(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 we commemorate St. Nephon, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
History has proved that when a patriarch becomes a saint, he is so honored in spite of the fact that he was a patriarch and not because he was one, indicated by the few so honored who have been in and out of favor and so assailed by detractors. The office has little to offer when a name is submitted for sainthood – judged by those inclined to be more lenient with lesser lights. This is particularly true in the case of Patriarch Nephon II of Constantinople, a controversial figure who was put to flight so often that the most amazing part of this man’s story is his resilience to the times, and who finally attained the spiritual extreme that even his detractors could not deny.
He was born in the fifteenth century with the given name of Nicholas, the son of Manuel and Maria of Morea, in the Peloponnesus, an area where Christianity was not taken lightly and where devotion to the Savior was a part of the way of life whether poor or rich. The usual religious training given the young was not enough for a man who yearned to serve Jesus Christ. While still in his teens, he prevailed upon his parents to allow him to accompany his friend, a monk named Joseph, on a journey to see what monastic life was like.
Nicholas accompanied Joseph to Epidaurus, where the former was introduced to the noted eremite Anthony, abbot of the monastery to which Nicholas was accepted and where he was ultimately tonsured a monk, taking the name of Nephon. When Anthony died, Nephon went to the city of Nardas. There he joined forces with a monk named Zacharias, who had spent many years on Mt. Athos, to face the Ottoman menace that began in earnest with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. They set out to combat, as well, the pseudo-synod of Florence at which the Eastern sector had been submitted to the authority of the West, threatening the Orthodox with a loss of identity. Their partnership lasted only a short time. They parted when Zacharias was made bishop of Ochrid, following the death of Bishop Nicholas, after which Nephon fulfilled a lifelong desire to go to Mt. Athos.
Nephon served in four of the monastery houses on Mt. Athos, starting with Karos and then going on to Pantokrator and Vatopedi before settling in Dionysiou, the holy shrine that contains the earthly remains of the great St. Basil. It was at Dionysiou that Nephon was perceived to have within him a touch of divine grace when a bright beam of light was cast upon him as he was praying, a miraculous incident recorded by the abbot, Patronios. This divine gesture made itself manifest many times over with the power of God expressing itself through this monk who was then ordained a priest and who went on to greatness.
Of the thousands of deserving monks and priests of Mt. Athos, Nephon was selected to serve as archbishop of Thessaloniki. There he not only served admirably, but dared to attack the Council of Florence. He called it a surrender of Orthodoxy, which alone had withstood the onslaught of the Ottoman hordes, which at long last had overrun the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire, but which was never to see the last of the Orthodox Church. He took a firm stand on this and other issues and seemed to stand alone between capitulation of church and state and the forces at work against both.
A tremendous surge of popularity thrust Nephon upward to become patriarch of Constantinople, but he served only from the years 1486 to 1489. He had made religious as well as political enemies with the defense of Orthodoxy and his stand for the retention of Hellenism. As a result of this, pressures from both sides forced him out of his office. He was not exiled, but took up refuge in the Monastery of St. John in Sozopolis, where he remained until he was recalled to the Patriarchate in 1497. Again his conservatism and austerity, born of religious training with Anthony, served the King of Kings, but clerics and politicians joined forces in putting him out of office after serving only another year.
This time Nephon went to the Monastery of St. Stephen in Andrianopolis, after which he was called to a church in Vlachia, now known as Romania, where he put in order a diocese he had found in a state of disarray. Returning to the Patriarchate in 1502, he was to serve another turbulent year before returning to Mt. Athos, where he died in 1508, a well-traveled and highly revered hierarch.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.