St. Gregory V,
Patriarch of Constantinople

by the Rev. Anthony Gavalas

Thus does the Holy Orthodox Church honor one of her latter-day saints, for truly the man of whom we now speak was a successor to the apostles in more than rank and position; he was an imitator of him who was imitator of the One, the godly Paul, who in bondage and unto death testified to the freedom that comes with the life in Christ. So, too, the holy Patriarch Gregory, though in constant danger of his life and under continual and ever mounting suspicion on the part of the Sultan because of political tensions within his flock, never ceased to comfort and protect the souls entrusted him by the Good Shepherd, Whom he strove to imitate in all ways – even in the manner of his death at the hands of the enemies of God’s people.

Although the subject of this article is the activity of St. Gregory as Patriarch of Constantinople, let us first review the humble beginnings and the godly life of this servant of God before he was exalted, first to the apostolic throne of Constantinople, then to his place among the glorious martyrs of Christ’s Holy Church.

St. Gregory was born George Angelopoulos in Demetsana of Arcadia in the Peloponnesus, in the year 1745. He received his primary education in the schools of his village, for his father, the shepherd John, was in no position to send him to larger schools.

In 1765, when George was twenty, he was able to go to Athens where he studied for two years under the great teacher Demetrios Vodas, who proved to be a great influence on him. In 1767 he sailed to Smyrna, where he attended the ecclesiastical school of that city, simultaneously working part-time as a sexton under his uncle, Meletios. He then left for the islands, where he became a monk, taking the name Gregory. Some say that he was tonsured on Patmos, but this is not certain. In any case, he was recalled to Smyrna by his fellow Peloponnesian, Metropolitan Procopios, who ordained him deacon and elevated him to the rank of archdeacon. While in this position, the learned Gregory published many works for the edification of the people of Smyrna, among which were an edition of Saint John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Priesthood in simple language, the Ethics and Homilies on the Six Days of Creation of St. Basil, a collection of interpretations of the weekly readings from the Acts and the Epistles of St. Paul, and the Order of Services for the Feast of Saint Photina the Samaritan Woman, patroness of the cathedral of Smyrna. Thereafter, he was ordained to the holy priesthood and served as chancellor of the Metropolis of Smyrna.

As a priest he tasted the bitterness of the failure of the premature revolt of Orlov1 which brought massacre and destruction upon the heads of the Peloponnesians, many of whom fled to Smyrna for asylum. Always a faithful son and brother, St. Gregory was able to bring his father, mother, sisters and brothers to Smyrna for safety. Although he was not involved in the abortive revolt, he saw the tragedy of failure, and it left a deep impression upon him, resulting in that caution which was one of his most characteristic traits in his later days as a hierarch. He was also a witness to the fearsome massacre of Christians in Smyrna in 1797.

In 1785 he was consecrated Metropolitan of Smyrna, succeeding Procopios who had been elected Ecumenical Patriarch. His tenure (1785-1797) was excellent in all respects. An able administrator, he rebuilt the cathedral of Saint Photina, founded many new churches, schools and other institutions. He was a saintly father to his people and a humble man, moved by that genuine humility of Christ which characterizes all good bishops.

Once, when the position that he had taken on a certain question led to much dissension in his flock, the majestic metropolitan, perceiving that he had been wrong, preached in his cathedral on the virtues of concord and peace. Then, wearing his hierarchal vestments, he descended his throne and prostrated himself before the astonished eyes of his people, asking their forgiveness.

Such was the man who, on May 1, 1797, was elected Patriarch of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople for the first of three terms. His reign began amid the uneasiness that the idealism of the French Revolution and the message of Rhigas Pheraios2 had caused among the Greek people. Times were very uncertain, and the Ottoman overlords were suspicious of everyone and everything. The patriarchal throne itself was at a low ebb of authority due to the frequent changing of patriarchs – the result of intrigue among the Greeks themselves.

