Saint Photios the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople
St. Photios (Photius) the Great (Feast Day - February 6)
By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra
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.*
* 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.
From The Synaxarion (vol. 3), translated by Christopher Hookway, 2001, pp. 422-429.
St Photios' refutation of the Roman Catholic Filioque heresy, Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, may be found here:
Article about St Photios the Great as Defender of Orthodoxy and Missionary:
Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs
Countless have been the evils devised by the cunning devil against the race of men, from the beginning up to the coming of the Lord. But even afterwards, he has not ceased through errors and heresies to beguile and deceive those who listen to him. Before our times, the Church, witnessed variously the godless errors of Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Discorus, and a foul host of others, against which the holy Ecumenical Synods were convened, and against which our holy and God-bearing Fathers battled with the sword of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even after these heresies had been overcome and peace reigned, and from the Imperial Capital the streams of Orthodoxy flowed throughout the world; after some people who had been afflicted by the Monophysite heresy returned to the True Faith because of your holy prayers; and after other barbarian peoples, such as the Bulgarians, had turned from idolatry to the knowledge of God and the Christian Faith: then was the cunning devil stirred up because of his envy.
For the Bulgarians had not been baptised even two years when dishonourable men emerged out of the darkness (that is, the West), and poured down like hail or, better, charged like wild boars upon the newly-planted vineyard of the Lord, destroying it with hoof and tusk, which is to say, by their shameful lives and corrupted dogmas. For the papal missionaries and clergy wanted these Orthodox Christians to depart from the correct and pure dogmas of our irreproachable Faith.
The first error of the Westerners was to compel the faithful to fast on Saturdays. (I mention this seemingly small point because the least departure from Tradition can lead to a scorning of every dogma of our Faith.) Next, they convinced the faithful to despise the marriage of priests, thereby sowing in their souls the seeds of the Manichean heresy. Likewise, they persuaded them that all who had been chrismated by priests had to be anointed again by bishops. In this way, they hoped to show that Chrismation by priests had no value, thereby ridiculing this divine and supernatural Christian Mystery. From whence comes this law forbidding priests to anoint with Holy Chrism? From what lawgiver, Apostle, Father, or Synod? For, if a priest cannot chrismate the newly-baptised, then surely neither can he baptise. Or, how can a priest consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord in the Divine Liturgy if, at the same time, he cannot chrismate with Holy Chrism? If this grace then, is taken from the priests, the episcopal rank is diminished, for the bishop stands at the head of the choir of priests. But the impious Westerners did not stop their lawlessness even here.
They attempted by their false opinions and distorted words to ruin the holy and sacred Nicene Symbol of Faith — which by both synodal and universal decisions possesses invincible power — by adding to it that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, as the Symbol declares, but from the Son also. Until now, no one has ever heard even a heretic pronounce such a teaching. What Christian can accept the introduction of two sources into the Holy Trinity; that is, that the Father is one source of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that the Son is another source of the Holy Spirit, thereby transforming the monarchy of the Holy Trinity into a dual divinity?
And why should the Holy Spirit proceed from the Son as well as from the Father? For if His procession from the Father is perfect and complete — and it is perfect because He is perfect God from perfect God — then why is there also a procession from the Son? The Son, moreover, cannot serve as an intermediary between the Father and the Spirit because the Spirit is not a property of the Son. If two principles, two sources, exist in the divinity, then the unity of the divinity would be destroyed. If the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, His procession from the Father alone would of necessity be either perfect or imperfect. If it is imperfect, then procession for two hypostases would be much more contrived and less perfect than procession from one hypostasis alone. If it is not imperfect, then why would it be necessary for the Spirit to also proceed from the Son?
If the Son participates in the quality or property of the Father's own hypostasis, then the Son and the Spirit lose their own personal distinctions. Here one falls into semi-Sabellianism. The proposition that in the divinity there exist two principles, one which is independent and the other which receives its origin from the first, destroys the very root of the Christian conception of God. It would be much more consistent to expound these two principles into three, for this would be more in keeping with the human understanding of the Holy Trinity.
