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BLESSED JOHN

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Again Magazine December 1993 Page 27-31

BLESSED JOHN
THE WONDER- WORKER OF SAN FRANCISCO

And His Vision for Orthodoxy in the West

By Fr. Damascene

Of all the Orthodox luminaries who have shone in America in the twentieth century, one of the most striking in his holiness was Blessed Archbishop John Maximovitch (1896-1966). Manifesting many contrasting forms of Orthodox sanctity, he was at once a severe ascetic, a God-inspired theologian, a “fool for Christ,” a zealous missionary hierarch, a feeder of the poor, a loving father to orphans, a seer into human hearts, a prophet who could pierce the veil of time and space, and an undoubted worker of miracles. Recently his relics, housed in a sepulcher below the “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Cathedral in San Francisco, were uncovered and found to be incorrupt. Plans have been made to formally canonize him in this cathedral on July 2, 1994.

By worldly standards, Archbishop John was not what one would call “respectable.” His hair was unkempt, his lower lip protruded, and he had a speech impediment that made him barely intelligible. Instead of the glittering, jeweled mitre usually worn by bishops, he would wear a “collapsible hat” pasted with icons embroidered by the orphans whom he took care of. His manner was generally stern, although a playful gleam could often be seen in his eyes, especially when he was with children. Despite his speech problem, he had a tremendous rapport with children, who were absolutely devoted to him. To the scandal of some, in the middle of a service (though never in the altar) he would bend over to play or joke with them.

Behind the appearance of foolishness in the eyes of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:25), Archbishop John hid a life of holiness in Jesus Christ, which brought with it self-crucifixion in this world and a foretaste of the world to come. He was never without vigilance before God. The core of his ascetic life was prayer and fasting. He ate once a day at 11 p.m. During the first and last weeks of Great Lent he did not eat at all, and for the rest of this and the Christmas Lent he ate only bread from the altar. His nights he spent usually in prayer, and when he finally became exhausted he would put his head on the floor and steal a few hours of sleep near dawn. When the time would come to serve Matins, someone would knock on the door, to no avail; they would open the door and find him huddled on the floor in the icon-corner, overcome by sleep. At a tap on the shoulder he would jump up, and in a few minutes he would be in church for services—cold water streaming down his beard, but quite awake.

It was widely known even during his lifetime that he was a worker of miracles. Wherever he was—China, the Philippines, Europe, Africa, America—countless healings took place through his prayers. There were also cases of his having saved people from impending disaster through God-revealed knowledge. At times he appeared to those in need when it was physically impossible for him to reach them.

As his spiritual son, Father Seraphim Rose, was later to write, however, such miracles were not remarkable in themselves:

“All this can be imitated by false miracle-workers… In the case of Archbishop John, those who have come to believe through him have been moved not first of all by his miracles, but by something that moved their hearts about him.. . If you ask anyone who knew Archbishop John what it was that drew people to him—and still draws people who never knew him—the answer is always the same: he was overflowing with love; he sacrificed himself for his fellow men out of absolutely unselfish love for God and for them. This is why things were revealed to him which could not get through to other people and which he could never have known by natural means.”

FROM KHARKOV TO SHANGHAI

Archbishop John was born Michael Maximovitch on June 4, 1896, in the province of Kharkov in southern Russia. In his family’s ancestry was a saint: Saint John Maximovitch of Tobolsk, who reposed in 1715 and was canonized in 1916.

While growing up, Michael immersed himself in the lives of saints, not only studying them with a passion but also striving to emulate them. At Kharkov University he spent more time reading these lives than attending classes; nonetheless he was an excellent student.

In 1921, during the Russian Civil War, Michael and his family were evacuated to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he attended the University of Belgrade and graduated in 1925 in the faculty of theology. In 1926 he was tonsured a monk with the name John, after Saint John Maximovitch of Tobolsk. At the same time he was made a hierodeacon, and the following year a hieromonk (priest-monk). From 1929 to 1934 he was a teacher and tutor at the Serbian Seminary of Saint John the Theologian in Bitol. There he served the Divine Liturgy in Greek for the local Greek and Macedonian communities, who had the greatest esteem for him.

