Biography of St. Innocent of Moscow

An icon of St. Innocent of Moscow.

Memory celebrated March 31 and September 23 "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world Amen" (Matt. 28:18-20)

Following God's call (Matt. 28:18-20), the Russian Orthodox Church has tirelessly performed its lofty and salvific ministry of preaching the Word of God throughout its millennium-long existence. Soon after the Baptism of Russia took place, many peoples who grew in the cradle of the Russian State were enlightened with the Gospel's Truth through the zealous efforts of archpastors and pastors and especially monks from our ancient monasteries. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Russian Church carried out its salvific mission in the vast lands of Europe and Asia reaching the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains in the west, the Black Sea and the Pamir in the south, and the Amur River and the Pacific in the east. At the turn of the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox mission, following the "Russian Columbus, Gregory Shelikhov (1744-95), spread to the remote North American continent where missionary monks from Valamo sowed the first seeds of orthodox faith. It was in heretofore unknown Alaska and the Aleutian and Commander Islands, dispersed in the vast waters of the Pacific, that the all-holy name of God was glorified through the apostolic ministry of a yet little-known priest from Irkutsk by name of Ioann Veniaminov. Fr. Ioann was to become Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna in succession to luminaries Peter, Alexis, Jonas, Macarius, Philip, Job and Philaret.

With the Message we now begin to mark in 1997 the 200th anniversary of St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna whose life to the last breath was devoted to the sacrificial service of the Holy Church. Looking at his great apostolic feat, we praise and worship God the Saviour Who is wondrous in His saints.

St. Innocent was born on 26 August 1797 at the remote village of Anginskoye, Irkutsk Province, to the poor family of the local church's sexton. He was named Ioann at baptism. His modest origin and inconspicuous place of birth did not betoken the high social position and fame he was to be granted later by Lord for his ascetic life. He lost his father at the age of six to experience the bitter life of an orphan. In 1806 nine year-old Ioann was assigned to the seminary in Irkutsk. Significantly, not long before he came to Irkutsk in 1806, there were found, in the city's Monastery of the Ascension, the relics of St. Innocent of Irkutsk whose name and apostolic ministry he was to inherit as the enlightener of America and Siberia. During his eleven years at the seminary in Irkutsk, young Ioann showed brilliant abilities in assimilating the basics of theology, rhetoric, philology, which allowed him later to achieve a truly outstanding success in his educational work. In this seminary the future great enlightener was given the same fundamental academic training as his glorious predecessors in missionary work, such as St. Cyril Equal to the Apostles, the enlightener of the Slaves (+869), St. Stephen of Perm (+1369). He trained in the traditions of classical Greek education in St. Gregory's Monastery in Rostov, St. Innocent of Irkutsk (+1731) who graduated from the Theological Academy in Kiev and worked as prefect of the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy in Moscow. During his life in the seminary, the future luminary showed such Christian virtues as humbleness, natural kindness and exceptional industry. His extraordinary achievements and exemplary behaviour compelled the rector of the seminary in 1814 to give him the family name of Veniaminov after the late Bishop Veniamin (Bagriansiky) of Irkutsk who was much loved by the faithful.

In 1817 Ioann Veniaminov graduated from the seminary and was ordained deacon. In May 1821, he was ordained presbyter at the Church of the Annunciation in Irkutsk where he spent the first years of his pastoral service. Since the first years of his priesthood, Father Ioann enjoyed general favour and love for his "pastorship unprecedented in Irkutsk", which included Sunday talks with children on the interpretation of the Holy Gospel. The Irkutsk period set an indelible stamp on the saint's memory. Later, performing his pastoral ministry, he never forgot about the church service he carried out in his native land. Later he dedicated the first church, in the Unalashka Islands, to the Ascension of the Lord and in memory of St. Innocent's Monastery of the Ascension in Irkutsk. He also renamed the Ust-Zeiskaya Cossack village on the Amur as the town of Blagoveschensk (Annunciation) after the Church of the Annunciation in Irkutsk in which he was ordained.

Yet, it was in such remote lands as the Russian America that God's selected-one had to carry out his educational ministry in the apostolic field. Monks from several northern Russian monasteries began this work in 1794 in the Kodyak Island of the Aleutian Archipelago. In 1822, the Holy Governing Synod decided to send the missionary priest to the Aleutian Islands. Motivated by the apostolic zeal, Father Ioann Veniaminov approached the Right Reverend Mikhail (Burdukov), Bishop of Irkutsk, and declared his willingness to assume this service. Already in May 1823, the 26 year-old missionary together with his family set off for a very hard and dangerous journey. In June of the following year, the travellers arrived in Unalashka, the main island of the Aleutian Archipelago.