But since the Father is the principle and source, not because of the nature of the divinity, but because of the property of the hypostasis (and the hypostasis of the Father does not include the hypostasis of the Son), the Son cannot be a principle or source. The Filioque actually divides the hypostasis of the Father into two parts, or else the hypostasis of the Son becomes a part of the hypostasis of the Father. By the Filioque teaching, the Holy Spirit is two degrees or steps removed from the Father, and thus has a much lower rank than the Son. If the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also, then of the three Divine Hypostases, the Holy Spirit alone has more than one origin or principle.
By the teaching of the procession from the Son also, the Father and the Son are made closer to each other than the Father and the Spirit, since the Son possesses not only the Father's nature but also the property of His Person. The procession of the Spirit from the Son is either the same as that from the Father, or else it is different, in which case there exists an opposition in the Holy Trinity. A dual procession cannot be reconciled with the principle that what is not common to the three hypostases belongs exclusively to only one of the three hypostases. If the Spirit proceeds also from the Son, why then would something not proceed from the Spirit, so that the balance between the Divine Hypostases would therefore be maintained?
By the teaching that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son, the Father appears partial towards the Son. The Father is either a greater source of the Spirit than the Son, or a lesser source. If greater, the dignity of the Son is offended; if lesser, the dignity of the Father is offended. The Latins make the Son greater than the Spirit, for they consider Him a principle, irreverently placing Him closer to the Father. By introducing a dual principle into the Holy Trinity as they do, the Latins offend the Son, for by making Him a source of that which already has a source, they thus render Him unnecessary as a source. They also divide the Holy Spirit into two parts: one part from the Father and one part from the Son. In the Holy Trinity, which is united in an indivisible unity, all three hypostases are inviolable. But if the Son contributes to the procession of the Spirit, Sonship is then injured, and the hypostatic property damaged.
If, by the begetting of the Son, the power was thereby given to the Son that the Holy Spirit would proceed from Him, then how would His Sonship itself not be destroyed when He, Who Himself has a source, became a source of Another Who is equal to Him and is of the same nature as He? According to the Filioque teaching, it is impossible to see why the Holy Spirit could not be called a granson! If the Father is the source of the Son, who is the second source of the Spirit, then the Father is both immediate and the mediated source of the Holy Spirit! A dual source in the divinity inescapably concludes in a dual result; therefore, the hypostasis of the Spirit must be dual. Therefore, the teaching of the Filioque introduces into the divinity two principles, a dyarchy, which destroys the unity of the divinity, the monarchy of the Father.
Having here explained the Latin understanding only briefly, I will leave its detailed presentation and refutation until we are assembled together in council. These so-called bishops thus introduced this foul teaching, together with other impermissible innovations, among the simple and newly-baptised Bulgarian people. This news cut us to the heart. How can we not grieve when we see before our eyes the fruit of our womb, the child to whom we gave birth through the Gospel of Christ, being rent asunder by beasts? He who by his sweat and suffering raised them and perfected them in the Faith, suffers the greatest pain and sorrow upon the destruction of his children. Therefore, we mourn for our spiritual children, and we will not cease from mourning. For we will not give sleep to our eyes until, to the extent that lies in our power, we return them to the House of the Lord.
