St. Vladimir of Kiev

(died 1015 A.D.)

Christianity was established in A.D. 988 in the original Russia, the Kievan Rus’. It was Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev on the Dnieper, who brought about this national conversion.

Kiev was on the main travel and commercial route between the Baltic Sea and Constantinople on the Black Sea. Prince Oleg, who had captured Kiev around 882, was a Viking, as was his descendant Vladimir; but most of the people that these Norsemen came to rule over were eastern Slavs. There were some Christians in the area before Vladimir took over the government, but the local pagans usually mocked them for their belief. Around 955, however, Vladimir’s grandmother, Princess Olga, a woman of piety and executive ability, became a Christian. She tried to persuade her son Prince Svyatoslav to bring his people into the Christian fold. Svyatoslav did not do so, but his son and successor Vladimir saw the wisdom of St. Olga’s desire.

Vladimir, on his ascension to power, was young, ambitious and shrewd. In his early years he had been as harsh and willful a man as most of his princely contemporaries. Still, he realized that it would be advantageous to have all Rus’ united in the same faith. The old Russian Chronicle says that he looked into several religions before deciding which to choose; then he sent delegations to centers of these faiths to report back to him on the impressions they got of them and their worship. Thus one delegation visited the Latin Rite church (probably among the Germans); another the Greek-rite church at Constantinople. It was the delegation sent to Constantinople that came back most enthused about their experiences. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

Vladimir therefore chose to affiliate with the patriarchate of Constantinople, adopting the liturgy of Byzantium, but designating as its liturgical language not Greek but the vernacular Slavonic, which had been developed by SS. Cyril and Methodius among the western Slavic people. First the prince sought baptism himself. That was a tough decision. To marry a Christian princess from Constantinople he had to dismiss his pagan wives and mistresses. But he took the challenge manfully, and thereafter became noted for his Christian delicacy of conscience, his penances for faults and his care of the poor.

Once a Christian, the Grand Prince brought in priests to baptize the people of Kiev. On his order, the citizens of that capital gathered on the banks of the Dnieper in 988, and were baptized en masse in the waters of the river. Now this sort of “command baptism” is certainly not the ideal approach, although Clovis and other medieval barbarian lords followed the same practice. More important, in this case, was Prince Vladimir’s genuine effort thereafter to spread the Christian faith throughout his domains by building churches, by founding schools for the promotion of Christian knowledge, and by encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Muscovite Russia and White Russia (Belarus) have long since been separated from Rome. But it must not be forgotten that when St. Vladimir had his people baptized, although of Greek rite, they were in union with the pope, and that the principal heirs today of the Kievan Rus’ are the Ukrainians, whose church was reunited with the Holy See in 1595. (There are two churches of Catholic Ukrainians in Rochester today: St. Josaphat on East Ridge Road and Epiphany on Carter Street.)

Prince St. Vladimir died in 1015. On his deathbed, he gave away all his possessions to his friends and the poor.

The Ukrainian Catholics, liberated from the USSR since 1989, now join their immigrant colleagues in honoring the Bishop of Rome, for loyalty to whom they have suffered so much over the centuries. May St. Vladimir protect them!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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