A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People

Article excerpt

A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People. By Nadieszda Kizenko. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. xiii + 376 pp. $70.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).

Being a saint is a tricky business, and making saints is trickier still. John Sergiev of Kronstadt (1829-1908) unites these difficulties in one story, and Kizenko has given us a highly perceptive and eminently readable study of a man and a time that are easily misunderstood.

John's ministry (he was ordained in 1855) spanned the late Imperial period of Russian history-a difficult time. John lived to see the 1905 revolution, and his response to this shapes our picture of him. For some, his alliance with extreme monarchical sensibilities has been a shining beacon throughout the Soviet regime. Others wondered then and later if one could be a faithful Orthodox Christian and in favor of urgent social and political reform. This conflict is symbolized in John's canonization: the pro-Tsarist Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized him in 1964; the Moscow patriarchate did not so recognize him until 1990, after the fall of the Soviet regime.

John wanted to be a faithful pastor and above all to achieve a particular ideal of holiness-an ideal that has tended to be defined in the Russian tradition largely by the monastic life. He achieved this goal. He was married, but the marriage was never consummated. Even if Elizaveta was aware before the marriage of his commitment to celibacy, this arrangement caused her deep pain over the years. He was a married saint, but not married in the conventional sense.

There was almost universal contemporary recognition of John's holiness. He was the "wonder-worker" of Kronstadt, even of all Russia. He was sought after as a healer, confessor, counselor, money-raiser, benefactor, and dispenser of the sacraments. Thousands flocked to Kronstadt every year just to be near him as he celebrated the liturgy and to receive communion from his hands. His name on a list of patrons could mean the difference between success and failure in a fund drive in another part of the country. …

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