Memory of our Holy Father MARK EUGENIKOS, Metropolitan
of EPHESUS and Confessor of the Orthodox Faith
This luminary of the Orthodox faith enlightened the dark days in which the Byzantine Empire, on the verge of economic collapse and hard-pressed on all sides by the Turks, was struggling for its life, and faced the dolorous alternative of falling into the hands of
the infidel and ceasing to exist as a Christian state, or of submitting to the haughty dominion of the Latin heretics, who were not disposed to lend their financial and military support at a lesser price than union of the Churches, or rather, of submission of Orthodoxy to the Papacy.
Saint Mark was born in Constantinople about the year 1392. His devout parents saw that he received an excellent education with the best masters in the City which, although impoverished and depopulated, was still the cultural centre of the Christian
world. He soon obtained a post at the Patriarchal School but, at the age of twenty-six, gave up the prospect of an academic career in order to become a monk in a small monastery near Nicomedia. There he began a life of intense ascesis and prayer, but the Turkish threat soon obliged him to retreat to the monastery of St George of the Mangana in Constantinople. To the contemplative life and service of the brethren he added study of the holy Fathers, and he wrote several treatises on the holy dogmas, and some works on prayer in the tradition of Saint Gregory Palamas (14 Nov.).
Despite his desire to remain withdrawn from the world, his knowledge and his virtue won him the regard of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologos (1425-48), who was making preparations for a great council of union with the Roman Church in the hope of obtaining the support of the Pope and of the Western European princes. It was out of obedience to the Emperor that Mark, the devout hesychast monk, agreed to ascend
the pulpit of the Church, to be consecrated Metropolitan of Ephesus and to join the Byzantine delegation as substitute for the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria and as their exarch at the Council.
The Greek delegation, consisting of the Emperor, the Patriarch Joseph II (1416-39), twenty-five bishops and a staff of about seven hundred, embarked for Italy in a burst of enthusiasm. Everyone was sure that the union longed for by all Christians would soon
be established. Saint Mark too, far from being a narrow anti-Latin fanatic as he is often portrayed, shared the same hope while firmly taking his stand on the rock of the Faith. For him, as for most of the Greeks, the only possible union was in the return of
the Roman Church to unity in the charity which she had broken through her innovations. But as soon as they arrived at Ferrara, it was clear that Pope Eugenius and his theologians had quite another disposition. This was made evident, first of all, in matters of protocol; then it became increasingly apparent that the Byzantine delegates were being treated as virtual prisoners, prevented from leaving the city, and having the promised grants towards their living expenses so long withheld that some of the bishops were reduced to selling their personal effects in order to buy food.
The following were the topics on the agenda:
- (i) the dogma of the Procession of the Holy Spirit and the question of the addition of Filioque (the phrase ‘and from the Son’) to the Nicene Creed,
- (ii) the question of the existence of Purgatory,
- (iii) the use by the Latins of unleavened bread (azyma) for the Eucharist,
- (iv) and the question of the consecration of the holy Gifts by the sole words of Institution (according to the Latins) or by invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis)
- (v) the primacy of the Pope.
Since the Latins were in an overwhelming majority and their opinions on the questions of dogma were clearly going to be carried whenever it came to a vote, the Emperor and the Patriarch delayed the opening of debates on the fundamental issues until there was agreement on another method of balloting. In the meantime, it was decided to discuss the secondary question of Purgatory. Saint Mark responded in the name of the Orthodox Church to the arguments of the Latin theologians:
The souls of the departed can indeed benefit to their ‘advancement’, and even the damned to a relative ‘relief’ of their lot, thanks to the prayers of the Church and through the infinite mercy of God; but the notion of a punishment prior to the Last Judgement and of a purification through a material fire is altogether foreign to the tradition of the Church.
It was soon obvious to the better-informed that two worlds were confronting one another and that all discussion of doctrine would inevitably lead to an impasse. The weeks went by without any progress. Discussion of Purgatory having been broken off because of the plague, they went on to consider the burning question of the arbitrary addition of Filioque to the Latin version of the Creed. Saint Mark once again firmly gave voice to the conscience of the Church: “The Symbol of the Faith must be preserved inviolate, as at its origin. Since all the holy doctors of the Church, all the Councils and all the Scriptures put us on our guard against heterodoxy, how dare I, in spite of these authorities, follow those who urge us to unity in a deceitful semblance of union-those who have corrupted the holy and divine Symbol of Faith and brought in the Son as second cause of the Holy Spirit.”
