This ‘Little Russian’ Bishop Founded the First Orthodox Seminary in the World – Saint Petro Mohyla

The Father of Ukrainian Literacy sewed the seeds for Ukraine and Russia to Reunite with a Pan-Orthodox Vision

Editors Note: Throughout this article, I will often use the term Little Russia(n) to describe Ukraine and its people. This is not a political statement, but merely an admission of a historical fact, and the use of a term which this very saint used. I will also be referring to the Saint by his Ukrainian name “Petro Mohyla” as opposed to his native Modolvian or Russian names: Petru Movilă and Pyotr Mogila respectively.

I often thought and mused about  how in schools, it is crucial to teach not only the external sciences, but even more so, and above everything else, that schools instill piety, which must be rooted and sown in your young hearts, because without it, all wisdom is foolishness before God.~Saint Petro Mohyla

A Holy Hierarch the likes of which unseen since ages long past, a 17th-century Dogmatician without contemporary rivals, and the very Father of Little Russian Literature - Saint Petro Mohyla, Metropolitan of Kiev, left a legacy so far-reaching, we may call him the Father of the Little Russian Nation.

Petro Mohyla, is one of the four evangelists of Eastern Slavic Printing, along with Saint Job of Pochaev, Ivan Fyodorov of Moscow, and Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski. While the latter three can be credited with printing the Holy Scriptures, Petro Mohyla printed the catechisms and instructions the Russian Church would need to restore itself to the former glory of Kievan Rus’ after the chaos and destruction caused by the Mongolian and Polish invasions.

As I like to call them, the Four Evangelists of Eastern Slavic Printing, counterclockwise from the top right, Saint Petro Mohyla, Saint Job of Pochaev, Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski, and Ivan Fyodorov.

His contributions to literacy in the lands of old Kievan Rus’ was so great, that it was said he ensured every man, woman, and orphan, let alone child was literate. While this may be an exaggeration, it is without a doubt he made Little Russia (as he referred to his Ukraine), one of the most literate places in the world in his days.

The Famous Syrian historian and Melkite Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo,  while passing through Little Russia on his way to Moscow, was amazed at having beheld how lovingly the Ukrainian people cherished literacy. These were his words:

“Even villagers in Ukraine can read and write …and village priests consider it their duty to instruct orphans and not let them run in the streets as vagabonds”

So great were the innovations of Saint Petro of Kiev, that he would be credited with founding the first Orthodox Seminary in the world at Kiev Caves Lavra. His school would later evolve into two separate organizations during our times. While one of the greatest secular universities in modern Ukraine which functions to this day bears his name, the true successor of his labors is the Kiev Theological Academy and Seminary in Kiev Caves Lavra.

His model of theological education immortalized his contributions. Upon his model, all Russian seminaries from Saint Petersburg to Jordanville would be based, and furthermore, the basic format he developed would become accepted as the unwritten universal standard for all Orthodox seminaries.

But who was Petro Mohyla and from where did he hail?

Suceava, Romania

Saint Petro was born in 1596, in Suceava, Moldovia, to a noble family of the Romanian-Moldavian blood – the Movilești. According to Romanian legend, his ancestor whose name meant “Flea” in Romanian was awarded the name Movila (meaning little Hill) by Saint Stefan the Great of Moldovia. Saint Stefan cel Mare (The Great) lost his horse and so Puriche brought him his own and knelt down saying

“Great Prince, behold, I will curl into a little mound on which Your Grace will stand and thereby the horse you shall mount.”

He bent down on his hands and knees allowing a slightly injured Stefan to mount the horse, and after his victory in battle, Stefan, Voivode (Warlord) of Moldovia declared “Henceforth you shall be known as Movila! (Hill)” granting him a high noble title of Boyar status.

The Mohyla coat of arms as nobles counted among the Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Petro Mohyla was descended from this man, Puriche, and his family came to inherit the Moldovian crown once held by Saint Stephan. His father, Simion, was the Prince of Wallachia (modern-day Romania) and Moldovia, and his cousin married the Polish Prince Michał Wiśniowiecki, father of the infamous Jeremi “The Hammer against the Cossacks” Wiśniowiecki, and grandfather of the future King Michael of Poland.

