30 March 2021

Holy Hierarch Gavril, Archbishop of Chişinău and Hotin

Saint Gavril of Chişinău and Hotin

The thirtieth of March is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of a great saint of Moldavia under the Russian Empire, Saint Gavril (Bănulescu-Bodoni) of Chişinău. A Romanian clergyman who served the Russian Church during a politically troubled period in the region’s history, Saint Gavril always showed his care and concern for the common people of Bessarabia and the edification and spiritual welfare of the Church and its clergy. Even though – then as now – the political struggle between the old Empire in Constantinople and the new Empire in Moscow raged with him in the middle, Saint Gavril never lost sight of what was important in his life and in the life of the Church. That is – the love of God and the love of his neighbours, whether Romanians or Russians. His life was marked by a self-giving pastoral ministry and missionary work, and he was not afraid to speak out on abuses within the Church, and called for greater autonomy of the Church from the Russian state.

Gavril Bănulescu-Bodoni was born in the year 1746, in the Transylvanian town of Bistrița. His parents were from the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc in Bukovina. He was twenty-five years of age when, in 1771, he went to study at Kiev Theological Academy, before he travelled for his studies to the Greek island of Patmos, Smyrna, and the Athonite monastery of Vatopaidi. He struck up a close friendship with polymath and ‘teacher of the Greek nation’ Nikēphoros Theotokēs, with whom St Gavril taught together at the Princely Academy of Iași in 1776.

Three years later, Saint Gavril was tonsured a monk in Constantinople, and travelled back to his homeland of Moldavia to serve in the Stratenia Church as a homilist in 1781. He taught philosophy and Greek language at the Slavic Seminary in Poltava in the Russian Empire. In 1784 he transferred to Iași again to serve under Metropolitan Gavriil (Callimachi), then to Huși as a parish priest. Saint Gavril was nominated to serve as the bishop of Romania; however, the Phanariot ruler of Moldavia barred him from consideration. During the ravages of the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92, both Saint Gavril and the Phanariot prince Alexandru II Mavrocordat of Moldavia were compelled to flee to Russia together with a great many of the Moldovan people. He returned to Poltava and became the rector of the Seminary where he had once taught.

There were a number of administrative changes that were made to the Russian Church under Ekaterina ‘the Great’, among which were the reorganisation of diocæses in the Moldavian territories which came under Russian occupation against the Ottomans. Saint Gavril was appointed to one of these diocæses as Bishop of Cetatea Albă; eventually Saint Gavril was appointed Metropolitan of Moldavia. When the war ended and these territories reverted to the Ottomans, Patriarch of Constantinople Neophytos VII attempted to remove Saint Gavril from his see, and resorted to force. He pleaded with the Ottoman Sultân to arrest Saint Gavril and haul him to Constantinople in June of 1792. Neophytos tried to cajole Saint Gavril with the offer of a bishopric in Greece, but Saint Gavril refused to give up his Russian citizenship (as he would have to have done to accept). It was only after the intercession of the skilful Russian-Tatar statesman and ambassador Prince VP Kochubei with the Ottoman Sultân that Saint Gavril was released from captivity. As we can unfortunately see from this sorry episode of Constantinopolitan persecution of a brother-bishop, the scandalous rivalry between the two sees has a long and ugly history.

Saint Gavril returned to Russia after his release from Ottoman imprisonment, held several bishoprics including in Crimea and Kiev, and joined the Holy Synod of Petrograd. He administered the anointment of the sick to the Tsarina on her deathbed.

The foregoing litany of appointments and elevations might give one the impression that Saint Gavril was a political climber within the Church, but his subsequent career shows that this was not the case. He did care deeply for his flock, and in general did not fear to tread on political toes within the Tsarist bureaucracy when the right of Christ’s Church was at stake. After a period of illness and temporary retirement in Odessa, Saint Gavril was appointed primate in the new Exarchate of Bessarabia, which was created out of the occupation of Bessarabia in 1806 and the Treaty of Bucharest between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1812. During this time – particularly from 1808 on – Bishop Saint Gavril took immediate action to: reduce the interference of the Tsarist bureaucracy in the life of the Church; safeguard the people of Bessarabia against abuses and predations by the warring military forces in the region – including the Russian military; and weed out the priests who were mere functionaries and hangers-on of the state bureaucracy in preference to those genuinely committed to serving the spiritual and earthly needs of the Moldavian people. For this period of activity in his career, Saint Gavril is particularly beloved by modern Moldovans both as a committed religious guide and mentor, and as an activist-bishop for a kind of popular justice.

In 1813 he petitioned Tsar Aleksandr I for an ukaz for the creation of a new eparchy encompassing Bessarabia and parts of what are now the southern Ukraine and Crimea. This ukaz was granted, and the new Archbishopric of Chişinău and Hotin was allowed to organise itself in accordance with local customs. Saint Gavril, together with the local boyars, managed to leverage this ukaz in order to establish an autonomous region – in which both the local Moldovan dialect of Romanian and Russian were used by the state. During this same year, Saint Gavril founded a Romanian-language printing press, and in 1817 he oversaw the foundations for the Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral in Chişinău as well as the Soborul Cathedral. He oversaw a Romanian translation of the New Testament in 1817, followed by one of the whole Bible in 1819 in Petrograd. The hard-working bishop reposed in the Lord in 1821, and was interred with honour in the Church of the Dormition at Mănăstirea Căpriana near Chişinău.

Saint Gavril was glorified by the Orthodox Church in Moldova in a ceremony at Mănăstirea Căpriana on the fourth of September, 2016. This was due in no small part to the efforts of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, who received a letter of thanks for his efforts in this glorification, as well as that of Saint Agafia Maranciuc whose feast we celebrate in June, from Moldovan President Igor Dodon. Holy hierarch Gavril of Chişinău, friend of the downtrodden and defender of the rights of Orthodoxy, pray unto Christ our God this day that our souls may be saved!

Nativity of Christ Metropolitan Cathedral, Chişinău, Moldova

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