Living Lessons of Moral Theology

Memories of St. John of Shanghai

A meeting with holiness is always a unique experience. Often it is not immediately perceived properly, but later it can turn one’s entire life around. Archbishop Michael of Geneva and Western Europe, who for several years had the opportunity to communicate closely with Archbishop John (Maximovitch) who was glorified among the saints, speaks about his personal experience.


St. John of Shanghai came to France in 1950, when I was seven years old. At the time, I was studying at the St. George Russian boarding school, which was in the town of Meudon near Paris. Not far from our school was the famous Church of the Resurrection of Christ, built by first-wave emigrants in 1927. The Russian engineer who built it made the walls out of a mixture of straw and cement, calling the material “solomite”—no Frenchman could understand what it was, but at the time it was not possible to build a more monumental building. The engineer warned that our church of straw would not stand for more than seven years. However, it lasted until 1981, when one of the school’s students accidentally leaned against the wall outside during the service and fell right inside the temple. Now there is already a brick church in its place, which, according to architecture, completely recreates the appearance of that “straw” temple.

Vladyka John often visited that church. And he also had a residence in Paris at the temple, which he arranged in the 16th quarter of the city. At the time, Vladyka bore the title of Brussels and Western Europe. He visited Russian schools, in particular ours, and the cadet corps in Versailles. He devoted a lot of time to raising the children of immigrants, because he considered this task one of the most important.

One day I had to go to confession for the first time. I remember the realization of this fact puzzled me very much, because until then I used to just take communion every week. On Tuesday of that week, without warning anyone, Vladyka John came to us. He announced to the students that there would be an all-night vigil the next evening and everyone would confess. When I came to the church, there were two lecterns. A long queue of my classmates lined up at one of them, where Archimandrite Sergius (Pfaserman), a priest who had served in the church for many years, was confessing. At the other, where Vladyka John stood, it was mostly adults who approached, and here the line went very slowly—while the priest had time to confess ten children, only one person received the prayer of forgiveness in the “adult” queue.

Since this was my first confession, I was very excited. I remember Vladyka turned to us, the children, and beckoned someone with his finger. My classmates pushed me and said, “Go, he’s calling you!” I was confused and focused on my feelings, so I believed them and boldly approached Vladyka. He asked me sternly: “What are you doing here?” I knew the rules of good manners and that it was impolite to say, “You yourself called me,” so I answered: “Vladyka, I have come to confess.” And he answered me: “You don’t know what it is to confess!” But I persisted: “I know, it means to tell my sins.” Vladyka said, “And you don’t know what sins are,” but I insisted again, “I know.” “Well?” the bishop asked sternly. I began to say as children usually say, that I didn’t listen to my elders and so on. Then Vladyka took me under the omophorion. I don’t know how long I stayed under it, but I can only say that it was light there. And the elderly bishop there seemed to me both handsome and young, and I felt great joy. “Say whatever you want. Say everything that is in your heart, and I will explain to you what sin is,” I recall the words of Vladyka John. It was the first time any adult had ever said anything like that to me. He then began to explain to me what the love of God is, that sin is when you refuse this love, when you walk away from Him. And then you are unhappy, because you yourself have walked away from love, you are already without love, you are already as if abandoned, because you yourself walked away. It was something new and amazing for me, and I felt that the boundless love that I was hearing about from Vladyka John was present there. I cannot say how long our conversation lasted, and when the archbishop said to me, “You know, we are alone here with you,” I think I said that I did not want to leave, since I had not experienced such a state before. I felt that it was impossible to leave this state. Vladyka explained to me the meaning of the prayer of forgiveness and then began to say it—he had a very clear way of speaking, and every word was understandable. More than once in his sermons I noticed that what he said easily entered the heart of everyone who listened to him, regardless of their education or degree of churchgoing. Then Vladyka said, “Now I will take off the omophorion, but keep in mind, it will be dark.”

It really turned out to be completely dark in the temple, with only one lamp left unextinguished. Since everyone had already left, Vladyka John offered to accompany me to school. He asked several times and insisted. But I kept refusing, and I clearly understood then that it was my pride that was speaking, and I felt very ashamed; but I was able to overcome myself and still refused, and Vladyka gently let me go alone. My older classmate, a boy of about nine, was standing at the exit, he scolded me all the way for being late, and being made to wait for me. He expected that his taunts would hurt me, and I would cry, and was very surprised that it no longer bothered me—I had such a joyful feeling. I have remembered this confession of mine for the rest of my life.

Something similar happened later. I remember some time later we went to Brussels and decided to look at the new church built in honor of Job the Long-Suffering, which was a memorial church to the royal family and to all the new martyrs and victims of the civil war and persecution in Russia. They started building it before the war, but completed it only in 1950. It was winter. There was quite a lot of snow in Brussels at that time, and we even went sledding. It was only a little warmer inside the church than outside. We stood stiff, it was damp inside the room, as the plaster on the walls had not yet had time to dry; but everyone was amazed by the appearance of the temple. Children born in a foreign land or who came abroad in infancy, saw Russian church architecture for the first time. Suddenly we heard stomping and knocking—it was Vladyka John who tapped his staff on the floor (there were no doors yet) to attract our attention, and angrily said, “Is this how you meet the bishop?” We were scared, but he said he was joking, came up and blessed everyone, calling them by name. We all turned to the east, and Vladyka began enthusiastically telling us what and how it would be in the new church. We looked at his feet in only sandals—they were blue from the cold. “There will be plaques with the names of all those who died and were martyred during the revolution! Patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops... There are many of them, and we will mention every name, we will pray for the repose of their souls,” he said. He hugged us by the shoulders, and gradually we became engrossed in his story; we felt warm and even hot, despite the frost.

