Saint Philotheus Coccinus, Patriarch of Constantinople

4 November 2011

Coccinus was one of the most distinguished and most prolific bishops of the Orthodox Church. He was born round about the end of the 13th century in Thessaloniki, very probably of a mother of Jewish descent. From an early age he studied with Thomas Magistrus, and had the good fortune to acquire a profound knowledge of ancient Greek and Christian literature. He soon abandoned the world and became a monk. After staying at the Sinai Monastery – we do not know for how long – he came to Mount Athos and took up residence initially at the Vatopaidi Monastery, where he met and formed spiritual bonds with St Sabbas ‘the fool for Christ’s sake’. He then moved to the Megiste Lavra Monastery, where he became closely associated with Gregory Palamas, whom he had perhaps known when he was a layman in Thessaloniki. A fervent champion of Hesychasm, he remained faithful to the teaching of Gregory Palamas and, as a simple monk of the Lavra, played a leading role in the signing of the ‘Agioritic Tome’ in 1341. In 1342, he succeeded Macarius, who had in the meantime been appointed Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, in the leadership of the Megiste Lavra.

After the triumph of John Cantacuzenus, Philotheus, because he had sided with him and with Gregory Palamas, was promoted by the Patriarch Isidorus to the metropolitical see of Heracleia, the first in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and for that reason he bore the title of ‘Primus of the first rank of honour’.

He took part in the council held in Constantinople in 1351 against the opponents of the Hesychasts and played a very important role there at the side of Gregory Palamas. Moreover, he compiled the council’s ‘Tome’, containing its minutes and decisions.

On the deposition of Callistus I from the patriarchal throne in 1353, when the names of Philotheus of Heracleia, Macarius of Philadelphia, and Nicholas of Cabasila were put forward by the bishops for the office of Patriarch, Cantacuzenus chose Philotheus. He remained Patriarch for a year, until Cantacuzenus was removed from the imperial throne and Callistus returned as Patriarch. Philotheus retired to the Holy Mountain. Later, however, with the consent of Callistus, he recovered his metropolitical see of Heracleia.

On the death of Callistus, Philotheus in 1364 returned to the patriarchal throne, which he was to occupy for 12 successive years, until 1376. During this second patriarchate, he was extremely active as a writer and administrator, directing church affairs with much prudence and forethought and making the Church of Constantinople a true ecumenical beacon in the dark and troubled times of the 14th century.

Four years after becoming Patriarch, he made a decisive contribution to the recognition by the Synod of the sainthood of Gregory Palamas, whose feast day he appointed, himself providing this with the necessary form of service.

The whole of his ecclesiastical policy had two objectives: the preservation of the Empire from the growing danger of the Turks, and the preservation of the Orthodox from the penetration of Latin propaganda. For this reason, all his actions had as their chief purpose the invigoration of Orthodoxy and the closing of the ranks of the Orthodox peoples.

The problem of union with Rome, which was one which greatly preoccupied his times, Philotheus put on a new footing: he called officially, during his inter-church contacts, for the convening of an Ecumenical Council to deal with the problem. Although this proposal was rejected by Pope Urban V, it seems to have brought forth fruit in the West a century later with the convening of the Councils of Ferrara-Florence.

As a writer, Philotheus was extremely prolific. He wrote works of controversy against the opponents of Hesychasm, lives of saints, encomia, works of hermeneutics, liturgical studies, studies of canon law, as well as various prayers and services. Thus his works cover all the branches of theology.

In 1376, worn out by ill health and old age, he resigned from the patriarchal throne, and lived the rest of his days in peace and humility, probably until 1379.

There is evidence that he was recognised as a saint almost immediately after his death, but official documentation as to his feast day has not survived. This is a matter which should certainly be dealt with by decisions of the Church in the near future8.