In 1934 it was decided to raise Hieromonk John to the rank of bishop. As for Father John himself, nothing was farther from his mind. A lady who knew him relates how she met him at this time on a streetcar in Belgrade. He told her that he was in town by mistake, having been sent for in place of some other Hieromonk John who was to be consecrated bishop! When she saw him the next day he informed her that the situation was worse than he had thought: it was him they wished to make bishop! When he had protested that this was out of the question, since he had a speech defect and could not enunciate clearly, he had only been told that the Prophet Moses had had the same difficulty.

Father John was consecrated bishop on May 28, 1934, and assigned to the diocese of Shanghai. He arrived in Shanghai in late November, on the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, and found a large cathedral uncompleted and a jurisdictional conflict to resolve. The first thing he did was to restore church unity. He established contact with Serbs, Greeks, and Ukrainians. He paid special attention to religious education and made it a rule to be present at the oral examinations of the catechism classes in all the Orthodox schools in Shanghai. He at once became a protector of various charitable and philanthropic societies and actively participated in their work, especially after seeing the needy circumstances in which the majority of his flock, refugees from the Soviet Union, were placed. He never went visiting for tea to the rich, but he was to be seen wherever there was need, regardless of times and weather.

Bishop John officiated in the Shanghai cathedral every morning and evening, even when sick. He celebrated the Divine Liturgy daily, as he was to do for the rest of his life, and if for some reason he could not serve, he would still receive Holy Communion. No matter where he was, he would not miss a service.

He wore clothing of the cheapest Chinese fabric, and soft slippers or sandals, always without socks no matter what the weather. He often went barefoot, sometimes after having given his sandals away to some poor man. He even served the Liturgy barefoot, for which he was severely criticized.

Driven by divine love, he visited the sick every single day, hearing confessions and giving Holy Communion. If the condition of a patient should become critical, he would go to him at any hour of the day or night to pray at his bedside. Countless miracles of healing were performed through his prayers. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, it was extremely dangerous to walk on the streets at night, and most people took care to be home by dark. Bishop John, however, paying no heed to the danger, continued to visit the sick and needy at any hour of the night, and he was never touched.

With the coming of the communists, the Russians in China were forced once again to flee, most of them through the Philippine Islands. In 1949 approximately 5,000 refugees from the Chinese mainland were living in an International Refugee Organization camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines. Bishop John himself went to Washington, D.C., to get his people to America. He stayed for many days in succession in the waiting room of the ministry of external affairs until he extracted the permit for his thousands of refugees to come to the New World, including the sick, which no one had managed to do previously.

APOSTLE TO WESTERN EUROPE

The exodus of his flock from China accomplished, Blessed John (by now raised to the rank of Archbishop) was given in 1951 a new field for his pastoral endeavor: he was sent to the Archdiocese of Western Europe, with his see first in Paris, and later in Brussels. In Western Europe, he took a deep interest not only in the Russians of the Diaspora, for whom he exerted himself tirelessly in labors similar to those for which he had been known in Shanghai, but also in the local inhabitants. His reputation for holiness spread among the non-Orthodox as well as the Orthodox population. In one of the Catholic churches of Paris, a priest strove to inspire his young people with these words: “You demand proofs, you say that now there are neither miracles nor saints. Why should I give you theoretical proofs, when today there walks in the streets of Paris a Saint—Saint Jean Nus Pieds (Saint John the Barefoot).”

As bishop of Western Europe, Archbishop John demonstrated a far-seeing apostolic vision of the spread of Orthodoxy in non-Orthodox lands. While in France, he once said: “God allowed the Russian Revolution to take place, in order that the Russian Church might become purged and purified and that the Orthodox Faith might be disseminated across the whole world… The Church is One, but each nation has its own calling within that Oneness.”