From the day he became patriarch and throughout his tumultuous reign, St. Gregory never ceased to concern himself with the internal and external order and effectiveness of the patriarchate.

As regards the internal life of the patriarchal household and staff, he established austere rules of order in all matters: divine services, fasts, regular meetings and agendas for sessions of the synod of bishops, as well as other internal business matters. He concerned himself with the ethical conduct of the clergy of all ranks, and taught the proper way of life by his own austere example, for he was a man of asceticism, much given to fasting and mental prayer in the Orthodox tradition. His contemporaries inform us of these things, adding that such traits brought him many enemies, even among his own bishops. He was apostolic in his ways, humble, compassionate, firm and totally dedicated to Christ’s Church, her tradition, and her people. Though an able administrator, his unmercenary character was such as to be almost naive, and at times he would confuse the value of one coin with another.

He rebuilt the patriarchal buildings by public subscription and, with the agreement of the Ottoman government, established a printing press at the patriarchate, the first such press, brought by Patriarch Cyril Lukaris, having been destroyed by Jannissaries at Jesuit instigation in 1628. This press was necessary to the patriarchate, for though it was possible to procure from presses in Europe the necessary liturgical, patristic and literary works, the texts were oftentimes adulterated with heterodox elements. St. Gregory founded patriarchal monasteries, schools and other institutions and supervised the strict and austere life required by Orthodox tradition in the monastic institutions under his jurisdiction. He also issued many encyclicals dealing with the relationship of the throne to her institutions, her people, the Ottoman government, and Christians among themselves, always following the holy canons and pronouncements of ecumenical and local synods with exactness.

Of equal importance was his activity as ethnarch, or national leader of the Christian community, for during his first tenure of office, the holy patriarch was forced by political developments to suppress his people’s nationalistic enthusiasm, lest it lead to mass slaughter. The temporary successes of Napoleon had raised the hopes of the enslaved Greeks, and the Sultan threatened massacre if they did not cease insurrection. St. Gregory sent message after message to quiet the Greeks and wean them away from a false and spiritually harmful alliance with the French, whose anti-church sentiments were yet strong and manifest. It is to be noted that the saintly patriarch was of the opinion that independence would come only when the Greeks themselves were economically and spiritually ready to achieve it by their own means.

Although the capture and execution of Rhigas Pheraios subdued the revolutionary sentiments of the Greeks for a short while, they again began to hope for assistance from the Russians, and as a result, St. Gregory was again placed under Ottoman suspicion, despite his earlier attempts to cool the revolutionary fervor of his people. This suspicion, magnified by the slander of certain bishops whom St. Gregory’s austerity annoyed, resulted in his deposition and exile to Mount Athos in 1798, after a patriarchate of only one and a half years.

While in exile on the Holy Mountain, the patriarch lived at the Monastery of the Great Lavra. There, his exile took the form of a beneficial and spiritually nourishing retreat, and he utilized his time wisely, spending it in prayer and austere spiritual exercises. He preached constantly and spent much time in conversation with the holy fathers of the monasteries and hermitages that he visited often, to the point that he became renowned over the Holy Mountain as a wise and spiritual man. The small stipend sent him from the patriarchate for his own support he gave to the fathers to help them. So it was with grief rather than joy that, after an eight-year exile, he accepted his reelection to the patriarchal throne in October of 1806, succeeding Callinicos V.

And his unhappiness is quite understandable. As with his first patriarchate, St. Gregory began his second tenure in the midst of political turmoil. First, he set about putting the patriarchal administrative machinery in order and paid the debts accumulated by his predecessors. He established order in the Synod and built and renovated churches and schools. But there was more to occupy the patriarch than ecclesiastical business. As a result of Russian activity in the Balkans, Turkey declared war in 1807, and the Sultan ordered St. Gregory to issue an encyclical against Russia to forestall any Greek cooperation with them. This St. Gregory did, not because of any ill-feelings against the Russians on his own part, but because he wanted to avoid the massacres and general enmity that were sure to follow any semblance of an insurrection on the part of the Christian Greeks.