We knew about his spiritual gifts. When Vladyka John visited us students of the Russian school, he was already known as the Shanghai miracle worker. Refugees who had migrated from China to the Philippines and then made their way to France talked about him. When the Communists came to power in China, all borders were closed. The archbishop gathered his flock in the church and ordered them to take the most necessary things. His authority was great, and people obeyed him without question. They told us that after the divine service, Vladyka took them all to the port and they calmly boarded the ship together and sailed away without encountering any opposition from the authorities. It was a miracle. Then, on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines, where the refugees were evacuated, there were no natural disasters during their long stay, although storms and hurricanes are very frequent in those places. Thanks to the active petitions of Vladyka John, who even secured a meeting with the President of the United States, some of the refugees managed to move from the Philippines to America, some went to Australia, and some more to France.

Vladyka John came to our school often. He became my tutor. Probably, not all of us realized what significance his visits could have for us, because in childhood much is taken for granted. Our attitude towards Vladyka was mixed. The guys were afraid of the formidable venerable bishop, but they were delighted when he suddenly appeared. I’ll never forget how he grabbed my shoulder from behind when we met—his hand was heavy as a shovel. At the same time, he spoke with the children very simply, in a fatherly way, and as soon as he spoke the fear went away, and Vladyka became completely “ours.”

He talked to people a lot. With adults he spoke only briefly. While his sermons after the Liturgy were very long and lasted at least forty minutes, in personal communication he spoke only a few words. When I was sixteen years old, he once approached me in the church and said: “Listen to me, after the Liturgy you must always gather parishioners for a meal, you must feed them, welcome them, and the table must be set, it should be breaking from the weight of the food. Because the meal is a continuation of the Eucharist. And when it’s Christmas, you must put up a Christmas tree here, have toys, have children dancing and have them all get some kind of gift so that they are happy and have fun. Do you understand me?” Of course, I didn’t understand, because at that time I had not even thought about becoming a priest or a monk. But apparently Vladyka had already foreseen that I would be a clergyman. And when many years later I was ordained a priest in this church, I remembered these words and even shed tears. Vladyka had an uncanny ability to help people. Sometimes he would leave the temple, and a Russian man would walk by and Vladyka would call him and give him a bundle of money. “If you don’t pay the rent, you will be kicked out,” he said to the stranger, who was very surprised, because he didn’t expect any help and was generally embarrassed to come up and ask for something. And he was given exactly the amount that was needed. Vladyka, by the way, was very fond of such meek, shy people. It is known that he collected homeless young children on the streets and created a shelter for them. We very often had people at church services who, in our opinion, were not quite balanced, perhaps even abnormal. They knew that Vladyka would help them and heal their mental illnesses, feed them and generally do everything for them—the whole of Paris knew about it.

We children probably understood his holiness. But we didn’t know how to handle it, we didn’t know how to approach him, but we felt it. And when we interacted with him, we felt that we were probably constantly doing something wrong. It tormented us sometimes. Once in the cadet corps, while Vladyka was serving vespers, the boys in the choir shortened the stichera. Vladyka clicked his tongue reproachfully from the altar, but he did not come out himself, and the children skipped the chants further. When the stichera had been sung, Vladyka came out and demanded that all the stichera be sung again, without omissions.

One of the chief human virtues is prudence, and Vladyka John fully possessed this ability. He was for us a living lesson in moral theology. He told a man: “Do this or, don’t do that in order to be with Christ.” Faith is not philosophy. Although philosophy should not be neglected either. Faith is a force that can move society forward. However, faith is not only able to move but also transform society.

After Vladyka John left France on duty in 1962, we his pupils of course began to miss him, but I always felt that all of us, and even I, a sinner, remained in his memory and in his prayers. After Vladyka’s departure, various people often approached me, even atheists, and asked, “Where is your bishop?” They were perplexed and seriously addressed me, saying, “How are we going to live without him?” Now the veneration of St. John is growing, especially in Russia. People who come to San Francisco can see for themselves the incorruptibility of his holy relics. Many were repeatedly healed by prayers to him even before his glorification. The discovery of such a great saint of God was a clear sign of His mercy to Russia abroad and to the entire Russian Church as a whole.

Archbishop Mikhail (Donskov) of Geneva and Western Europe
Translation by Igumen Seraphim (Bell)

Tserkovny Vestnik


archimandrite Jacobus7/3/2023 11:35 am
The Saint al so did a miracle in faraway South Africa some 20 years ago; a lady, not Orthodox, had been in a coma for 64 days and a nurse expressed doubt about her survival until the next day, as overheard by the Orthodox priest who was called to her bedside in hospital by another non-Orthodox believer, and a moleben was done at the bedside in hospital, on bended knee, and the comatose lady was anointed with oil from his reliquary. She awoke from her coma the next day, and so after a few days a moleben of thanksgiving was done at her home. Glory to God in his Saints!
Carmelita Lindner7/2/2023 8:08 pm
Thank you Saint John of San Francisco for helping me today to learn completely what sin is. Thank you.
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