Once he was asked: “Nearly all the peoples of the earth have had the Gospel preached to them. Does this mean that it’s the end of the world, as the Scriptures say?” “No,” he replied, “The Gospel of Christ must be preached throughout the world in an Orthodox context. Only then will the end come.”

This vision was reflected in Archbishop John’s pastoral approach to individuals, brotherhoods, and young churches which were struggling to bring Orthodoxy to new lands. His approach is especially instructive to us as Orthodox Christians in the New World, and therefore we will attempt to describe it at some length.

In 1952, a year after coming to Western Europe, Archbishop John paid an unexpected visit to the Dutch Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, on his own initiative. This monastery, composed of Dutch converts to Orthodoxy, had as its purpose the Orthodox mission to the Dutch people, translating the Divine Service books into Dutch, and celebrating the entire daily cycle of services in the Dutch language according to the Typicon. Archbishop John inspected the monastery’s whole church, the altar and all that was on it, the service books, the icons. He stayed for an hour or more and seemed very pleased with the missionary labors of the Fathers there. Then he said to them, “If you are ever in difficulties, you can come to me,” and he left.

In 1953 the monastery and the whole Dutch Orthodox Church was in trouble. The other Eastern Orthodox Churches failed to appreciate the need for the existence of a Dutch Orthodox Church for converts. The Dutch Church asked Archbishop John to become their bishop, which he did in January, 1954. This meant real protection for the Dutch Orthodox Church for as long as he was alive. He defended the use of the Dutch language for Orthodox services and other adaptations to the Dutch situation, and he fought for the young and vulnerable Dutch Orthodox community against all kinds of attacks.

He did the same for the Orthodox Church of France, composed of converts from among the French people. In 1957 he met this Church’s founder, the talented and creative Father Eugraph Kovalevsky; and two years later, at its request, he took the French Church under his archpastoral protection and care. He became very active in helping the budding Church, visiting its parishes, blessing chapels, ordaining priests and teaching at the Church’s theological school of Saint-Denis. Being fluent in French, he celebrated the Divine Liturgy that Father Eugraph had researched and revived: the ancient Gallic Rite of Saint Germain of Paris, used in France before the Church was subjected to the See of Rome.

Interestingly, although Archbishop John had been appointed as the local ruling bishop of the French Church, he did not at all try to place it under his control or under some foreign bureaucracy. The French Church, Archbishop John believed, had to have a bishop from among its own people, and the obvious choice lay in Father Eugraph. Unfortunately, with the exception of Metropolitan Anastassy, who soon retired, all the hierarchs of Archbishop John’s Church were unwilling to participate in Father Eugraph’s consecration. As one Frenchman noted, however “Nothing made Archbishop John abandon an action when he decided it was the will of God.” Having been by this time stationed in San Francisco, he meant to consecrate Father Eugraph in that city’s cathedral; and, against outspoken opposition, he made Father Eugraph a bishop with the help of a Romanian hierarch whom he himself had consecrated (Bishop Theophil Ionescu). At the consecration in the San Francisco Cathedral, he performed the ancient Gallic Liturgy. It was nothing less than revolutionary to have—in this immigrant Russian church—such a strange yet splendid service in the French language.

Why had Archbishop John been so adamant in helping the French Church against all opposition? He knew he had to nurture and care for every small attempt to restore Western Europe to her buried Orthodox heritage. Universal Orthodoxy had returned to the West, and it had to find and cherish its spiritual roots there if it was to thrive and grow. In 1960, while serving the Liturgy of Saint Germain for the first time, Archbishop John preached to the faithful of France: “We sincerely and warmly wish that the Orthodox Faith, firmly restored in France, will once again become the Faith of the French people as it is of the Russians, the Serbians, and the Greeks. May Orthodox France be reborn, and may the Divine benediction be upon this Orthodox France!”

One of Archbishop John’s first acts as bishop of Western Europe was to establish the proper foundation for the veneration of Western saints in the Orthodox Church. In 1952 he compiled a list of Western saints who until then had not been venerated by the Eastern Church. This he presented to his fellow hierarchs, saying that these saints should be glorified equally with other saints; and the list was approved.