It was the same sentiment and instinct for the protection of his flock that moved the ethnarch to do another thing that is difficult to explain. On February 20, 1807, British naval forces appeared opposite the city, threatening to shell the decayed and weak walls if the alliance then current between Turkey and France were not repudiated by the Porte. As head of the Christian community, patriarch Gregory led them in aiding the Turkish forces to repair the walls sufficiently to repulse the British assault, taking part in the manual labor himself. When the British forces saw that attack would be useless, they left. The Sultan, who had noted the patriarch’s willingness to aid the Empire, rewarded him. Yet the question may be asked, “Why should this Christian hierarch aid the Sultan against another Christian power?” It must be remembered that if the British demands for the annulment of the alliance had been met, Turkey would have been immeasurably weakened, perhaps to the point of dissolution. This is what the patriarch feared, for if Greece were to fall into the hands of the greedy Protestant European powers, it would probably be partitioned among them, destroying forever any hope of a united free Greece. Also the survival of Orthodoxy would be endangered by a zealous invasion of Protestant missionaries, who still viewed the Orthodox as little more than well-intentioned heathens. So we see this great ethnarch acting always within the perspective of his religious and ethnic responsibilities.

A further example of his zeal is his role in the quarrel between the monks of Mount Athos over the question of frequent Holy Communion. Some monks were in favor of communicating at every Divine Liturgy as had the ancient Christians. Others, however, insisted that one may receive Holy Comunion only every forty days. In 1775, Patriarch Theodosios II had written to the monks and, trying to effect a compromise between both sides, said that either view was acceptable. But the quarrel did not cease, and twice, in 1807 and 1819, St. Gregory wrote to the monks, condemning any time-limit on the frequency of Holy Communion and insisting on the necessity of proper preparation and confession as a prerequisite for communion, rather than an arbitrary time limit.

Thrice more during his second patriarchate, St. Gregory was forced to quell sporadic revolutions among the Greeks. It is to his credit that the Ottoman reprisals following these abortive attempts were not of greater magnitude, though the Turks, especially the blood-thirsty Ali Pasha of Ioannina, were merciless in their punishment of the insurgents.

It may be said that the second tenure of St. Gregory was especially fruitful in the field of education, for he founded schools and established courses of study as one having interest in the intellectual as well as the spiritual strength of his people.

Despite his previous activity on behalf of the peaceful deportment of the Christian community, changes within the Ottoman Empire itself, as well as the personal ambition on the part of certain bishops, caused his second deposition and exile in 1808. He was deposed by order of the Vizier Vairaktar, and Callinicos V, whom he had succeeded, was raised uncanonically – without synodical vote – to the patriarchal throne for the second time by a document issued by this same Vizier Vairaktar.

Accepting his deposition with joy, he remained for a few months in a monastery on Prince’s Island from which he was again sent to his beloved Mount Athos. There he took up residence in the same kellia of Iveron in which he had lived for a time during his first exile. He remained ten full years among the fathers of the Holy Mountain, and though immersed in spiritual activity, he maintained contact with his people, who were then preparing for revolution.

In 1818 he was visited by John Pharmakes, who informed him of the activity of the secret revolutionary society “Philike Etaereia”.3 Pharmakes reported that, though the patriarch was favorably disposed toward the objectives of the Etaereia, he declined to join, since if this were discovered by the Ottomans, much would be made of it by them, Gregory still being a prime figure among the Greeks, despite his exile. He also warned against any premature revolution which would have the same tragic consequences as had the previous abortive insurrections. In this opinion, the cautious hierarch agreed with the other patriots Karaes and Kapodistrias4, who also feared the results of an ill-timed attempt to wrest independence from the Ottomans. But the Etaereia would not listen to these voices of counsel, and the insurrection was about to break when St. Gregory ascended the patriarchal throne for the third and final time in January of 1819.

