We knew that Russia wouldn’t stop at the Crimea, but now they’ve gone too far. Just days before March 17, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it has added to its official liturgical calendar, known as the Menaion, 15 saints from Western Europe. The most famous of these is St. Patrick, who will be venerated by the Russian Orthodox under the name, “St. Patrick the Enlightener.” Patrick, famously, enlightened the Irish by bringing them the Christian gospel. I think it’s a pretty nifty title.
Now, I’ve been a saints fanatic, since I was a kid. My fifth grade teacher, Sister Patricia Thomas, called in my mother to complain that I knew the stories of more saints than she did. And she had me dead to rights. At the time, however, it struck me as a strange charge to make against my 10-year-old, parochial school, budding altar-boy self. But with time, comes understanding, and today I recognize Sister’s complaint for what it was — a simple case of professional rivalry.
After looking over the list and reading the Russians’ criteria, there is no way this decision can be viewed as saint poaching. The saints they’ve assumed into their calendar all lived and died before 1054, the year of the Great Schism in the Church, when the pope in Rome excommunicated the patriarch in Constantinople and the patriarch returned the favor. Since The American Spectator is a family publication, I will not sully its pages by rehearsing the theological brouhaha that led to the schism. Sad to say, and this is serious if you’re Orthodox or Catholic, after all these centuries, Eastern and Western Christianity have never reconciled.
In some places, especially in Orthodox lands, the ill-feelings can be pretty intense. That great papal gallivanter, John Paul II, tried repeatedly throughout his 27-year-long papacy to visit Russia, but over and over again, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch rejected the idea. A gentleman from the island of Rhodes, a man I’ve been friends with for more than 30 years, has told me that some Greek Orthodox have never forgiven Catholics for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. It seems old wounds and long memories have soured the hopes for some kind of rapprochement between the Churches.
Be that as it may, the 15 saints don’t drag around that baggage. Saints such as the Martyrs of Lyon, who were killed about the year 177, and Alban — Britain’s first martyr, who was executed about 304 — and Genevieve — one of the patron saints of Paris, who died in 512 — lived at a time when Christianity was united. But there was a deal-breaker in the Russians’ criteria: If any pre-Schism saint had been a theologian whose writings were used to support the Catholic side of the controversy and disparage the Orthodox, then that saint could not be added to the approved list of saints. And I get that. Martin Luther may have been a hoot and a half during Oktoberfest, but no pope will ever canonize him.
I expect Orthodox hymnographers are at work writing a new liturgical piece for St. Patrick. I hope a recording of it shows up on YouTube soon — the Orthodox compose gorgeous church music.
And I can’t help wondering, after church on St. Patrick’s Day, will Russians head to a bar for a few shots of green vodka?
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints.