(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. Prokopios, is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
St. Prokopios of Decapolis
An indomitable monk named Prokopios earned his niche in Christianity’s “Hall of Fame” for his staunch defense of the use of icons in the tradition established by earlier Church Fathers. The disaffection for the icons brought about a clamor for their removal by disidents whose numbers formed the iconoclastic movement, a movement which surged, ebbed, flowed, and brought disharmony within the Christian community for the prolonged period of one hundred fifty years. It vacillated from ruler to ruler and prelate to prelate, pitting priest against priest and brother against brother over an agonizing century and a half of strife that brought utter misery to some and discomfort to all. But for men with the resolve of Prokopios, the damage to the structure of the Church might well have been irreparable and all mankind could have suffered as a result.
The story of Prokopios is little more than a study of the iconoclasm that projected him into prominence. Influenced by the Jewish and Muslim traditions banning the use of images of any kind in their houses of worship, the Emperor Leo III issued a decree forbidding the use of icons in the Christian Church in the mistaken belief that they represented the graven image outlawed by God in his commandments to Moses. It was against such formidable opposition that Prokopios dared to raise his voice in an impassioned plea for the iconophiles. Drawing a distinction between veneration and worship, he argued that icons merely represented those largely responsible for bringing people together to worship Jesus Christ.
Despite his divinity, Prokopios argued, Christ relied on flesh-and-blood humans to establish his Church for all mankind, and without the help of these select few there would be no Church at all. They, therefore, merit representation, to be observed and remembered, whereas Christ is adored. Oddly enough, the clergy offered little resistance to the edict, some even choosing to venerate the icons in secret, but the monks almost to a man were vociferous in their objections and proclaimed an open defiance of the law of the land, vowing never to abandon the icons.
Prokopios was so outraged by the iconoclasts that he left the confines of his cloister to preach out in the open to any who cared to listen against the evils of the iconoclastic movement, which he protested would lead to a namelessness and eventually to oblivion. He spearheaded an exodus from the monasteries of a great number of monks who ventured abroad to preach, like Prokopios before them, in open defiance of the emperor, the supreme authority of the church and state. This brought on the swiftenforcement of the emperor’s law and many well-meaning monks were not only prosecuted but persecuted as well for taking their rightful stand on this burning issue.
Prokopios commanded such respect from the general populace that not even the emperor would risk meting out too harsh a judgment on the crusading monk, but nevertheless Prokopios was apprehended and imprisoned for more than a year. When his voice carried out from his cell, he was exiled and could return only after the death of the Emperor Leo III. He preferred the serenity of his monastic retreat but remained in Constantinople to carry on his personal war against the iconoclasts.
The iconophiles were a long way from restoring the icons to all churches in the land after the many years of strife and Prokopios carried the restoration to every corner of the land, exhorting priests to openly avow their adherence to traditionalism and rallying the faithful to a renewal of the faith of their fathers, with no interference from state authority. He brought the full influence of the respected monks of the land to bear on the timid, who in some cases simply wanted to remain within the law, even though the law was an unpopular one.
The progress of restoration was painfully slow, but Prokopios never slackened his pace in his crusade, which he carried on relentlessly until at last he was satisfied that the tide of battle had turned in his favor. He returned to his beloved monastery outside the walls of the city and led a comparatively peaceful and full life. He died on February 27, leaving a legacy of courage and faith that has enhanced monasticism for all time.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.