Despite the troubled times, St. Gregory concerned himself primarily with the spiritual well-being of his flock. Again he had to set the administrative mechanism of the patriarchate in order, for it had all but disintegrated in the previous ten years. He reestablished order in all the patriarchal institutions, issued a synodical tome on the importance and proper usage of classical education in schools, and summoned the famous preacher Constantine Oekonomos5 to Constantinople from Smyrna to supervise the preaching of the Gospel.

The usual number of poor in the Constantinopolitan area growing larger day by day as a result of the influx of refugees, the patriarch saw the necessity of founding a “Chest of Mercy”, a fund from which the poor of the city would be helped. As director he placed the Great Dragoman John Callimachos, who was responsible for distributing the money four times a year: at Pascha, Nativity, the feast of the Holy Apostles, and the Dormition of the All Holy Virgin.

In 1820, he reorganized the patriarchal printing press, by which means many spiritually profitable books were published, some of which were the works of the patriarch himself.

This pastoral activity was not to last very long, however. The Philike Etaereia had taken many letters written by the patriarch in support of various schools, the “Chest of Mercy” and other worthy purposes, and had misrepresented them as having been written in code in support of the aims of the Etaereia. Not that the patriarch was against Greek freedom, but as an experienced and responsible leader of the Christian community, he was bound to act with great circumspection. He counselled the same tact and care to all men of authority among the Greeks: his bishops and the revolutionary leaders. But his voice went unheard. When he sent encyclicals against the Greeks who cooperated with Ali Pasha against the Ottomans, these were considered invalid by the revolutionaries as having been sent under duress.

Meanwhile, the patriarch’s position was becoming more and more precarious. Toward the end of 1820 he was notified by the Russian Embassy that his life was in danger, but he is quoted as saying that only a hireling leaves the flock in time of danger, whereas the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his flock.

At the beginning of Lent, in March of 1821, several bishops were jailed or executed as a result of the ill-fated insurrection of Ypsilantes6 in Moldavia. Still the elderly patriarch would not flee. He told his synod that his flight would only bring down tribulation upon the heads of his people, whereas if he were slain, perhaps the other Christian nations would rise up in indignation to aid the embattled Greeks.

It was the declaration of revolution by the Peloponnesians on March 25, 1821, that enraged the Sultan Mahmoud II to the point of demanding a fetfa7 from the Grand Mufti8 of the Moslems for the complete liquidation of the Greeks by a general slaughter. Fortunately nothing came of this command, and instead Mahmoud ordered the disarmament of all Christians and commanded the patriarch by imperial firman9 to issue anathemas against Alexander Ypsilantes and Michael Soutsos, prince of Moldavia, and all those that cooperated with them. The required letter of anathema was issued by the patriarch and the Holy Synod. It is said, however, by some sources, that the patriarch and the synod secretly invalidated the decision that they had issued so unwillingly. In any case, the anathema was ignored, as were all the other letters unfavorable to the plans of the revolutionaries, as having been issued under duress. There is an opinion that the patriarch knew that the anathema would be so considered and issued it, hoping to placate the Turks on the one hand, and on the other, to gain time for the revolution to gain strength.

The amnesty that Mahmoud had promised was ignored, and jailings and executions were common occurrences during the dark Lent of 1821. Again and again the patriarch was urged to flee, but refused; his place was near his flock.

The atmosphere of Holy Week was even more solemn than usual; the usual evening services were performed in the morning, for Christians dared not go into the streets at night.

Having performed the Divine Liturgy of the Resurrection in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 10, the patriarch broke his fast with a little broth in the presence of his bishops, and then withdrew to pray and rest. The day before, the general nature of the revolution in the Peloponnesus had been made known, and his own end was near, for he was the natural scapegoat for the rage of the Turks.

About ten o’clock, Pascha morning, he was summoned to the synodal meeting room where the general secretary of the Turkish Department of State read the order of his deposition and exile on the grounds of his being “... unworthy of the patriarchal throne, unfaithful and ungrateful to the Sublime Porte.”