Father Ioann s primary concern was to learn the language of the local people and to build a church dedicated to the Holy Ascension. He built it with his own hands together with islanders, while teaching them various skills. The church was consecrated in July 1826 and became the center of Christian education for the Aleutians in Unalashka and the surrounding islands. Exposed to various dangers and deprivations, the pastor went in wretched boats from island to island, preaching the Word of God to local people. The zealous missionary managed to learn quickly six local tribal dialects and composed a Cyrillic alphabet for the prevailing Aleutian language and translated the Gospel from St. Matthew into it, as well as the catechises and the most popular prayers and church hymns. Using a simple and accessible language, he wrote an Aleutian brief course of Orthodox dogmatics and morality entitled "A Guideline to the Kingdom of God". Considered one of the best catechetical courses and educational aids for children and youth, this course has been reprinted many times since. Father Ioann Veniaminov organized schools in which some 600 boys were taught to read and write, built a hospital and an orphanage, fought with hard drinking and polygamy widely practiced by local people and managed to overcome these vices almost completely.

After ten years on the Unalashka Island, Father Ioann baptized all the people in the archipelago. With the blessing of Bishop Mikhail of Irkutsk, he made a trip in 1829 to Nushegak in the American continent and preached the Word of God to people who lived on the Bering Sea coast and baptized those who came to believe. In 1834, Father Ioann was transferred to New Archangel in the Sitka Island, the center of the Russian possessions in North America, to serve in the Cathedral Church of Archangel Michael. During his four years in the island, he brought into the fold of the Church of Christ many local heathen Indians who had been known, before he came, for their commitment to paganism and cruel practices. In spite of all the hardships, he encountered in his missionary work, the great enlightener, throughout his 14 years in the Russian America, found time and energy to engage himself in a fundamental study of the life, culture, languages and customs of the local population. He also studied the local climate, flora and fauna and left capital ethnographic, geographical and linguistic works for which he was later elected an honorary member of the Russian Geographical Society and Moscow Royal University.

The acute need to draw the attention of the Holy Governing Synod to the urgent needs of missionary and parish work in Russian America compelled Father Ioann Veniaminov to make a trip to St. Petersburg. He arrived in the city in June 1829 and met with a lively response of the Synod members whom he managed to convince of the need to establish a permanent Orthodox Mission in the north of the American continent. In acknowledgment of his missionary service on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow elevated Father Ioann to the rank of archpriest. It was in St. Petersburg in November 1840 that Father Ioann received sad news about the death of his wife in Irktitsk. After a pilgrimage to St. Sergius Monastery of the Holy Trinity and to the shrines in Kiev, Archpriest Ioann, on the advice of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, took monastic vows on November 29. He took the name of Innocent, after Bishop Innocent of Irktitsk, and was elevated to the rank of archimandrite on the following day. In December 1840, the Holy Governing Synod established a new diocese of Kamachatka-Kurils and the Aleutian islands based in the city of New Archangel. Bishop Innocent (Veniaminov) was consecrated bishop on 15 December 1840 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in St. Petersburg and became the first archpastor of the new diocese, New Archangel remained Bishop Innocent’s See for eleven years. It was the time when his archpastoral gift blossomed.

The bishop undertook many hard trips through Kamchatka and eastern Siberia, nourishing his flock, taking efforts to train clergymen from among local people in Alaska and Siberia and to set up new Orthodox missions. With his paternal kindness gaining him favour among the Koryaks, Chukcha and Tungus, he succeeded in spreading the Word of God among them. Wherever Bishop Innocent performed his Episcopal service, Orthodoxy invariably grew and gathered strength. Bishop Innocent was elevated to the rank of archbishop in April 1850. Two years later his diocese extended to include the vast region of Yakutsk, In September 1853 he arrived in the city of Yakutsk. During his service there he translated scriptural books into the Yaktitian and Tungus languages, built churches, arranges parish life and set up orphanages. In April 1859, divine services in the Trinity Cathedral in Yakutsk began to be conducted in the Yakutian languages. In 1857, Archbishop Innocent made a trip through Yakutia and North America to inspect his farther parishes. He was summoned to St. Petersburg twice (in 1860 and 1861), as the Holy Synod was to approve his proposal for transferring the See from Yakutsk to Amur and to establish vicarages in New Archangel, on the Sitka Island and Yakutsk. The bishop made archpastoral and missionary trips along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. In September 1861, the apostle of America and Siberia met in Tokyo with hieromonk Nicholas (Kasatkin), the future apostle of Japan. In April 1865, Archbishop Innocent became a member of the Holy Governing Synod after the death of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. Archbishop Innocent was appointed on 5 January 1868 to the See of the Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna. He was to occupy it for eleven years.

