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EMILIANOS TIMIADIS [Metropolitan of Silyvria]

A Lesson from the Byzantine Missionaries

The Heritage of Patriarch Photius

One of the pioneers in adapting the gospel to the culture, language and particularities of a given indigenous nation or society was Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (810-895). He was a great scholar, philosopher and missionary. Visualizing the conversion of populations, he inspired and prepared competent preachers and evangelists to send to the Balkan countries. It was during his time that Cyril and Methodius, both born in Thessalonica, were sent to central and eastern Europe to convert the Slavs, Czechs, Moravians and Poles, whom they taught in the vernacular. There is historical evidence that the first voice of the gospel was heard in these regions from these two brothers. Photius defended pluralism and liberty in a time of a monolithic latinization. Theological symposia are held in many Orthodox countries in order to show the relevance and the timely message of Photius for an inculturization effort and for the contextual proclamation of faith.

Photius enumerated and strongly recommended as a very legitimate practice the use of different spoken languages and cultures in different churches of his time with all their different dialects, expressions and idioms.

The impact of historical upheavals, social changes, political reformations and migration of rural populations was above all a summons to Photius that the church, in proclaiming the gospel to young nations, should address itself to the totality of the life of people. He realized that Orthodoxy could no longer afford to maintain a passive, defensive attitude nor could it be absorbed only by doctrinal debates with heretics. He refused a self-defensive attitude of all that patristic heritage bestowed on the Byzantine world. The church could no longer protect its identity by isolation; east and central European societies in the ninth and tenth centuries were constantly accelerating their pace toward rapid change and modernization. Slowly this outstanding ecclesiastical leader was beginning to see the need to venture out of the enclaves. He dared to announce to the Balkan world that what is relevant to Byzantine society is equally useful to them.

There is danger in riches. The manna in the wilderness could not be stored, not even from day to day (Ex. 15,14, 35; Deut. 29:5-6). Israel had to trust that the gift would be renewed as needed, and those who worked to keep this lavish gift, preserving it for future use, found that it spoiled overnight. That was a warning for Byzantium, which was hesitant towards expansion of the faith. To be guardian of the faith (phylax pisteos) was not enough. They sought a bold recapturing of the fearless risky creativity of their great fathers. Such thoughts stimulated Photius’ plans to make Orthodoxy known in the context of the realities.

The missionary projects of Photius were due also to his far-reaching vision of the geographical place of the Byzantine world, which included territories that had formerly belonged to the partes Occidentis of the Roman Empire. O special importance were neighboring Bulgar and Slav territories, which were profoundly imbued with Byzantine influence. During the ninth and early tenth centuries it lost the major part of Macedonia, of Thrace, of Thesaly, of Epirus, and of Dalmatia, which were ruled by the Slavonic tribes. Prince Boris, who had himself been baptized and was resolved to promote the conversion of his people to Christianity, sent for Byzantine missionaries in 869. The Slavonic liturgical language and the so-called “Glagolitic” alphabet, on the basis of the Greek, were adopted in Bulgaria. The success of Orthodox penetration is attributed to its process of fusion with the culture and local traditions, resulting in an original civilization development, profoundly marked by Byzantine influences. The art of the “Macedonian Renaissance,” like that of the sixth century, made its influence felt afar; Armenia, Russia, and even Italy were indebted to it and the writings of Michael Psellos show with what intensity the philosophy of Plato and the classical authors were being studied to serve theology and humanistic education.

Photius’ vision to proclaim the gospel to far distant countries emanates from a human compassion and principle that spiritual treasures must be shared and not be kept exclusive to a few. This is reflected in his efforts to civilize the barbarians of the north. He was the first to reach the Scandinavian Pus, through them also the Russians of Kiev. His far- sighted views inspired him to establish a school of Slavonic studies at Constantinople –a seminary for providing priests to the Slavs. A fervent worker and universal champion for the promotion of culture as a Christian humanist, he was educator of all peoples within and outside Byzantium. Thus, he became friendly with Muslims, and it is well known that he held close bonds with the Islamic Emir of Crete, even though differences in religion often were a barrier.

