who bore the hierarch’s coffin to his resting place in the Annunciation Cathedral Afterward he said to his entourage: “No more do I have such a holy elder. May his memory be eternal!”

    Miracles attributable to the Saint’s intercession and the discovery in 1831 of the incorrupt condition of his relics were reported to the Holy Synod which prepared for St. Mitrofan’s official glorification on August 6, 1832.

    Professor N. Talberg ends his Life of this great hierarch with the following tribute:

    “Saint Mitrofan exemplified the devout prelate, ascetic, and benefactor, who is strict with those who trespass against the teachings of the Church and kind towards all others. This is what made him so dear to the devout Russian people, who keenly recognize those who are true servants of God.”

    Tsar Peter did not, alas, heed the warnings of his spiritual benefactor, and even encouraged those Western influences which so disastrously undermined the Church’s authority and invited the intellegentsia’s departure from an Orthodox worldview. But those faithful to the true spirit of Orthodox Christianity found – and will always find – in St. Mitrofan, a sure guide to the values and virtues which bring eternal life.

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