A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE HOLY NEW-MARTYRS AND CONFESSORS OF RUSSIA
About the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon
Brothers and sisters!
Today we celebrate the memory of the holy New-martyrs and Confessors of Russia, the victims of the Communist persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union. Those who perished for the faith in the Soviet Union at the hands of the Bolsheviks quite possibly exceeded in number even those slain by Diocletian, Maximian, and their successors in Roman times. Besides the human victims, we must not forget the enormous number of churches and sacred objects destroyed, defiled, or damaged by the atheistic Bolsheviks. Although in one way or another the Communists in other countries may have staged severer repressions of the Church -- for example, in Albania, with its complete eradication of religious practice, or in Montenegro, where the atheists murdered an even higher percentage of the clergy than in the Soviet Union -- nevertheless, the scale of the persecution of the Russian Church dwarfs that of any other in modern times. In this respect, only the Great Persecution of antiquity can compare with it.
Since, with the time available today, I cannot begin to do justice to my topic in its vast entirety, I will limit myself to just one of its figures: the chief one. That person is the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church during the first period of the Bolshevik persecution. All too often, we skip over him when we think about the suppression of the Orthodox Church by the Soviet government. This is most unfortunate, for Saint Tikhon is in many ways at once the chief, the greatest, and the most tragic figure of this dark period of history. As the first hierarch of the Russian Church by rank, as the embodiment of all the virtues we hold dearest in an Orthodox clergyman, and as the main target of so many of the pressures a totalitarian state can bring to bear against its victims, there is no better place to begin than with this radiant, holy person, if we are to begin to understand the Bolshevik persecution of the Church.
Saint Tikhon should be a beloved figure for us Orthodox Americans, even had he not become the foremost of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. His first assignment as a ruling bishop was in the United States, where he resided initially in San Francisco, then in New York City. During the nine years he spent in this country, the number of parishes here increased from fifteen to seventy, all of them self-supporting. Under his omophorion, many Uniates returned to Orthodoxy. It must be remembered that, coming as he did from a Russia where Orthodoxy was still the official, state-supported faith, the quiet man of God faced difficult challenges to which he had to adjust, such as complete freedom of religion, absence of censorship, American hustle and bustle, and conflicts between the various Orthodox ethnic groups, which began by establishing their first parishes under Russian aegis, but were on their way to setting up independent jurisdictions linked with the Churches in their respective countries or regions of origin. Later in life, the saint would comment on the fact that his years in America broadened both his ecclesiastical and his political perspectives.
In 1907 Saint Tikhon was brought back to Russia and made Archbishop of Yaroslavl. At a time when a ruling bishop of the Russian Church was a very high dignitary indeed, he carried out his duties without undue pomp or ceremony, amazing everyone. He almost always spoke kindly and was ever ready with a friendly joke. The Orthodox people quickly came to love this exceptional hierarch. When he was next transferred to Vilna, where the Orthodox were in the minority, it was not just the affection of the faithful that he won, but of the Uniates, the Roman Catholic clergy and laity, and even the Jews.
During the First World War, the front passed through Saint Tikhon’s diocese, and he was often under bombardment as he conducted divine services for the troops.
Perhaps because of his experience in America, Saint Tikhon, although personally a monarchist by conviction, was responsible for suggesting the March, 1917 appeal of the Holy Synod which spoke of the first Revolution, which brought down the Tsar and resulted in the formation of the Provisional Government, as “the will of God,” and begged that all division be set aside. By this, of course, the saint was not bestowing approval in principle upon the Revolution, but only acknowledging that it fell within the realm of divine Providence.
It was just as the Bolsheviks were coming to power that Saint Tikhon was elected to the newly restored office of Patriarch at the All-Russian Council of 1917. The Bolsheviks immediately began showing their hostility to the Church in many ways: nationalizing ecclesiastical properties, including churches and monasteries; taking over church schools, including seminaries and theological academies; dissolving all religious organizations, except the local parish; and, of course, separating Church from state. Soon, to these measures others would be added, measures so harsh that any normal functioning of the Church became impossible.