Sucevița Monastery, built by his father Simion Movilă and his uncle Ieremia

After the murder of his father, Petro’s mother fled with him to Western Ukraine, at the time called the Lesser Poland Voivodeship. where he lived in the castle of Polish magnate Żółkiewski. Ukraine at the time was under the rule and occupation of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Mohyla’s education was provided by monks of the Lvov Brotherhood.

Brotherhoods were uniquely Little Russian secular unions of Orthodox people, often affiliated with a particular Church or Monastery. A Brotherhood (Bratstvo) is an exclusively Slavic concept, particularly Ukrainian, and it is hard to compare them to a western example. They were similar to western lay confraternities, however they were focused on social work and charity. Their special mission of was to promote literacy in the Cyrillic alphabet, as well as Church Slavonic and Russian (or Little Russian) languages, in order to support the rise of national awareness, as well as to preserve the Orthodox faith.

They were formed during those difficult, chaotic years “when all of southern Russia, deprived of her Princes, became victims of brutal invasions” to paraphrase Gogol. Little Russian Peoples: Carpatho-Russians, Ukrainians, etc. were struggling to preserve their Orthodox faith and connection to Kievan Rus’. These brotherhoods played a major role in the national awakening of those peoples, and preservation of the Orthodox faith in the face of Catholic expansionism.

Perhaps this time of study at the Lvov Brotherhood instilled in Petro a strong urge to unite the suffering Russian peoples in the Ukraine. From an early age, he excelled at languages, mastering Church Slavonic, Greek, Polish, Old Belarusian, and most of all Latin, in addition to his native Romanian, Ukrainian (Little Russian) and Russian languages.

I imagine he became like those Gogol described, as having travelled to foreign lands and seen people therein, people created by God, just like his own, so while he did not judge them, he found them lacking when he wanted to exchange heartfelt words. I say this because Petro studied for many years in the greatest university of Paris before returning to Polish occupied Ukraine in the 1620’s.

He settled in Kiev Caves Lavra, a rock of the faithful, on which was fixed all the hopes and dreams of generations of Little Russians/Ukrainians. The people looked to the Lavra as the beating heart of their homeland, hoping that by the prayers of the great heroes laying in the deep caves like Saint Anthony and Ilya of Murom, that their land would one day be free.

Kiev Caves Lavra

Petro quickly befriended those people with similar dreams to awaken the national spirit of Rus’ and soon he would be elected Archimandrite of the Lavra.

He labored for his greatest school, but this was not just any school, he wanted to create in the Ukraine a University equal in every way to Western universities like the one in Paris.

And so it was that the Kiev Collegium was born, the first seminary of its kind, not just in Rus’, but in all the Orthodox World. To be fair, there obviously existed ways where Priests and clergy could be trained, but never before in this method and of this scale. Here, students were taught not only Theology, but mathematics, science, astronomy, philosophy, and history.

Such Seminaries were unprecedented in Orthodoxy prior. The Kiev Collegium was the first of its kind to have regimented classes with permanent faculty in the format of a liberal education, but also retaining the deep theology and mysticism imparted by serving in the Divine Services and living amongst the monks.

Saint Petro did not desire his student to simply memorize facts, learn morals,  and read the Bible, he wanted them to truly live the Faith, and he combined this deep spirituality with University level studies. By 1633, he was named Metropolitan of Kiev, Halych, and of All Rus'.

In the 1640’s he printed the Trebnik (a service book for special occasions), and his famous Catechism.

The Catechism caused a minor scandal, as it was regarded by some to have heavy Western Catholic influence. To be sure, it heavily opposed Catholic and Protestant theology as he stood against the ecumenism of his day, the accusation was not so much he was a Catholic sympathizer, but rather that some Catholic ideas or practices subconsciously influenced him, due to his surroundings. Indeed many of his critics see him as having strong Western influences, for example, the use of Latin in his school, though he did this only to make sure students would stand on an equal footing with Western academia. This Romanian Saint was a true Roman Infante (Renaissance man, literally: child of Rome), and his works would flower in Moscow, the Third Rome.