Though he was to be exiled to Chalcedon, he was taken to the jails of Bostadzembashi where he was tortured to extract the names of those heading the revolution. But the patriarch, if he knew anything, would tell them nothing. They then offered him freedom if he would become a Moslem. Impossible, for he said, “You ask in vain; the patriarch of the Christians dies a Christian.” Then the order came to take him back to the patriarchate, where, while his unwilling successor, Eugenios, was being enthroned in the patriarchal church amid forced happiness, he was hanged before the central gate of the patriarchal compound on April 10, 1821, at the age of 76.10 The reason for his execution was written on a placard and hung on his chest. He was executed, they said, as traitorous and dangerous to the government, being the secret leader of the Peloponnesian revolution, since he himself was from there! The rage of the Turkish mobs in the streets was such that no Greek dared step outside his door. Only the brothers of the Latin monastery of Galata were happy at the occasion, celebrating a Te Deum upon learning that the Greek patriarch had been hanged.

The body of St. Gregory remained hanging for three days, as was usual in cases of this sort, guarded by a detachment of soldiers, as the Turks passed by spitting, maligning, and even beating the bruised body of the aged martyr. After these three days had passed, the authorities sold the relics to a Jewish mob for 800 grosia, although the patriarchate had repeatedly petitioned to be allowed to ransom it for burial. The Jews showed themselves to be no less bestial than the Turks; after they had dragged the battered body through the streets until it was badly mutilated, they tied a heavy stone to the neck and dumped the relics into the Golden Horn. Hearing that this had been done, Patriarch Eugenios and his clergy performed the funeral service for the repose of the soul of the blessed martyr.

Despite the heavy stone tied to it for weight, the relics floated and were spotted by the Greek commander of a Russian ship that was preparing to sail from Galata. The commander, John Sclavos, did not recognize the body as that of the patriarch, never having seen him, but he guessed from the uncut hair and beard that it must be one of the many clerics who had recently fallen victim to the mania of the Turks. Positive identification was tearfully made by the former Grand Chancellor Sophronios. Under cover of darkness they took the relics on board and sailed for Odessa, where reverent ecclesiastical and lay leaders took custody of the body. Although nearly a month had passed since death and the body had been mangled considerably, no trace of decay or corruption could be found. Notified of the arrival in Odessa, Emperor Alexander I sent magnificent episcopal vestments to clothe this father of all Orthodox and ordered a full state funeral for the martyred patriarch, which took place on June 17, 1821, amid general mourning. The relics were enshrined in Odessa’s Greek Church of the Holy Trinity where they remained, honored as those of a saint by Greeks and Russians alike.

In 1871, the Greek government petitioned Emperor Alexander III to permit the relics to be brought to Greece; this permission was granted. Upon their return to Greece, the relics were found to be quite whole, and were enshrined in the metropolitan cathedral of Athens.

Although generally revered as a saint by the Orthodox people of Russia and Greece, it was not until 1921, a hundred years after his martyrdom, that the Church of Greece designated the day of his repose in the Lord, April 10, as the canonically celebrated feast of this great hierarch, who, not only by his glorious death, but also by his godly life, was manifestly a saint.

In conclusion, it would be fitting, perhaps, to quote St. Paul’s words to St. Timothy:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them that love His appearing” (II Tim. 4:7-8).

Nothing more appropriate than this can be quoted as an epilogue to the life of this great martyr, through whose prayers, O Lord, save our souls. Amen.

 

Endnotes:

1. Revolt of Orlov: During the Russo-Turkish War, the Greeks raised a half-hearted rebellion in favor of Catherine II when the fort and harbor of Navarino were captured by Russian forces in April of 1770; this, however, was the single success of the campaign. Greek and Russian forces penetrated the interior of the Peloponnesus, but were confronted and defeated at Tripolitsa by forces, principally Albanian, mustered by the Turkish governor. The rebellion collapsed, and the reprisals were appallingly severe as the Albanians rampaged through the Peloponnesus for ten full years, pillaging and wreaking havoc.