Now, concerning these forerunners of apostasy, common pests and servants of the enemy, we, by divine and synodal decree, condemn them as impostors and enemies of God. It is not as though we were just now pronouncing judgement upon them, but rather, we now declare openly the condemnation ordained by the ancient synods and Apostolic Canons. If they stubbornly persist in their error, we will exclude them from the communion of all Christians. They introduced fasting on Saturdays, although that is prohibited by the 64th Apostolic Canon which states: “If some cleric is found fasting on Sundays or Saturdays except the one Great Saturday before Pascha, let him be removed from the ranks of the clergy, and if he be a layman, let him be excommunicated.” Similarly, by the 56th canon of the holy Fourth Ecumenical Synod which states: “Since we have learnt that in the city of Old Rome some, during the Great Fast, in opposition to the ecclesiastical order handed down to us, keep the fast even on Saturdays, the holy Ecumenical Synod orders that in the Church of Old Rome the Apostolic Canon which prohibits fasting on Saturdays and Sundays is to be followed exactly.”
Similarly, there is a canon of the regional synod of Gangra which anathematises those who do not recognise married priests. This was confirmed by the holy Sixth Ecumenical Synod, which condemned those who require that priests and deacons cease to cohabit with their lawful wives after their ordination. Such a custom was being introduced even then by the Church of Old Rome. That Synod reminded the Church of Old Rome of the evangelical teaching and of the canon and polity of the Apostles, and ordered it not to insult the holy institution of Christian marriage established by God Himself. But even if we did not cite all these and other innovations of the Latins, the mere citing of their addition of the Filioque phrase to the Nicene Symbol of Faith would be sufficient to subject them to a thousand anathemas. For that innovation blasphemes the Holy Spirit, or more correctly, the entire Holy Trinity.
Having presented this matter before our brotherhood in the Lord, according to the ancient custom of the Church, we invite and ask you to come and join in council with us, for the purpose of condemning these foul and Godless teachings. Do not abandon the order established by the Holy Fathers which they, by their acts and deeds, handed down to us as a legacy to preserve. Rather, straightway send your representatives and deputies, adorned with piety and the priestly rank and by the goodness of their life and words, and by common synodal decree this new rot of evil belief will be excised from the Church. Once we have rooted out this godlessness, we can hope the newly-baptised Bulgarian people will return to the Faith they first accepted. And not only the Bulgarian people, but also all of the formerly terrible people, the so-called Rus, for even now they are abandoning their heathen faith and are converting to Christianity, receiving from us bishops and pastors as well as all Christian customs. Consequently, if you now move to help erase this newly begun evil, then the flock of Christ will yet more increase and the Apostolic learning will reach the ends of the world. With this purpose, then, send your representatives and deputies equipped with the authority of the Apostolic thrones which you inherited by the Holy Spirit, so that these and all other matters may be brought to judgement by lawful authority.
From the Italian region, we have received a synodal letter citing many grave matters against the bishop of Old Rome. Accordingly, the Orthodox there ask us to free them from his great tyranny, for in that area sacred law is being scorned and Church order trampled. We were told this earlier by monks who came to us from there, and now we have received many letters stating frightening news about that region and asking us to relay their message to all the bishops and to the Apostolic Patriarchs as well. For that reason, I communicate to you their request by way of this epistle. Once a holy and ecumenical Christian synod has been assembled, it will fall upon us together to resolve all these matters with the help of God and according to the rules of previous Synods, that in so doing, a deep peace may again prevail in the Church of Christ.
Moreover, it is necessary to confirm the holy Seventh Ecumenical Synod, to the end that all the faithful in the Church everywhere reckon and include that Synod as Ecumenical together with the other six. For we have heard that in some places it is not yet so counted, although its decisions are accepted and honoured. This was the Synod that overcame and destroyed the great heretical godlessness of iconoclasm. Representatives of the other four patriarchates attended its sessions. After they were all assembled, together with our uncle, the most Tarasius, Archbishop of New Rome, this great and ecumenical synod crushed the Antichrist's blasphemous heresy. Therefore, this Synod must be declared and numbered with the six preceding ones, so as to show the union of Christ's Church and deny the godless iconoclasts of the claim that their heresy was condemned by only one throne. Thus do we seek and propose as brother to brethren, and we dutifully beseech your Holinesses and also ask that you remember our humble self in your prayers.