He never compromised Orthodoxy, and his catechism was approved by the entire Orthodox Church, overseen by a delegation of Patriarchs, making the catechism another innovation of his unprecedented in its day.

It was called “The Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church” and it can be read here in Russian, or here in English. Never before had there been such a universally prolific Catechism. These are the words of approval given to the catechism by the Patriarchs:

'We have found that this book follows faithfully the dogmas of the Church of Christ, and agrees with the sacred canons, and in no respect differs from them. As to the other part of the book, that which is in the Latin tongue, on the side opposite to the Greek text, we have not perused it, so that we only formally confirm that which is in our vernacular tongue. With our common synodical sentence, we decree, and we announce to every pious and orthodox Christian subject to the Eastern and Apostolic Church, that this book is to be diligently read, and not to be rejected. Which, for the perpetual faith and certainty of the fact, we guard by our subscriptions. In the year of salvation 1643, 11th day of March.'

The catechism and Saint Petro himself were defended with these words by Patriarch Nectarous of Jerusalem:

If thou desirest, dear Reader, to be instructed in the right Faith and to be enlightened with the Brightness of the immaterial Light; now, whilst thou livest in this thy Material Body which is to live above all visible Beings, and to ascend on the Wings of the Mind, to God; it behoveth thee to read, with the closest Attention, this little Book, which containeth a very compendious, yet plain and clear, Comprehension of true Doctrine…

Peter Mogila, who lately departed piously, and holily, unto God, being chosen and ordained, an Orthodox Metropolitan… became a good Shepherd and zealous Defender of the Faith, ... restoring and conducting the Russian Church into that purity of the Holy Doctrine, in which it had flourished from its first Beginning.”

This is how the final years of the Saint are described on the website of his academy:

St. Peter Mogila always took a special care of the Kiev School. In his will, he granted villages, houses and courtyards, silver, vestments, family treasures, as well as his whole library of 2,131 books to the Brotherhood. In his will, the Saint called the Collegium  “his only true accomplishment in life and tearfully asked to preserve it forever. St. Peter passed away on the night of January 1, 1647, and was buried in the Dormition Cathedral of the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery. In his memory, the Kiev Collegium was called Mogilyanskaya (i.e. “of Mogila”).

As you can perhaps infer when I said the website, of his academy, despite many hardships, his school survives to this day as the most prestigious seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. You can read more about him and his academy at that site. His collegium already achieved all he could have hoped for in his lifetime, it was truly equal to any Western university, and after his death, it only grew.

He died in 1647, so close to the national uprising of Bogdan Khmelnitsky that began but one year later, which reunited Ukraine with Russia.

It is certain that Saint Petro’s contributions lead to the awakening. By educating Orthodox Men and Women in natural philosophy (science), history, and their faith, he made it possible for Rus’ to reunite. I like to believe his prayers led Bogdan Khmelnitsky to victory, and gave the Cossacks the extra strength to finally break free. During the War of Liberation, Bogdan ironically fought against Mohyla’s estranged Catholic nephew, the aforementioned Prince Jeremi.

Emperor Peter the Great, whose father reunited the lands with Bogdan Khmelnitsky, held the Academy in High Esteem. He viewed it as the perfect model and platform to implement his reforms. Though it later suffered in centuries to follow, the Academy was resurrected in two forms, Ukraine’s highest secular institution, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s most senior seminary.

Saint Petro Mohyla passed into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he will always be remembered as the father of the Little Russian People.

The Entrance to the Tomb of Petro Mohyla, Kiev Caves Lavra

He believed in us when we didn’t. His love, tears, and prayers covered us. He spent his life dedicated to the education of not just his countrymen, but also Women and orphans, believing all should have equal opportunities to a higher education.

He felt that Universities should be based on Faith as much as reason and science. He raised us up from our dark ages surrounded by barbarism, and brought us into a pan-Russian Christian renaissance.

Though he never lived to see Khmelnitsky’s liberation, I think this son of Moldovia and Father of Russians looked down from Heaven, his mission complete, knowing that Little Russian mothers can read to their children the Gospel of Christ.

Kiev Caves Lavra, in the Mother of Russian Cities, Home of Saint Petro Mohyla

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