2. Rhigas Pheraios: Greek national poet and patriot. As a youth he had killed a Turkish official and joined the klephts, bands of violently anti-Turkish Greek bandits that inhabited the remote mountainous regions of Greece. Having learned French and German, he left Greece and set up an illegal printing press in Vienna. He planned to return to Greece in 1797 to distribute nationalistic tracts, but was betrayed to the Austrian police, turned over to the Turks, and condemned and executed by the Pasha of Belgrade in 1798. His poems, however, touched the conscience of the Greek people, and were instrumental in effecting a rebirth of patriotism.

3. Philike Etaereia (“Society of Friends”): a secret political society formed in Odessa, Russia, in 1814, for the purpose of organizing a conspiracy of Greeks (many of whom lived abroad), pledged to hasten and control plans for the liberation of Greece.

4. Koraes and Kapodistrias: Adamantios Koraes was an expatriot Greek scholar from Smyrna who settled in Paris in 1788. After the death of Rhigas Pheraios, he helped spread the intellectual ferment already at work among the Greeks by emphasizing their classic heritage and by codifying the contemporary Greek Language. Count John Kapodistrias was a member of the Ionian nobility. A native of Corfu, he entered the Russian diplomatic corps in 1809, determined to do everything possible to protect his fellow Orthodox Greeks under the Ottoman yoke. As Alexander I’s foreign minister, however, he refused to lead the ill-fated revolt instigated by the Philike Etaereia. After the Greek Revolution he was elected the first President of Greece in April of 1827. In 1831 he was assassinated while entering church to participate at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday.

5. Constantine Oekonomos (1780-1857): Greek scholar, theologian and patriot whose fame rests principally on his monumental work on the authenticity of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament entitled On the Seventy Translators (Athens, 4 vols., 1844-9). He made it one of his chief aims to oppose the Western influences in Greek religious life which were gaining increasing prominence and force as early as the mid-1700’s.

6. Prince Alexander Ypsilantes: A prominent noble, and his brother Demetrios, both officers of the Russian army, crossed into Moldavia with their forces on March 6, 1821, and raised the flag of Greek independence at Jassy. This invasion was doomed from the outset, as the Russian imperial government did not actively support it.

7. Fetfa (or fetwa): A decision given, usually in writing, by a mufti or other Moslem judicial authority.

8. Grand Mufti: In the Ottoman Empire this title was restricted to the official head of the state religion. The term itself is used generally in reference to a Moslem jurist or expounder of the law of the Koran.

9. Firman: An edict or order issued by the Ottoman sultan, usually constituting a grant, licence, or passport.

10. This is how the scene is described by an Anglican minister who was there at the time: “The old man (he was close to eighty years old) was dragged under the gateway where the rope was passed through the staple that fastened the folding doors, and was left to struggle in his robes with the agonies of death. His body, attenuated by abstinence and emaciated by age, had not sufficient weight to cause immediate death. He continued for a long time in pain which no friendly hand dared abridge, and the darkness of night came over before his final convulsions were over...” (Rev. R. Walsh, A Residence at Constantinople (London: 1826), vol. I, pp. 315-316. The patriarch’s two deacons were dragged to the other doorways of the Patriarchate where they were hanged in a similar manner. Many other bishops and prominent laymen were hanged in different parts of the Phanar quarter. It is estimated that thirty thousand Greeks – men, women and children – perished throughout the empire because of the insurrection. The insurrection did not stop. It continued, and with the help of God freedom was won. (Quoted from The Religious Question Box, a column by Rev. George J. Tsoumas in The Hellenic Chronicle of Oct. 7, 1969.)

 

Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 28, No. 2, March-April 1978, pg. 3-7, 20-26, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.

 


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