Source, Acton Institute.
“He alone can in truth call himself sovereign who is master of himself, who is not subject to his passions and conquers by charity.”
Born Theodore Kolychev, Metropolitan Phillip II of Moscow, a saint of the Orthodox Church, took the name Philip when he was tonsured a monk at the monastery of Solovski in northern Russia, on an island in the White Sea. Though his father had been a minister in the court of Basil III, he chose instead the life of a monk at one of Russia’s most remote monasteries.
Having advanced to the point of living as a hermit in the nearby forest, Philip succeeded the abbot Alexis as head of the monastery at the latter’s request. As abbot, Philip set about to improve the monastery by encouraging a strong work ethic and developing salt production for the monastery to fund many enterprising projects. In all of these enterprises, Philip added his own physical labor to the efforts.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, a new sovereign had taken the throne: the Grand Prince Ivan IV, the first to take the title “Tsar [Caesar] of all Russia,” but better known to history as “Ivan the Terrible.” His paranoia over political intrigue led him to form a not-so-secret police, the Oprichniki, and through them to commit brutality against his own people, earning him his fearful epithet. When Athanasius, Metropolitan of Moscow, resigned his post in protest, Ivan, who despite his ruthlessness was an admirer of Philip, called Philip to fill the now vacant office of head of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Reluctant to accept, Philip requested that Ivan disband the Oprichniki, which enraged Ivan. Nonetheless, Ivan conceded to Philip the right of intercession on behalf of the Church and people.
Philip saw his role as Metropolitan of Moscow differently than Ivan, once saying to the latter, “If I do not bear witness to the truth, I render myself unworthy of my office as a bishop. If I bow to men’s will, what shall I find to answer Christ on the Day of Judgment?”
After 18 months of relative respite for the people of Moscow, Ivan the Terrible again set loose his Oprichniki after hearing rumors of a conspiracy between members of the aristocracy and the king of Poland, slaughtering countless innocents. In the face of such atrocities, Philip used his right of intercession and boldly denounced Ivan’s brutality, both privately and in public.
For Philip’s bold defense of the people and exercise of the freedom and responsibility of the Church, Ivan had him tried and convicted on false charges. He had Philip deposed of his office and imprisoned, moving him from monastery to monastery to distance him from Moscow. However, seeing how the people followed Philip out of their love for him, Ivan sent an assassin—one of his Oprichniki— under the guise of a messenger requesting Philip’s blessing for the Tsar’s expedition to Novgorod. Seeing through the charade, Philip simply said to him, “My friend, do what you have come to do,” and raised his hands in prayer. The sinister messenger took hold of Philip and suffocated him to death with a cushion, making him a martyr for his faith.
Much loved for his life of service to both Church and country, he is commemorated three times a year in the Orthodox calendar of saints: January 9, July 3, and October 5. Indeed, for his defense of the independence of the Church from the state and of human life in the face of oppression and tyranny, Metropolitan Phillip II of Moscow shines as a beacon of light at a dark time for liberty in Russia and remains a model for all those who take a stand for such freedoms today.