St. Innocent of Alaska (March 31)

ON THE NINTH SATURDAY after the Holy Cross we read from the ninth chapter of St Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel portrays the Lord Jesus’ ministry as growing: He is more widely known and more people were seeking Him out.

“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go’” (Luke 9:57). Well, Jesus wanted to reach all of Israel and He frequently called people to follow Him. But here He was not very encouraging. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’” (v. 58). Why would He say that?

The Gospel continues, “Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God’” (vv. 59, 60). At first that seems heartless and cruel until we realize that the man’s father was not dead – in the Middle Eastern climate the dead were buried immediately out of necessity. Mourning followed burial rather than preceded it as in many American funerals.

This passage shows Christ correctly discerning the motivations of the people whom He approached or who approached Him. Some were called but found excuses not to respond, like this procrastinator. Others, like the first man mentioned, wanted to follow Him but for the wrong reasons. The second-century African writer Tertullian suggested that following Christ “… was not his object. How could it be? … For his wish was not simply to follow Christ, as so many others of the Jewish multitude did, but rather to thrust himself into apostolic honors” (57th Homily). Some seek to “follow Christ” because of the prestige they think it brings.

Others seek the spiritual power or authority they see in Christian leaders. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of a certain Samaritan sorcerer named Simon who was converted and baptized by Philip the deacon. Later the apostles Peter and John came to invoke the Holy Spirit upon Philip’s converts, “And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!’” (vv.18-20). Fortunately Simon repented and asked that the apostles pray for him, but his name is still associated with seeking to buy positions in the Church. It is called simony.

Two Who Responded

In the past 2000 years there have been countless Christians who have brought the Gospel to places where they would have nowhere to lay their heads. In the first millennium Church of the East missionaries traveled to India and China while Byzantines brought the Gospel north to the Slavs. In the second millennium Europeans brought the Gospel to the Americas and Africa. On November 26 the Russian Church honors one of its missionary bishops whose story illustrates what these evangelists suffered for the Gospel’s sake.

Born in Ukraine in 1680 to a prominent family, John Kulchitsky became a monk (Fr. Innocent) and professor in Moscow. In 1721 he was chosen to be the bishop of the Russian spiritual mission in Peking. He traveled across Russia and Asia in the days before any modern means of transportation, only to wait for three years on the Chinese border near Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, and finally to be refused entry to that country. The Chinese did not want any foreign missionaries in their country.

Homeless, without a diocese or a steady income, Bishop Innocent labored as a missionary in the undeveloped region near the Chinese and Mongolian borders, some 2600 miles from Moscow. At that time Irkutsk was a small settlement. The first road from Moscow was not built until 1760; the Trans-Siberian Railway only in the 20th century. Today the trip by rail takes over three days; how long would it have taken in the 1720s?

Bishop Innocent worked among the settlers – mostly exiled Russian criminals – and Mongols, many of whom he brought to Christ. He established the first schools in the region and so improved conditions there that in 1727 the diocese of Irkutsk was created with Innocent as its bishop. He served there for another four years dying exhausted from his labors, at the age of 51, revered by his flock as the “Holy Man of Siberia.”

Nowhere to Lay His Head

In 1823 Fr Ioann Veniaminov, a Siberian priest, was assigned to the Aleutian Islands, then owned by Russia. His parish included the island of Unalaska, and the Fox and Pribilof Islands off the Alaskan coast, some 3400 miles from his home (it is only 2800 miles from New York to Los Angeles). The journey took one year over land and ocean.

There were no accommodations for Father Ioann and his family. They had to build an earthen hut and a church in which to serve. There were about 1000 people living in his “parish” – both natives and Russian traders –spread over 1000 square miles accessible only by dogsled or canoe.

Over the next few years this extraordinary missionary studied and mastered six local Aleut dialects, devising their first alphabet and translating portions of the Scriptures and liturgical books in order to bring the Aleuts into the Church.

After fifteen years he returned to Russia to report on his activities. While he was in Moscow, his wife died and he was tonsured a monk, taking the name Innocent, after the pioneering bishop of Irkutsk. In 1840 he was ordained bishop of the Aleutians and returned to his mission field. Bishop Innocent’s see was established at Sitka on the mainland and the bishop now added study of the local Tlingit language and culture to his missionary skills. When his diocese was expanded to include the Yakut area he did the same with the language and customs of the Yakut peoples.

In 1867 Bishop Innocent was chosen as Metropolitan of Moscow, where he served until his death in 1879. The diocese he left behind would become the cornerstone of the Eastern Orthodox presence in the United States which purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. One hundred year later Bishop Innocent was canonized by the Russian Church as “Enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to America.”

Nowhere to Lay His Head in Death

Bishop Innocent of Irkutsk died in 1731 and was buried in the Ascension Monastery at Irkutsk. During renovation of the monastery in 1764 his remains were found to be incorrupt and his grave became a site for many pilgrimages over the years. He was proclaimed a saint in 1804.

In 1921, the relics of St Innocent were taken from their shrine and placed in a Soviet anti-religious museum. They were moved to another museum in Yaroslav in 1939, and were exhibited as “mummified remains of an unknown man.” In 1990, the relics were returned to the Church and placed in the Irkutsk cathedral, to the joy of all the faithful.