As a zealous advocate of the Orthodox faith,
As a caring Solicitor for the land of Russia,
Faithful to the rules and image of a pastor,
Preaching repentance and life in Christ,
An awesome servant and administer of God’s sacraments,
A daring intercessor for people’s sake,
O Good and righteous Father John,
Healer and wonderful miracle-worker,
The praise of the town of Kronstadt
And decoration of our Church,
Beseech the All-Merciful God
To reconcile the world and to save our souls!
Troparion — Tone 1
Saint John of Kronstadt was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990. He is commemorated on December 20 (Repose) and June 8 (Glorification).
During the last two decades of his life Father John Sergieff (1829-1908) acquired a wide reputation among the Orthodox population of Russia as a living saint and a great thaumaturge; even now many devout people expect that he will be canonized. The extraordinary significance of his personality is in the fact that Father John was not a monk or a hermit or even a staretz of the kind represented by St. Seraphim or the startzy of the Optina cloister, but a secular, married priest with a parish in the fortress town of Kronstadt close by the capital, St. Petersburg. No member of the secular clergy has found a place in the calendar of Russian saints and, as a matter of fact, the secular clergy as a social class has never been held in good repute by the Russian people. If a new "spiritual" type of priest has become more common during the last generation, this is partly attributable to the example and inspiration of Father John.
The life of John of Kronstadt was one of the simplest, lacking in all dramatic external events. He was the son of a poor village deacon in a remote northern province of Arkhangelsk. Although he was by no means brilliantly gifted intellectually, he nevertheless succeeded in passing through all the stages of education for the priesthood, including the highest, that of the theological academy in St. Petersburg. He was appointed to the parish of Kronstadt in 1855 and never abandoned this modest living to avail himself of a more advantageous position. His spiritual growth was gradual, marked by no crises of conversion. After three decades, his influence had spread far beyond the limits of his small town; from all parts of Russia people came to him, or sent telegrams imploring his prayers for the sick and dying. Sometimes he made journeys in order to give assistance to persons whose difficulties required his presence. Some of those who took counsel with him belonged to the social élite, and he was known and loved in the court of the last two tsars. When Alexander III was dying (1894) in Livadia (Crimea), Father John was called from Kronstadt to administer the last Sacrament.
During the long term of his priesthood Father John preached a great number of sermons, which were collected in various editions, but more important than these is the spiritual diary which was published under the title "My Life in Christ". From his diary and the reminiscences of a vast number of his contemporaries concerning him, the salient features of Father John’s spirituality can be grasped. Perhaps in the present context the originality of his religious genius can best be realized by what might be called the negative approach: a statement of what he was not.
First of all, Father John was not an ascetic but was content with rejecting the world interiorly and living according to the precepts of the Church. He was not a mystic in any strict sense, nor indeed a contemplative with a taste for solitude. He was not given to the practice of any technique of mental prayer and based none of his teaching on the Philocalia. The chief source of his inspiration, apart from his own intuitions, was the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, which he quotes abundantly. He had not even an inclination towards the kenoticism of ancient Russia: not only did he not seek humiliation, but he had an innocent weakness for rich silken cassocks given him by his admirers, and his portraits show him with his breast covered with cordons, stars, and crosses.
In all these characteristics is will be seen that he deviates sharply from the main pattern of Russian sanctity. But, to take the positive approach to his character: he was most certainly a charitable man, a great benefactor of the poor; through his hands enormous sums passed to be distributed among the needy. Yet the works of charity were not his chief claim to distinction. Although he was active and generous in both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, he did not radiate the angelic love of a Seraphim, nor was spiritual guidance, as a prolonged, attentive, training of souls, his vocation. His specific role was that of a praying priest. He was a genius of prayer and a teacher of prayer. All his works of healing were effected by insistent, assiduous prayer, usually in union with the prayer of his patients and their friends. He was simply convinced that God cannot refuse to hear the prayer of insistent petition accompanied by the oblation of self.
