Saint of the Day: St. Photios the Great

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Photios, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)

At any time in world history the eminent St. Photios would have been an awe-inspiring picture, but in the ninth century he was a fantastic mirror of mankind created in the image of God. Master of every form of human expression, a genius in militarism, politics and theology, he tempered his every action with a genuine humility which culminated in an ascension to the high office of patriarch. At home with prince and peasant alike, he was all things to all men, daring in political intrigue, artful in clerical and lay diplomacy, and extremely eloquent in defense of the faith in Jesus Christ.

A brilliant scholar, soldier, statesman and theologian, Photios was born in 820, a period when Byzantine culture was writing the brightest chapter in world history. With prodigious talents suited to that era, his life spanned seven decades, during which his glorification of God and man earned him the titles of “Great Star of the Church,” “Father,” “Doctor,” “Confessor,” “Isapostolos” (Equal-to-the-apostles), and finally the ultimate in titles – that of “Saint.” In this cultural atmosphere, however, strewn in the path of all men in public life were the many pitfalls of church-state power maneuvering, plots and counter-plots which Photios managed to survive in an unswerving approach to immortality.

The brilliant but checkered career of Photios began with military service during the reign of Emperor Michael III, son of Theophilos, and extended through the rules of Basil I and then Leo VI. From captain of the guard, a post in which he first displayed excellence, he was elevated to imperial secretary, the highest political office in the realm.

This was an office whose prominence allowed Photios to display fully his abundant talents, among which were oratory, literature, philosophy, medicine and theology. Inasmuch as church and state functions overlapped, the complete politician was of necessity a knowledgeable theologian; given this set of circumstances, even the high office of patriarch was within reach of Photios, who was yet a layman.

In a power struggle led by Bardas, uncle of the youthful Emperor Michael III, the incumbent Patriarch Ignatios was forced to vacate his office, whereupon there were set in motion formalities compressed into one week, for which many a patriarch labored a lifetime, to assure thesuccession to the patriarchal throne by Photios, the undisputed intellectual leader of the Empire. In the span of seven days, Photios was tonsured a monk by Bishop Gregory of Syracuse, then a reader, followed in rapid sucession daily by the successive offices of deacon, priest and finally ecumenical patriarch on Christmas Day, 858.

Photios had scarcely launched his career when another series of political maneuvers culminated with the assassination of the emperor and the succession to the Byzantine throne by Basil. Having been the favorite of the dead emperor, Photios found himself deposed by the successor, but in a short period of time was induced to return as royal tutor. Basil was not one to waste a mind such as that of the renowned Photios. When the reinstated Ignatios died, the Emperor Basil set aside all other considerations and gave the patriarch’s seat to Photios, a choice he made clear should remain unchallenged by rival factions.

As the Byzantine Empire’s chief vicar of Christ, Photios wrote one of the brightest chapters in the history of Orthodoxy, a chapter which unfortunately was tarnished by the troublesome dissidents whose clamorous voices all but drowned out a spokesman for Christ whose eloquence remains unsurpassed. The voice of Photios rang out loud and clear, however, when the authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople was challenged, even threatened, by the Western clerics of Rome. There ensued a power struggle within the Church equal to that of any in the state, and it was Photios’ brilliant defense of the Orthodox faith that averted a subservience to the West by the East.

In the course of still another series of political intrigues under Leo VI, Photios was again forced into exile, and he retired to live out his last years as a monk in Bordi, Armenia, where he died on February 6, 891.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from

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