As the restrictions began to be applied, the violence against the Church commenced. At the same time as the first executions of the clergy were taking place, the Tsar and his family were slaughtered. In his homilies and speeches during this period, Saint Tikhon applied the Old Testament prophecies regarding God’s punishment of Israel to the horrendous developments in Russia, saying that the things that were happening were a punishment for the sins of the people, allowed by the Lord because they had forgotten Him and because they were seeking an illusory happiness in building a false utopia on earth. He condemned the crimes of the Soviet regime in the most direct way, while carefully avoiding attacking the regime itself as such.
As Soviet power began to stabilize in late 1919 and 1920, the saint reiterated his pleas for repentance and stated unequivocally that “the establishment of any particular form of government is not the work of the Church, but of the people themselves.” He also reminded the clergy that they must stand apart from all politics, and that there were definite rules of the Church forbidding its servitors any intervention in the political life of a country. He enjoined the clergy to keep away from those spreading dissention or strife, and above all to make no political utterances and to support no party. Because the persecution was constantly increasing in ferocity, he issued the famous Ukaz 362, which authorized dioceses cut off from the central administration of the Church to organize locally. This ukaz or directive became the basis for the initial organization of what would become the Russian Church Abroad.
In the midst of the Soviet terror, the saint continued to display a simple, warm manner of conduct and to lead a humble way of life. He frequently engaged in long conversations with the children of neighbors, and always had candy or fruit for them. His diet was the simplest Russian fare: black bread, boiled potatoes, kasha, and cabbage soup. He often stayed up late at night in his personal quarters, conversing with friends or visitors. This simplicity endeared him to all and reassured them in the midst of the revolutionary chaos.
In 1921, there was widespread drought, and this, combined with the aftereffects of seven years of war and the wrongheaded and often evil policies of the Soviets, caused a terrible famine. Typhus broke out and there was widespread cannibalism. The Soviets used the opportunity to seize church valuables, including chalices and other consecrated vessels, supposedly for feeding the poor. Patriarch Tikhon authorized the use of unconsecrated items for famine relief, but of course could not surrender consecrated vessels, as this is forbidden by the canons. Resistance to the Bolsheviks’ efforts at forcible confiscation resulted in many shootings and imprisonments of the clergy. I myself, as a young priest, had an elderly psalomschik or “psalm reader” who was formerly a priest, and who was imprisoned at this time for refusing to hand over the chalices and other sacred vessels in the small monastery where he was serving shortly after his ordination.
In 1922, the Bolsheviks found a new way to attack the Church. For some months, liberal-minded or “progressive” priests had been making changes to the divine services and been preaching that the Church should concern itself less with man’s soul in relation to the future life, and concentrate more on social and political problems and their rectification. They were soon advocating that the Church reverse its policy and hand over the consecrated vessels to the Communists, and reviled Saint Tikhon for failing to permit this. They blamed the saint for all the difficulties between the Orthodox Church and the Bolsheviks. These clergymen organized an alternative but parallel ecclesiastical body, the “Living Church,” to replace the Orthodox Church and institute the reforms they sought. Eventually, a considerable number of bishops associated themselves with these “Renovationists,” as they were called. Backed by the Soviets, who had imprisoned the holy Patriarch, the dissidents held a council at which they effectively took over the ecclesiastical administration and deposed Saint Tikhon without trial. The false-council then proceeded to confirm the election of married priests to the episcopacy, the remarriage of priests, and (of course!) the adoption of the “New” Gregorian Calendar.
During this period, Saint Tikhon was imprisoned by the Soviets, first in the Donskoy Monastery, but then in the notorious Taganko prison. When, after more than a year, he was released, he had aged considerably and was very thin. He walked out of the prison with bare feet, his naked body covered with a soldier’s coat. His appearance was of a disheveled old man with a tangled beard, an aged face, and a blank expression. The people waiting outside fell to their knees, and even the guards bowed their heads. As he returned to the Donskoy Monastery, he repeatedly blessed the crowds gathered on the streets.
From this point on, the Soviets relentlessly pressured the saint by every means possible but, as Lenin had decided that he did not wish to make a martyr of Tikhon, they did not murder him. For his part, the Patriarch had obviously changed his earlier tactic of careful, but quite direct confrontation of the Soviets to one of general neutrality, always warning that the Church must stay out of politics. In this last period of his life, it is sometimes difficult to discern when Saint Tikhon was openly expressing his mind, and when he was speaking in a guarded manner in order to protect the Church and the clergy in particular from Bolshevik retribution. In any case, he definitely turned away from combating the government to fighting the Living Church, which the Communists were sponsoring as much more favorable to themselves than the Patriarch and his followers. By strengthening the Living Church, the Communists hoped to undermine the Orthodox Church. Saint Tikhon’s efforts to defeat the Living Church turned out to be highly successful. Aided by the devout laity’s rejection of the Living Church as the creature of the Bolsheviks, he saw popular support for this pseudo-ecclesiastical organization dwindle to almost nil.