Archbishop John believed that, in whatever land an Orthodox Christian found himself, it was his responsibility to venerate and pray to its national and local saints. Wherever Archbishop John had been—China, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Serbia, Tunisia—he had researched the lives of the local Orthodox saints. He had gone to the churches housing their relics, performed services in their honor, and asked the Orthodox priests there to do likewise. By the end of his life, his knowledge of saints, both Western and Eastern, was seemingly limitless. As an apostle, he called upon each local saint he learned about, each new brother or sister in the Body of Christ, to provide heavenly help in evangelizing new lands.

A SAINT IN AMERICA

Blessed John was appointed to the diocese of San Francisco and Western America in November, 1962. Suddenly the Russian Orthodox community in San Francisco, partly composed of people whom he had rescued from Communist China, became alive. Donations poured in for the building of the new “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Cathedral. Fellowships and charities were established, and church activity in general increased in a wave of enthusiasm. Now in old age, Archbishop John did not slacken his pace at all, but continued visiting and praying for people in need throughout the day and night. One bishop who was close to him said that, if he himself were to try to follow Archbishop John’s schedule, he would be dead within two weeks.

As bishop of San Francisco, Archbishop John put great emphasis on the veneration of all the saints of America, including the most local of all saints, the Native American Peter the Aleut, who suffered martyrdom in San Francisco. Archbishop John had an especially great devotion to Blessed Father Herman of Alaska as a patron of the American Orthodox mission. In 1962, when presented with an icon of Blessed Herman depicted in a halo, the Archbishop did not hesitate to venerate and pray before it, despite the fact that Father Herman was not yet canonized. On the anniversary of Blessed Herman’s repose in 1965, he made this veneration public by bringing the icon into the cathedral and having the choir sing the troparion hymn to the saint. At the same service he expressed his hopes for America through the heavenly intercession of Blessed Herman. He tried to get other hierarchs to take part in a joint canonization of Father Herman, which finally occurred in 1970, four years after Archbishop John’s death.

Although hampered by a limited knowledge of English, Archbishop John was determined that the fullness of Orthodoxy be made available to Americans in their native tongue. When he came to San Francisco, the local church publication Pravoslavny Blagovestnik (Orthodox Messenger) had been solely in Russian. He said he wanted at least one article in English to be included in each issue. He was so adamant that not a single issue be without an English article that he would call late at night or early in the morning to make sure the article had been submitted to the press. The main writer of these articles was an American convert to Orthodoxy, the future Father Seraphim Rose.

At the beginning of 1966 Archbishop John decreed that an English Liturgy be served in the San Francisco cathedral on the first Sunday of every month; and he himself celebrated the first service. He was very supportive of the efforts of the newly formed Father Herman Brotherhood to introduce Orthodoxy to Americans, first through a city-storefront Orthodox book and icon center (the first of its kind in America), and then through Orthodox publications in English.

These attempts of Archbishop John to make Orthodoxy available to the English-speaking world may not seem impressive to the reader of the present day, now that so much Orthodox material has come out in English. But one must remember that, until Archbishop John came to the cathedral in San Francisco, everything there was in Russian or Slavonic, and no one had the vision to see that anything else was needed. At that time, very few Americans were converting to Orthodoxy, and those who did were usually intellectuals who learned Russian or Greek and took their place as foster children in ethnic Orthodox communities. Archbishop John was truly a pioneer in his effort to turn this situation around, and it is certain that he would have done much, much more had he been granted to live longer here in America.

Another point about Archbishop John that has relevance to the American Orthodox mission is that he said there was “no such thing” as separated Church “jurisdictions.” Although in an old-calendar, anti-Soviet Church, he concelebrated with clergy from new-calendar Churches and from the official Church in Russia, which was at that time under Soviet domination. He even commemorated the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis I, along with his own chief hierarch, Metropolitan Anastassy. All these actions were considered absolutely taboo by many of his fellow bishops, but Archbishop John followed his conscience, not the party line.