The two letters addressed by Nicolas I Mysticus (912-925), patriarch and successor to Photius, deserve some notice for the light they throw on the broad ideas of respect of Islamic values, and on the determination to cultivate friendship with people of non-Christian ideologies and faiths. As we know, Nicolas had been the pupil of Photius, and he reproduces the ideas of his spiritual father on the relations between Orthodox Christians and the Muslim world. These letters are addressed to the Emir of Crete:

“Two sovereignties –that of the Saracens and that of the Romans, that is the East Roman Empire- surpass all sovereignty on earth, like the two great lights in the firmament. For this one reason, if for no other, they ought to be partners and brethren. We ought not, because we are separated in our ways of life, our customs, and our worship, to be altogether divided; nor ought we to deprive ourselves of communication with one another by correspondence, in default of personal intercourse. This is the way we ought to think and act, even if no other necessity of our affairs compelled us to it….

Your wisdom cannot have failed to notice that the greatest among the high priests o God, the famous Photius, my father in the Holy Spirit, was united to the father of your Highness by bonds of friendship; so much so that no other man of his faith and country was so friendly to yours. For being a man of God and great in the knowledge of divine and human things, he knew that even if the dividing wall of worship stood between us, nevertheless the gifts of practical wisdom, sagacity, stability of behavior, knowledge, and all the other gifts that adorn and exalt human nature by their presence, kindle in those who love what is good for a friendship for those who possess the qualities they love.(1)

From these reflections we gather to what extent Photius was able to recognize the positive values in Islam. His broadmindedness and high esteem for non-Christians made him believe that an eventual dialogue could bridge many prejudices between two monotheistic religions.

Photius was also occupied by renewal. It was his earnest desire to consolidate an authentic spirituality by training men and women of God, under the guidance of hermits and contemplatives. A number of novitiate candidates came from Slavonic areas to settle in the community of the presbyter ascetic Arsenius in Constantinople. Photius, writing to Arsenius, gives instructions that all these be trained to a godly monastic ethos, so that upon their return they will be able to promote askesis wider in the society. It seems that Arsenius succeeded in training many, and this explains the sainthood bestowed upon him by the Bulgarians. Photius wanted to cover all the needs of a newly born Christian nation, thus attaching great importance to monasticism which always renders inestimable services for renewal, mission, national unity and to many intellectuals.(2)

By temperament Photius was not content that only a few parts of the earth were converted to Christ. His higher visions made him passionately anxious to introduce Christianity to more distant nations and, if possible, the whole inhabited world. Historians give witness to his numerous contacts and his sending of missionaries to Armenia, to the Black Sea regions. But Europe was for him a priority concern. He visualized the extension of the universal church to all corners of the earth, but these corners do not have a static terminal. They are the continually renewed beginning of an infinitive way of proclaiming God’s love to the nearest human being. Here lies the inner mystery of the ecclesia, a mystery that is accomplished with the newly converted nations.

So, in defending such broad principles, Photius in the local council of 879-880, established the principle of pluralism. As a result of this, each local church, being autocephalous (self-governing vis-ΰ-vis Roman centralism) enjoyed independence in formulating and arranging its own traditions and customs without outside interference or urging. Since then, we have a solution to the thorny issue of harmonizing unity and diversity (the one and the many). Even prior to Photius, Athanasius of Alexandria had stated that “the Logos of God has decorated the order of all things, by putting aside the contrary with the contrary, and from all these constructing one harmony.”(3)

Cyril of Jerusalem left us an excellent simile with the operation of the Spirit of God which offers us water for eternal life (John 4:14). By penetrating into the plants and trees, water gives us the whiteness of the lilies, the redness of the rose, the purple of the violets and hyacinths, other colors to dates and the vine leaves. The Holy Spirit, although being One and undivided, distributes grace to each, thus creating a variety of characters and personal or ethnic conditions.(4)


1. P.G.,III 28 and 36-37.

2. Epistolae 95, pp. 102, 904-5. (For more information on this subject see Constantine Tsirpanlis, “St Photius as Missionary and True Ecumenical Father,” The Patristic and Byzantine Review, No 3, 1983, New York.)

3. Contra Graec, 42.

4. Catechesis 16,pp. 33, 932-33

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