The first quality of his prayer was its power. He knew, of course, the sweetness of prayer, but he did not seek it. He was not disinterested in the fashion of a mystic, but went into the presence of God to intercede for a soul, to obtain forgiveness for sin, or to pour out his troubled heart. His prayer was as intense and emotional as that of a prophet; it was miracle-working prayer. Its foundation was an extremely alert and constant awareness of the presence of God. The reality of the invisible, for Father John, was overwhelming, immediate, experimental; his faith was neither theoretical nor symbolical, but intense; he knew temptation and sin indeed, but apparently doubt was not part of his experience.
As a priest, Father John had a fruitful experience of liturgical prayer, and the influence he excited in bringing the Eucharist to the fore was his chief legacy to the Russian Church. Whenever he celebrated Mass, he was penetrated by a vivid awareness of the transcendent drama which was being enacted. He could not keep the prescribed measure of liturgical intonation: he called out to God; he shouted; he wept in face of the visions of Golgotha and the Resurrection which presented themselves to him with such shattering immediacy. To him the liturgical mystery was a profound, living experience, and he was eager for the active participation of the congregation in it. In contradiction of the unfortunate practice still prevalent in Russia of rare, for the most part yearly, communion, he demanded that all who came to his church should communicate with him. The Russian custom prescribes confession immediately preceding each communion. Since Father John could obviously not hear the confessions in private of thousands at each Mass, he daringly established the unheard-of practice of general, vocal confession. It was an impressive, even a terrifying, spectacle: thousands of people shouting aloud their most secret sins and sobbing for forgiveness; all the barriers of ecclesiastical order and propriety were transgressed. Only a friend of the tsar could have been permitted to introduce such an innovation. No priest in Russia ventured to follow Father John’s example with regard to vocal confession, but the practice of frequent communion was now initiated. Father John had set in motion the Eucharistic and liturgical revival in the Russian Church.
This was the single instance of initiative in reform on the part of John of Kronstadt; otherwise, his attitude towards the Church was that of conservative obedience. Living outside modern cultural movements, he remained untouched by the liberal thought of his time, and retained political views which were likewise highly conservative. He never separated in his mind the destiny of the Russian monarchy from that of the Church, and when the first revolution came (1905), drawing with it not only the intelligentsia but also the great masses of peasants and workers, Father John stood with the extreme reactionaries for the imperial absolutism. At that time he became the target of all the liberal papers and was hated in left-wing circles above all prominent figures of the day. It must indeed be admitted that his views on social questions were very narrow and medieval, but as a teacher of prayer, he will live in the memory of the Russian people.
From "A Treasury of Russian Spirituality" by Georgy Petrovich Fedotov (1886-1951)
St. John of Kronstadt was born in the village of Sura in Archangel province on October 19, 1829, and was called John in honor of St. John of Rila (August 18). His parents were very poor but were very devoted to the Church. Even though he was poor, as a young boy John learned to feel compassion for others in their misfortune. His neighbors frequently asked him to pray for them, as they noticed this special grace-endowed gift in him. When John was ten, his parents were able to raise some money and send him to the local school which was attached to the church. At first, the boy had an extremely difficult time with his studies. He worked for days on end, but still failed to keep up.
Writing about his life he once recalled an evening when everyone had already gone to bed. “I could not sleep, and I still failed to understand anything I was taught. I still read poorly and could not remember anything I was told. I became so depressed I fell to my knees and began to pray. I don’t know whether I had spent a long time in that position or not, but suddenly something shook my whole being. It was as if a veil had fallen from my eyes, and my mind had been opened, and I remembered clearly my teacher of that day and his lesson. I also recalled the topic and the examples he had given. I felt so light and joyous inside.” After this experience he did so well he became one of the first in his class to be chosen to go to seminary, and after seminary to the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg (a great honor at that time).
