The Life of St. John of Kronstadt

(Commemorated on December 20)

St. John was born in a village in Russia in 1829. His parents were very poor but were very dedicated to the Church. Even though he was poor, as a young boy John learned to feel compassion for others in their misfortune. His neighbors frequently asked him to pray for them, as they noticed this special grace-endowed gift in him. When John was 10 his parents were able to raise some money and send him to the local school which was attached to the Church. However, the boy initially had an extremely difficult time with his studies: he worked days on end, but still failed to keep up.

While writing about his life he recalled once, it was evening, when everyone had already gone to bed. "I could not sleep; I still failed to understand anything I was taught. I still read poorly and could not remember anything of what I was told. I became so depressed I fell to my knees and prayed. I don't know whether I had spent a long time in that position or not, but suddenly something shook my whole being. It was like a veil had fallen from my eyes, it was as if my mind had been opened up, and I remembered clearly my teacher of that day and the lesson he was teaching; I also recalled what he had talked about and understood what he meant. I felt so light and joyous inside." After this experience he did so well he became one of the first in his class to be chosen to go to seminary and after seminary to the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg (a great honor at that time).

Throughout his studies, John thought about the importance of forgiveness, meekness, and love, and came to believe that these were the very center and power of Christianity, and that only one path - the path of humble love - leads to God and the triumph of His righteousness. He also thought a great deal about Jesus' death on the cross at Golgotha and tearfully pitied people who did not know Jesus Christ; he wished to preach to them about His death and resurrection. He dreamed about becoming a missionary to distant China but saw that there was a great deal of work for a genuine pastor of Christ's flock both in his own city and the surrounding towns.

When John graduated from the Academy he met Elizabeth Nesvitsky who lived in the town of Kronstadt. They dated, he proposed, and they were married. After his studies John still desired to learn more about his faith and his Church. It was in this frame of mind that he prepared to receive holy orders and enter public ministry. He was ordained a deacon on December 10, 1885, and then priest on December 12. He was assigned to St. Andrew's Cathedral in the city of Kronstadt. He said, "I made myself the rule of being as sincere as possible in my work and of strictly watching myself and my inner life."

Fr. John wanted most of all to earn the love of the people in his care because only a loving attitude could provide the firm support and help he needed as he faced the difficult work of the priesthood. His constant thought was how he would come before the Last Judgment and have to give an account not only of his own deeds but also the deeds of his flock, for whose education and salvation he was responsible. To him no one was a stranger; everyone who came to him for help became a friend and relative. He would tell people "The Church is the best heavenly friend of every sincere Christian." He conducted divine services daily and offered the prayers of the faithful. He called all who rarely receive Holy Communion to prepare themselves and live their lives in the way of Christ so that they could receive more often. Listening to Fr. John, many people changed their lifestyle, repented sincerely, and joyfully received Holy Communion on a regular basis.

At that time the government exiled murderers, thieves and other criminals to Kronstadt. Life was horrible for the exiles. Even children of exiles would become thieves and criminals. He would go to dugouts and basements to visit with many of these exiles. Not satisfied with staying for five or ten minutes to administer some rite and then leave, Fr. John believed he was coming to visit a priceless soul, his brothers and sisters. He would stay for hours, talking, encouraging, comforting, crying, and rejoicing together with them.

From the beginning he also concerned himself with the material needs of the poor. He would shop for food, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, to the doctor for help, many times giving the poor his last few coins. The inhabitants of Kronstadt would see him returning home barefoot and without his cassock. Often parishioners would bring shoes to his wife, saying to her, "Your husband has given away his shoes to someone, and will come home barefoot." He would also write articles for the newspaper exhorting the people of Kronstadt to "support the poor morally and materially." These appeals touched the hearts of many and Fr. John organized many charitable efforts. Realizing that his individual charity was insufficient for aiding the needy, he founded the Orthodox Christian Brotherhood Guardianship of Apostle Andrew the First Called. This brotherhood coordinated many charitable efforts throughout the city and helped many needy people.

In 1857 he began teaching in the local city schools. He would tell people, "If children cannot listen to the Gospel, it is only because it is taught like any other subject, with boredom and indifference. Such teaching defeats the purpose of the Gospel. It fails because it forces students only to read words and memorize them instead of making them live in their lives." To Fr. John there were no incapable students. He taught in such a way that poor pupils as well as good ones were able to understand. His attention was aimed not so much at forcing students to memorize as to fill their souls with the joy of living according to Christian values, sharing with them the holy thoughts which filled his soul.

When speaking to other priests about their vocation he would say, "You are a representative of the faith of the Church, O priest; you are a representative of Christ the Lord Himself. You should be a model of meekness, purity, courage, perseverance, patience, and lofty spirit. You are doing the work of God and must not let anything discourage you."

Fr. John labored endlessly in his work for the Lord preaching, teaching, and helping all those in need with whom he came in contact. Having spent his entire life serving God and His people, Fr. John fell ill and died on December 20, 1908. Almost immediately, people from near and far began to make pilgrimages to the monastery where he was buried. Even today millions of Orthodox Christians in Russia and around the world pray to him to intercede for them as he had always done from his childhood.