At the end of seven months of disappointed hopes and empty talking, Pope Eugenius had the council transferred to Florence. Once assembled there, it was decided to deal finally with the question of dogma. Having his spirit ever fixed in God and purified by
prayer, Saint Mark was able to set forth with lucid sobriety the teaching of Scripture and of the holy Fathers on the Procession of the Holy Spirit. When the Latin theologians took up the word, they bombarded the participants through endless sessions with subtle arguments supported by a whole rational apparatus and by many quotations from the Fathers taken out of context or misunderstood. The contest was like that of David against Goliath.
As time went on, Bessarion, the Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Isidore, the Metropolitan of Kiev, emerged as determined advocates of Union-whether because of personal ambition or because of the ingrained hostility of their humanist tendency to the hesychast and monastic tradition represented by Mark. Behind the scenes, they did all they could to persuade the other bishops that the Latins had not strayed from the truth and that their doctrine of the Holy Spirit was not heretical but that they had done no more than develop the traditional teaching in their own language.
Frustrated by the idleness of the proceedings, by their lack of funds and by the haughtiness of the Latins; concerned too for the future of the threatened City and feeling caught in a trap, the bishops gradually let themselves be won over to adopt a compromise Union, as the Emperor and the Patriarch did not cease to urge on them. The doctrinal debate like all the other discussions having reached a dead end, the Greeks wanted to be done with the council, leave and disavow their consent once they had returned home. But despite pressure and insults from his opponents, Saint Mark would not give way: “It is not permissible to make compromises in matters of faith”, he declared. He had perceived the futility of seeking to argue against the sophistries of the Latins and, as dissension grew apace among the Greeks, he decided to withdraw from the struggle and make plain his disapproval by suffering in silence. The Latins then became all the bolder; they too would have no compromise, and they began to demand that the Greeks accept the Filioque and adopt certain of their liturgical customs.
Supressing their remaining qualms of conscience all the Greeks, on the Emperor’s orders, finally signed the decree of false Union. There was in fact no Union to speak of, since, although the decree was read in both languages at the solemn liturgy celebrated on 6 July 1439 in the presence of the Pope and the whole council, not one Greek took the communion, and the two delegations seated on either side of the altar did not even exchange the kiss of peace. Only Saint Mark had refused to sign. When Pope Eugenius was told, he exclaimed: “The bishop of Ephesus has not signed, so we have achieved nothing!” He summoned the Saint and wanted to have him condemned as a heretic; but, thanks to the protection of the Emperor, he was able to return to Constantinople with the rest of the delegation.
On their arrival in the City, the makers of the false Union were received with contempt and public reprobation. The assembly of the believers-the holy people, the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9)which is the bearer of the fulness of the truth and the final arbiter of the validity of councils, unanimously rejected the pseudoCouncil of Florence and deserted the churches of those in communion with the Unionists, while it greeted Saint Mark as a second Moses, a confessor of the Faith and a pillar of the Church. Breaking his silence, the Saint then set out on a campaign against the Union,
or rather to re-establish the unity of the Orthodox Church by his preaching and writings, and also by his tears and his prayers. “I am convinced”, he said, “that inasmuch as I distance myself from them (the Unionists) I draw near to God and to all the Saints, and to the extent that I separate myself from them I am the more united to the truth.” He had to flee from Constantinople on the election of Metrophanes, the new Patriarch, to avoid concelebrating with him, and he made his way to his diocese of Ephesus. But he clashed with the Unionists there and left, hoping to find refuge on Mount Athos. He was arrested all the way and sent by order of tile Emperor to forced residence on the island of Lemnos.
Freed in 1442, he returned to his monastery where he continued the struggle to
his last breath (23 june 1444). On his deathbed, Saint Mark handed on the torch of Orthodoxy to his former pupil George Scholarios, who had succumbed for a short time to the false union but repented of it. He became an ardent defender of the Faith and, taking the name of Gennadius, was the first Patriarch of Constantinople after
the fall of the City.
With the defeat at Varna (10 Nov. 1444) of the crusade organized by the Pope, there was no further obstacle to the Turkish offensive. In December 1452 the Union was officially proclaimed in Constantinople in the forlorn hope of obtaining vital aid from
the West, but none was forthcoming. In the end, with the fall of Constantinople on 29 May 1453, the false union of the Churches vanished amid the rubble and ashes of the earthly city, leaving the Orthodox Faith alive and intact for the salvation of the Christian
The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox ·Church
By HIEROMONK MAKARIos OF SIMONOS PETRA
Translatedfrom the French by Christopher Hookway
Holy Convent of The Annunciation of Our Lady