St. Sergius of Radonezh

(1314 – 1392)

Here is a leading fourteenth-century Russian monk who was canonized by the separated Russian Orthodox Church but accepted by Pope Pius XII as a saint in the Roman Catholic Greek-rite calendar.

Sergius, baptized Bartholomew, was born into a noble Russian family of Rostov in 1314. During his youth, the princes of Moscow were bent on establishing their power. That meant a campaign against Rostov; and Batholomew’s parents, for self-protection, left their property behind and fled to the village of Radonezh. To sustain themselves after that, his folks had to become peasants, tillers of the soil. Thus their noble son grew up in poverty.

After his parents Cyril and Mary died, Bartholomew, in 1335, was able to fulfill his enduring dream to become a hermit. Prior to that century, Russia had had many great Greek-rite monasteries in or near cities; but the invading Tartars, in destroying the cities, also did great harm to these monastic institutions. In seeking to become a hermit in the Russian forests, Bartholomew was one of the leaders in this variant form of monastic life. The Russian hermits were called “pustiniky”, or “wilderness men”. When Bartholomew built a hut and chapel of timber in the woods of Makovka, the archbishop of Kiev sent a priest to bless the chapel in the name of the Holy Trinity. Bartholomew now took the religious name Sergius, and spent the next few years completely alone, struggling by prayer, self-denial and hard labor to achieve self-mastery. In this effort he resembled the saints who centuries before had striven for holiness in the Egyptian deserts, only here the desert was not sand but woodland, and the physical enemy was not burning heat but bitter cold. In his closeness to nature, Sergius resembled St. Francis of Assisi; still, he was no Italian, but a rugged Slav who “smelt of fresh fir wood.”

As in Egypt, so also in Russia, other men, learning of his spiritual prowess, came and asked hermit Sergius to become his disciples. The twelve original applicants each built their own huts. Sergius consented to become their abbot, and was ordained to the priesthood. After that, Holy Trinity Monastery grew in size and prosperity.

Eventually, however, the monks of Holy Trinity had a falling out. Some wanted to retain the original hermit-like approach. Others, including Sergius himself, favored a more communal life. Rather than quarrel over the issue, Abbot Sergius withdrew and started another monastery near Makrish. Four years later, however, since the original monastery had meanwhile gone into a decline, the monks of Holy Trinity successfully begged him to return to them. By this time, Sergius has won a national reputation as a man of rare wisdom. Thus, in 1380, Dmitry Donskoy, Prince of Moscow, asked the abbot’s blessing on his struggle with the Tartars. Sergius blessed him and told him to attack the foe without fear: “God will be with you.” Dmitry met the enemy at Kulikovo Polye and sent them flying. It was a decisive battle in Russian history. Thereafter, Abbot Sergius was in constant demand as a reconciler of discords in both church and state. He fulfilled these demands on his talents in all humility, always journeying on foot to his mission. More than once he spurned the invitation to become a bishop and the national primate. He became much more than that: he was the chief unifying agent of the Russian people.

Sergius of Radonezh died in 1392, aged 78. He was not a brilliant man, nor a learned man, nor even a great preacher; but he was a man of committed poverty and utter sincerity, and many miracles were attributed to him. However, the main reason why he attracted countless devotees both great and small was the warmth of loving attention that he gave to all who sought his help. Catholics as well as Russian Orthodox properly recognize in him a saint for all seasons.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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