The Miraculous Return of the Relics of St. Savvas the Sanctified
St. Savvas the Sanctified during his lifetime told his disciples that his incorrupt body would be removed from his monastery and later would rest in the Lavra, which he founded. He said this return of his relics would come before the end of the world. This prophecy was fulfilled when the holy relics of St. Savvas were stolen by the crusaders of the First Crusade (1096 – 1099) together with many other relics and brought to Venice, Italy where he was enshrined in a church dedicated to St. Anthony. Nearly nine centuries later his relics were returned to Israel.
On 10 October 1965 the relics of St. Savvas were returned by Pope Paul VI to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The reception was made, at the direction of Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem, by Bishop Vasilios of Jerusalem, Fr. Theodosios the Abbot of Bethany, Fr. Seraphim the Abbot of St. Savvas Lavra, and the Hierodeacon (and future Metropolitan of Nazareth) Kyriakos.
Though it is commonly recorded that this gesture on behalf of the Pope was made merely as an ecumenical gesture, such as that of the skull of St. Andrew in Patras, with regards to the return of the relics of St. Savvas there is more to the story. In fact, it was St. Savvas himself who was urging Pope Paul VI to have his relics returned, appearing first to his predecessor Pope John XXIII in his dreams and causing a scene in his reliquary.
Fr. Seraphim, the Abbot of St. Savvas Lavra, explains everything as follows:
“The Pope did not give us the holy relic because he loved us, but because he [St. Savvas] would constantly appear to him [Pope John XXIII] and would bother him to have his relics returned to his monastery. When the Pope died he did not take the wishes of the Saint into account, so he appeared again to his successor [Pope Paul VI]. Even in the church where his holy relics were treasured in a glass coffin, he would hit the glass and cause trouble, frightening the guards and the Latin monks.”
Patriarch Benediktos had insisted that Fr. Seraphim attend the reception of the relics. He even told the Abbot: “In your days, Fr. Seraphim, Saint Savvas has returned!” Fr. Seraphim responded: “No, in your days, Your Holiness.”
When the Orthodox representatives arrived at the Church of Saint Anthony in Venice they wondered if indeed these were the relics of Saint Savvas. Fr. Seraphim observed every inch of the incorrupt relic to see if he could see a sign of authenticity. He noticed that one of the eyes of St. Savvas was missing. This proved it for him, since in his biography it is said that the Monophysites removed one of his eyes. Moved by this Fr. Seraphim would not leave the side of the relics till they arrived at his monastery. Even when the holy relics arrived in Athens where they were to be venerated by the faithful prior to the return, Fr. Seraphim stood all night guarding the holy relics while everyone else was sleeping. Metropolitan Kyriakos of Nazareth describes the scene as if Fr. Seraphim and St. Savvas were having a conversation that night.
A problem arose when it came time to dress the holy relics in Orthodox vestments, since the Latins had dressed him in Latin vestments. After nine centuries it would be impossible to manoeuvre the body so as to put on the rason, the monastic schema and epitrachelion among other things. To further complicate matters, the hands of St. Savvas were crossed over his chest. Metropolitan Kyriakos of Nazareth describes what then happened as follows: “We then saw Abbot Seraphim kneel before the holy relics and pray for a good amount of time. At one point he arose and did prostrations and lifted the arms of Saint Savvas as one would a living man before the amazed eyes of us all.” They were able to change the vestments without a problem in Venice before the return to Jerusalem.
When the glass coffin arrived at the Piazza San Marco on the pier, there was a gondola that transported it by escort to an area near the airport. In a strange coincidence it was the same pier the sacred relic had disembarked centuries ago. Countless pigeons were gathered there, as if they were there to honor the event. Even many years later, when Fr. Seraphim and Metropolitan Kyriakos would reminisce about those days, they would always talk about the pigeons.
When the holy relics finally arrived in Jerusalem it was first brought to the Church of the Resurrection for many days. Here the women could venerate the holy relics prior to being brought permanently to the all-male monastic Lavra of St. Savvas. Fr. Seraphim tells of a certain miracle at this time in Jerusalem. An Orthodox nun who was waiting to venerate the holy relics had doubts over whether or not the Latin’s had indeed given the authentic relics to the Orthodox. It was then that she saw the head of St. Savvas lift and turn to her, then it returned again in its place. Her joy removed all doubts.