This was one of the reasons why, at the end of his life, Archbishop John endured a fierce persecution, directed against him by a faction within his own parish and instigated and encouraged by some of his own brother bishops. It is a sad indictment against us Orthodox Americans that this true Apostle and Saint had to undergo the worst tribulation of his life during the relatively brief time (only three and a half years) he lived here in America—and not at the hands of American secularism or liberal politics or the mass media, but at the hands of Orthodox Christians like ourselves, who did nothing worse than listen to public “church” opinion.

Blessed John’s persecution began when a document began to be circulated worldwide by people in the Church, accusing him of having communist sympathies. When this failed to oust him from his episcopal position, he was forced to appear in public court to answer charges of concealing financial dishonesty by the parish council. The trial lasted three days and made front-page headlines. All of the accused were completely exonerated, but the accusers continued to invent new charges, making appeals to the court almost until the time of Archbishop John’s death.

It broke Archbishop John’s heart to see such a thing perpetrated by his own brothers in the faith and in the episcopacy. To one close parishioner he was known to have said, “I am alone in all this.” He was following his Master Christ to Golgotha, and like Him he forgave his tormentors. When asked who was to blame for all the church discord that had occurred, he replied simply, “The devil.”

A SEED PLANTED IN AMERICAN SOIL

On July 2 (June 19 by the Julian Calendar), 1966, at the conclusion of a Liturgy that he celebrated in Seattle, Archbishop John spent three hours praying in the altar. He then went to his room in the parish building near the church. After a few minutes had passed, he was heard to fall. Having been placed in a chair by those who ran to help him, he breathed his last peacefully and with little evident pain.

Evidently Archbishop John had foreseen his end some months in advance. In May he had told a woman whom he had known for many years, “I will die soon, at the end of June… not in San Francisco, but in Seattle.” Again, on the evening before he left for Seattle, he astonished a man for whom he had just done a church service with the words, “You will not kiss my hand again.”

The day after his death, Archbishop John’s body arrived at the San Francisco cathedral, and there began a vigil that was to last for over four days. In all these days there was an extraordinary outpouring of love. Everyone suddenly discovered himself an orphan, for to each the Archbishop had been the one person most near, most understanding, most loving. Hardened enemies came to beg forgiveness in death of a man who had held no ill-will for them while living.

The vigil culminated in the funeral, during which nearly two thousand people overflowed the large cathedral, their number not diminishing for over six hours. There was a feeling of quiet joy, even though the whole congregation, as with one voice, was literally heaving with waves of loud sobs. When the body was carried three times around the cathedral after the funeral, it was a veritable triumphal procession. In the words of Father Seraphim Rose, who was present, “It was as if one were attending, no longer the funeral of a deceased hierarch, but the uncovering of the relics of a newly proclaimed saint.”

The next morning, people were already at Archbishop John’s sepulcher underneath the cathedral, praying to him for his intercession. In a pleading voice they spoke to the blessed one just as they had when he was alive. Thus began Archbishop John’s posthumous veneration. Miracles began happening at his sepulcher, many of which have been recorded and published; and up to this day they continue to occur in the lives of those who call on his heavenly help.

Archbishop John—a wonder-worker and apostle of the same stature as the ancient saints—has walked the same American streets that we walk. In laying his holy, incorrupt relics to rest on our own soil, he has planted a seed for the future blossoming of American sanctity. But it is a seed that we must water with our blood and tears, for to follow in his footsteps means to follow Jesus Christ Himself on the path to Golgotha, crucifying ourselves out of love for God and neighbor, and, when being crucified by others, to endure it all in the spirit of undying devotion.

FatherDamascene Christensen is a monk of the Saint Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California; the editor of The Orthodox Word, and the author of Not of This World: The Life and Teaching of Father Seraphim Rose.

The main source for this article has been the Prima Vita (First Life) of Archbishop John by Father Seraphim Rose. For the complete text of this Vita, together with numerous source materials on Archbishop John’s life, see Blessed John the Wonderworker (Saint Herman Brotherhood, 1987).