Meanwhile, however, the Communists continued torturing the saint with long interviews, lasting many hours, in which they would try to bribe him into retirement with offers of increased privileges for the Church, release of the clergy from prison, and so forth. When these failed, they would make open threats. After each interview, the Patriarch would be reduced to exhaustion, nervousness, and trembling. He told those close to him that it would be easier to be martyred than to endure such ordeals constantly. It was during this time that Saint Tikhon blessed a physician, Dr. Zhizhelenko, to become a monk and lead the Church into the catacombs, if the bishops were to betray Christ and surrender the Church’s spiritual freedom. This fear proved well-founded, for after Saint Tikhon’s death, Metropolitan Sergius, the only guardian of the patriarchal throne remaining in freedom, entered into a policy of collaboration with the Bolsheviks. Zhizhilenko became the first secret Catacomb hierarch, Bishop Maxim of Serpukhov.
Shortly before Saint Tikhon’s death, two men broke into his apartment and murdered his closest friend, Jacob Ostroumoff, who had been with him during his years in America. As might have been expected, there was never any investigation of the murder. This incident completely shattered the Patriarch’s already broken health.
In 1925, on March 25 os, the great feast of the Annunciation, the holy Patriarch died. It still remains an open question as to whether the Communists killed him indirectly, by the intense psychological pressure they had exerted on him, or directly, by poisoning.
A few days after Saint Tikhon’s death, a will was published by the Soviets, which they claimed was Patriarch Tikhon’s. While some historians have accepted this document as authentic, it expresses a level of groveling subservience to the Soviet government and bitter antipathy towards the Russian émigrés and the hierarchy abroad unknown to any of his previous statements. Besides this, there is more than one glaring error of form which makes it extremely doubtful that Saint Tikhon could possibly have authored it. In the supposed will, besides the extreme positions mentioned, there was nothing new, and there were no final spiritual instructions to the flock. The Patriarch had already repeated time and again that the clergy should stay out of politics and that since nothing happened without the will of God, the Soviet government must be accepted.
Throughout his tenure as patriarch, Saint Tikhon was subjected to unremitting pressure from the Bolsheviks. His physical health was destroyed by this, but he remained at his post. As Christ the Lord bore upon His holy shoulders the full weight of man’s sin, suffering, and mortality, so the holy Patriarch bore upon his the full agony of the whole suffering Russian Church, with all its fearful consequences for the clergy and their families, the monks and nuns, and the believing people. In view of this, we should ask ourselves, dear brothers and sisters: Is there even one of the saints in whom we see a clearer reflection of the spiritual image of Christ the Great Sufferer of the Garden of Gethsemane, than in the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon?
Throughout his fiery trial, the saint patiently endured the constant pressure and threats, and continued to embody the ideal of the true pastor in many other ways as well. Amid the constant turmoil, he served the Liturgy almost every day. Warm and humane, he remained as accessible as ever. Despite the continual provocations, his sense of humor never failed, and he never lost his temper. His personality was exactly what was needed to disprove the portrait painted by Communist propaganda of the “fat, selfish monk,” living well on the Church’s riches at the expense of the deluded believers.
Always, but especially in his final years, Saint Tikhon’s constant theme was that the entire Russian nation had sinned, and that all alike -- and not just the atheists -- were in need of repentance and amendment, and must return to God and to the ancestral Orthodox piety. To anyone with a heart, it was evident that his exhortations were based on an all-embracing love.
Dear Christians, as we reflect today on the spiritual struggle of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, let us not forget the chief, the greatest, and the most tragic figure among them, the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow. In his person, he sums up not only the spiritual nobility of all the others, but shows clearly and simply what it means to live as Christ taught and to follow Him humbly. May the life of Saint Tikhon serve as a profound inspiration for us, and may each strive to emulate his blameless example, especially when faced with difficulties and perplexities that demand the qualities the saint so perfectly embodied: bravery, patience, discretion, serenity, and love. Amen.