Throughout his studies, John thought about the importance of forgiveness, meekness, and love, and came to believe that these were the very center and power of Christianity, and that only one path—the path of humble love—leads to God and the triumph of His righteousness. He also thought a great deal about the Savior’s death on the Cross at Golgotha, and pitied those who did not know Jesus Christ. He wished to preach to them about His death and Resurrection. He dreamed about becoming a missionary to distant China, but saw that there was a great deal of work for a genuine pastor of Christ’s flock both in his own city and the surrounding towns.
When John graduated from the Academy he met Elizabeth Nesvitsky who lived in the town of Kronstadt. They dated, he proposed, and they were married. After his studies, John still desired to learn more about his faith and his Church.
It was in this frame of mind that he prepared to be a priest and to enter public ministry. He was ordained a deacon on December 10, 1885, and then priest on December 12. He was assigned to St. Andrew’s Cathedral in the city of Kronstadt. He said, “I made myself a rule to be as sincere as possible in my work, and of strictly watching myself and my inner life.”
Fr. John wanted most of all to earn the love of the people in his care, because only a loving attitude could provide the firm support and help he needed as he faced the difficult work of the priesthood. His constant thought was how he would come before the Last Judgment and have to give an account, not only for his own deeds, but also the deeds of his flock, for whose education and salvation he was responsible. To him no one was a stranger; everyone who came to him for help became a friend and relative. He would tell people “The Church is the best heavenly friend of every sincere Christian.” He conducted divine services daily and offered the prayers of the faithful. He called all who rarely receive Holy Communion to prepare themselves and live their lives in a Christian way so that they could receive more often. Listening to Fr. John, many people changed their lifestyle, repented sincerely, and joyfully received Holy Communion on a regular basis.
At that time the government exiled murderers, thieves and other criminals to Kronstadt. Life was horrible for the exiles. Even children of exiles would become thieves and criminals. He would go to their dugouts, hovels and shacks to visit with them. Not satisfied with staying for five or ten minutes to administer some rite and then leave, Fr. John believed he was coming to visit a priceless soul, his brothers and sisters. He would stay for hours, talking, encouraging, comforting, crying, and rejoicing together with them.
From the beginning he also concerned himself with the material needs of the poor. He would shop for food, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, to the doctor for help, many times giving the poor his last few coins. The inhabitants of Kronstadt would see him returning home barefoot and without his cassock. Often parishioners would bring shoes to his wife, saying to her, “Your husband has given away his shoes to someone, and will come home barefoot.” He would also write articles for the newspaper exhorting the people of Kronstadt to “support the poor morally and materially.” These appeals touched the hearts of many and Fr. John organized many charitable efforts. Realizing that his individual charity was insufficient for aiding the needy, he founded the Orthodox Christian House Parish Trusteeship of St. Andrew the First-Called. This brotherhood coordinated many charitable efforts throughout the city and helped many needy people.
In 1857, he began teaching in the local city schools. He would tell people, “If children cannot listen to the Gospel, it is only because it is taught like any other subject, with boredom and indifference. Such teaching defeats the purpose of the Gospel. It fails because it forces students only to read words and memorize them instead of making them live in their lives.” To Fr. John there were no incapable students. He taught in such a way that poor pupils as well as good ones were able to understand. His attention was aimed not so much at forcing students to memorize as to fill their souls with the joy of living according to Christian values, sharing with them the holy thoughts which filled his soul.
When speaking to other priests about their vocation he would say, “You are a representative of the faith of the Church, O priest; you are a representative of Christ the Lord Himself. You should be a model of meekness, purity, courage, perseverance, patience, and lofty spirit. You are doing the work of God and must not let anything discourage you.”
St. John has performed more miracles than almost any other saint, with the possible exception of St. Nicholas. Through his prayers he healed the sick, gave hope to the hopeless, and brought sinners to repentance.
Fr. John labored endlessly in his work for the Lord preaching, teaching, and helping those in need. Having spent his entire life serving God and His people, Fr. John fell ill and died on December 20, 1908. Almost immediately, people from near and far began to make pilgrimages to the monastery where he was buried. Even today millions of Orthodox Christians in Russia and around the world pray to him to intercede for them as he had always done from his childhood.
St. John was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church on June 8, 1990.