Soon after his appointment to the See of the old Russian capital, Metropolitan Innocent established an Orthodox Missionary Society and guided it for nine years. "The Lord is pleased", he wrote. "that here too, in the centre of Russia and in an advanced age, I should not stay alien to the missionary work to which by Divine Providence my life was devoted since I was a youth working in the remote parts of my homeland". Through the efforts of Metropolitan Innocent the missionary work of the Russian Orthodox Church extended considerably as the church people learnt to believe it their sacred duty to help spread and affirm the Orthodox faith among the heathens. Serving at the old Moscow See, Metropolitan Innocent showed a profound archpastoral wisdom and knowledge of life. He took the needs of the Moscow clergy close to heart and sought to alleviate them. He was concerned for arranging the work of theological schools in his diocese, opened a school for icon-painting and other arts for poor children and orphans, transformed Philaret's college into a school for daughters of the clergy who did not receive any pensions or allowances, founded the large Ostrovsky alms-house, and wrote educational aids for the clergy of the staff list, as well as their widows and orphans. As the Holy Archimandrite of St. Sergius' Monastery of the Trinity, Metropolitan Innocent devoted much of his energy to improving it and ensured the development of its charitable ministry. With his blessing, the monastery began to publish "The Trinity Sheets" which were very popular among believers. He raised before the Holy Synod the question of spiritual improvement of monastic life in monasteries. He built a church dedicated to the 'Intercession' at the Moscow Theological Academy.

Throughout his archpastoral activity, the Metropolitan gained the love of the clergy and faithful by his kindness, accessibility, and sincerity in human relations. At the same time, the great enlightener continued his concern for the Russian Orthodox Church in North America. It was on his initiative that the Holy Governing Synod chose San Francisco as the bishop's See. Metropolitan Innocent also emphasized the need for the clergy to know English and for the Church to train priests from among local Americans as a necessary condition for strengthening Orthodoxy in the American continent. Feeling his death approaching, Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow and Kolomna asked on the Great Tuesday, 27 March 1879, that the Sacrament of Extreme Unction be administered to him. On the Great Thursday, 29 March, he Communed. At 2.45 on the Great Saturday, March 31, the Metropolitan equal to the apostles passed away in the Lord. On 5 April 1879 Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow and Kolomna of the blessed memory was buried at St., Sergius' Monastery of the Trinity. Two inscriptions were made at his tomb: "May the Lord remember your archpastoral service in his Kingdom always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages." and "0 Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us through the prayers of Metropolitan Innocent".

The apostolic preaching of Metropolitan Innocent spread to a vast territory including Alaska and Chukotka, the Aleutian, Kurils and Commander Islands, eastern Siberia, the Amur region, Kamchatka and the Far East. Metropolitan Innocent brought the light of Christian faith to the Aleutians, Koloshes, Kurils, Eskimo, Kenai, Chugaches, Kamchadals, Oliutores, Negidales, Mongols, Samogirs, Golds, Gulyaks, Koryaks, Tungus, Chukcha, Yakutians, and Kitians. The preaching of the gospel was the primary achievement in the life of Metropolitan Innocent and occupied a special place in his apostolic service. The metropolitan had a great homiletic gift and was a remarkable preacher. He never missed an opportunity to preach and talk to people and tirelessly instructed his clergy to do the same: "Woe to him who is called but fails to preach". He wrote, "Interpreting matters of faith, one must speak after careful consideration, clearly, distinctly, as briefly as possible, otherwise your preaching will be of little success... One must say that the whole teaching of Christ is that we should repent believe in Him and have a selfless and pure love for Him and all people... In order to influence the heart, one must speak from the heart, for it is from the abundant heart that the mouth speaks. Therefore, only he who is filled with faith and love can have the mouth and wisdom which the hearts of listeners find hard to resist. This is how the personality of the Metropolitan of Moscow was described by one of his contemporaries: "The Most Reverend Innocent appears majestically distinct and original among our Orthodox bishops both old and new. As one who was raised and then worked for seventy years amidst ingenious and simple nature and among as simple children of nature, he himself was open, gentle and affable, straightforward and impartial. He did not like smart artificiality in anything, he did not like to show off his knowledge or his merits, but always behaved simply and humbly. He enriched his powerful natural intelligence with a vast and manifold knowledge that only few can boast His heart was free from envy and craftiness, ambition and conceit, greed and luxury. Having faced severe nature, needs and deprivation since his early age, he trained himself to be patient and industrious, courageous and steadfast self-possessed and resourceful, temperate and content with little, and to be absolutely obedient to the sacred will of God in all circumstances. His name became famed and honoured both in his country and in foreign lands.

