Today is the Feast of St. Photius the Great.
That’s right. Saint Photius. He’s recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church, and has a feast day on the Byzantine Catholic calendar. For many, this might come as a surprise. St. Photius is remembered by many as being a staunch critic of Roman authority and the filioque. Many think, wrongly, that he died in schism from Rome, and so think he cannot be a saint. But this is not true. At the Fourth Council of Constantinople, Photius reconciled with Rome.
It is true Saint Photius fought against Rome, and that he thought Rome backed the wrong claimant to the See of Constantinople. However, when his rival died, he had his rival canonized. Holiness is spread around, and it often found in people who, for one reason or another, have harsh words of criticism for each other during their temporal lives. One can recognize holiness without having to agree with everything the holy person said. One can even be wrong about the holiness of others and still be holy oneself: all one has to do is look to the harsh criticism St. Cyril of Alexandria had for St. John Chrysostom and one can see how the saints sometimes behave badly. Holiness is a gift of grace given by God which has been taken in and acted upon by the saint. St. Cyril, like his uncle, Theophilus, fought long and hard for the authority of Alexandria over Constantinople similar to the way St. Photius fought for the autocephalous authority of Constantinople over Rome. Political fights can sometimes lead people away from grace, but it does not always do so. We must not confuse holiness for infallibility, nor expect impeccability for the saints.
Outside of his controversial fight for the See of Constantinople, St. Photius was a great religious scholar. His work and contributions can be seen, in a way, similar to St. Jerome. God allows even grumpy, antagonistic men to be saints. Their work, their contribution, their willingness to follow the direction of God in a way God wanted them to work in this life allows for their holiness to be manifest despite their personal failings. Photius’s scholarship brought a humanistic overtone to theological endeavors. His interests, it is said, were more of practical matters than theory, something which we should remember even today. Theory is important, but prudence is also important. We must strive to find the right praxis, not content on pistis (faith) alone. But perhaps the greatest lesson is the way God works in the world, the way God promotes people to sainthood: God is full of surprises as he elevates rivals to a common brotherhood. This should help keep our feet firmly on the ground, realizing that many of our debates with one another often are unimportant on a soteriological level. Striving for the truth through a path of love is what is important. We might err, but if we are open to grace, it can and will perfect us.
Follower of the Apostles’ way
And teacher of mankind:
Intercede, O Photius, with the Lord of all,
To grant peace to the world
And to our souls great mercy! (Troparion of Saint Photius)