Not only every Russian who is devoted to the honour and glory of his country, but also every educated person who only respects science and humanity respectfully bow before the great personality of our apostle of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. The fact that many Orthodox Christians, both in Russia and in the American continent, cherished the memory of Metropolitan Innocent of blessed memory and venerated him in their hearts led the Russian Orthodox Church to consider his canonization as an ardent apostle of Orthodoxy, selfless pastor filled with a profound humbleness and devoted love for God and people and zealous servant of the Church. After a thorough consideration of this matter by the Synodal Commission for Christian Unity the Holy Synod, having praised our Lord the Saviour and Guardian of the world Who shows inexhaustible mercy for His Church, resolved that Metropolitan Innocent of blessed memory, Bishop of Moscow and Apostle of America and Siberia, be ranked among the saints glorified by God's grace. The Holy Synod resolved that the memory of our St. Father Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, be celebrated twice a year, namely, on the day of his blessed demise, 31 March (13 April according to the new calendar) and on the day of his glorification, 23 September (6 October according to the new calendar), and that his name be included in the Church calendar. On 13 October 1994, the eve of the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Orthodox people were honoured with God's great grace as the honourable relics of St. Innocent were found at St. Sergius' Monastery of the Trinity. The year 1997 is marked with the 200th anniversary of Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow and Kolomna. The land of Irkutsk, which cultivated this great preacher of the Holy Gospel, is rejoicing. Orthodox America also rejoices, glorifying its Apostle and Luminary. Rejoicing is also the Siberian land, which has St. Innocent as its heavenly patron. The glorious city of Moscow, too, stands out vividly, lit up with the heavenly light of the star, which came from the cast. Rejoicing also is the ancient monastery of St. Sergius, having under its protection the treasure, which are the holy relics of St. Innocent.

The Saviour's parable of a sower who sowed some of his seed into good ground and it brought forth fruit a hundredfold (Mt. 13:3-8) was embodied in the apostolic feat of St. Innocent. The seeds of faith he sowed in the hearts of dozens of thousands of children of God from many tribes and peoples in Alaska and northern islands of the Pacific, eastern Siberia and the Far East continue to sprout to this day. Nine dioceses in Siberia and the Far East cover today a vast territory whose indigenous peoples heard the Word of God from St. Innocent equal to the apostles... At a time when we seek ways for reviving mission in the Russian Orthodox Church, the image of St. Innocent stands before us as an example of a man who was "the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles" (Rom 15:16); a true apostle who devoted his life to the proclamation of Christ and the gospel. The experience of this great apostolic enlightener shows convincingly that the church mission can be successful only if it is based on respect for every nation and its culture and for every person. The Church's witness should never be interrupted during shifts in social formations or radical social changes, but should call all to harmony and reconciliation, Apostolic zeal, profound humbleness, ardent love of people, boundless commitment to the task of preaching the gospel and faithfulness to the Orthodox Church. These are the qualities that are characteristic of St. Innocent. Every one of us should seek to acquire them, if the mission of our Church in the world today is to be successful. The preaching of Christianity is "not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor 2:4). The missionary and archpastoral feast of St. Innocent shows us how profound and powerful should be the faith of a preacher. St. Innocent himself used to say, "human steps are corrected by the Lord", and we all serve as tools of God's grace. We believe that the words of Christ the Saviour are addressed to every person, wherever he may live and whatever nation he may belong to. His words are about one thing, that is, the heavenly kingdom, repentance and the way to this kingdom. St. Innocent wrote to the Tunguses: "Do not be afraid of following the Lord Jesus Christ, He is a powerful Supporter; follow Him, hurry up, go, as long as the door to the heavenly Kingdom is open for you, and your Heavenly Father will meet you early on this way, kiss you, clothe you in the first garments and introduce you in His house". These words written in the last century by the light of an oil-lamp in an Eskimo shack can be addressed to any audience at any time.

From The Orthodox Messenger, vol 8(11/12) & 9(1/2), 1997-8 published bi-monthly by the SA Central Youth. PO Box 269, GLENELG SA 5045 AUSTRALIA