By John Sanidopoulos
St. Savvas the Sanctified during his lifetime told his disciples that his incorrupt body would be removed from his monastery and later would rest in the Lavra which he founded. He said this return of his relic would come before the end of the world. This prophecy was fulfilled when the holy relic of St. Savvas were stolen by the crusaders of the First Crusade (1096 - 1099) together with many other relics and brought to Venice, Italy where he was enshrined in a church dedicated to St. Anthony. Nearly nine centuries later his relic was returned to the Holy Land.
On 10 October 1965 the relic of St. Savvas was returned by Pope Paul VI to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The reception was made, at the direction of Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem, by Bishop Vasilios of Jerusalem, Fr. Theodosios the Abbot of Bethany, Fr. Seraphim the Abbot of St. Savvas Lavra, and the Hierodeacon (and future Metropolitan of Nazareth) Kyriakos.
Though it is commonly recorded that this gesture on behalf of the Pope was made merely as an ecumenical gesture, such as that of the skull of St. Andrew in Patras, with regards to the return of the relic of St. Savvas there is more to the story. In fact, it was St. Savvas himself who was urging Pope Paul VI to have his relic returned, appearing first to his predecessor Pope John XXIII in his dreams and causing a scene in his reliquary.
Fr. Seraphim, the Abbot of St. Savvas Lavra, explains everything as follows:
"The Pope did not give us the holy relic because he loved us, but because he [St. Savvas] would constantly appear to him [Pope John XXIII] and would bother him to have his relic returned to his monastery. When the Pope died he did not take the wishes of the Saint into account, so he appeared again to his successor [Pope Paul VI]. Even in the church where his holy relic was treasured in a glass coffin, he would hit the glass and cause trouble, frightening the guards and the Latin monks."
Patriarch Benediktos had insisted that Fr. Seraphim attend the reception of the relic. He even told the Abbot: "In your days, Fr. Seraphim, Saint Savvas has returned!" Fr. Seraphim responded: "No, in your days, Your Holiness."
When the Orthodox representatives arrived at the Church of Saint Anthony in Venice they wondered if indeed this was the relic of St. Savvas. Fr. Seraphim observed every inch of the incorrupt relic to see if he could see a sign of authenticity. He noticed that one of the eyes of St. Savvas was missing. This proved it for him, since in his biography it is said that the Monophysites removed one of his eyes. Moved by this Fr. Seraphim would not leave the side of the relic till it arrived at his monastery. Even when the holy relic arrived in Athens where they were to be venerated by the faithful prior to the return, Fr. Seraphim stood all night guarding the holy relic while everyone else was sleeping. Metropolitan Kyriakos of Nazareth describes the scene as if Fr. Seraphim and St. Savvas were having a conversation that night.
A problem arose when it came time to dress the holy relic in Orthodox vestments, since the Latins had dressed him in Latin vestments. After nine centuries it would be impossible to manoeuvre the body so as to put on the rason, the monastic schema and epitrachelion among other things. To further complicate matters, the hands of St. Savvas were crossed over his chest. Metropolitan Kyriakos of Nazareth describes what then happened as follows: "We then saw Abbot Seraphim kneel before the holy relic and pray for a good amount of time. At one point he arose and did prostrations and lifted the arms of Saint Savvas as one would a living man before the amazed eyes of us all." They were able to change the vestments without a problem in Venice before the return to Jerusalem.
The night before the return of the relic of the Saint, a monk appeared in a vision to the guardian of the patriarchal residence, who did not know of the return of the relic of St. Savvas, and said to him: "Tell the Patriarch I'm coming tomorrow." When the Patriarch heard this he was amazed, and understanding who this monk was, he said to the guardian: "Do you know who you saw? It was St. Savvas. It is he whom we await tomorrow." From then on whenever the guardian heard the name of St. Savvas, he could not hold back his tears out of the great reverence he had for the Saint.
When the glass coffin arrived at the Piazza San Marco on the pier, there was a gondola that transported it by escort to an area near the airport. In a strange coincidence it was the same pier the sacred relic had disembarked centuries ago. Countless pigeons were gathered there, as if they were there to honor the event. Even many years later, when Fr. Seraphim and Metropolitan Kyriakos would reminisce about those days, they would always talk about the pigeons.
When the holy relic finally arrived in Jerusalem it was first brought to the Church of the Resurrection for about a month. Here the women could venerate the holy relic prior to being brought permanently to the all-male monastic Lavra of St. Savvas. Fr. Seraphim tells of a certain miracle at this time in Jerusalem. An Orthodox nun who was waiting to venerate the holy relic had doubts over whether or not the Latin's had indeed given the authentic relic to the Orthodox. It was then that she saw the head of St. Savvas lift and turn to her, then it returned again in its place. Her joy removed all doubts.
This prolonged stay at the Church of the Resurrection seems to have caused the Saint to become upset, since he longed for many centuries to return to his Monastery. One day he appeared to the guardian of the doors of the church, to deliver a message to the Patriarch. He said that he wanted to quickly return to the place of his repentance, namely his Monastery. The guardian relayed this message to Archimandrite Ymenaios, who later became Archbishop of Lydda, who then delivered the message to the Patriarch. For this reason a new date was set for the transfer of the relic to the Lavra - October 30, 1965. Hence it was on this day, after many years away from the place of his repentance, that St. Savvas returned to his beloved Lavra, to the joy of the Sabbaite Fathers.
About a month before this historic event of the return of the relic of St. Savvas, the fathers of the Lavra daily saw a rainbow form in the horizon, east of the Monastery. This amazing sign filled the brotherhood of the Lavra with joy, because it proclaimed the triumphant return of the Saint from his cloudy occupation in Venice to the temperate and fresh air of the Orthodox Church. Upon the return of the relic to the Monastery, the rainbow ceased to appear.
In the afternoon of October 30th, after the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Resurrection, the sacred translation of the holy relic took place, led by Patriarch Benediktos and a large crowd of people. A stop took place at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where prayers were said on behalf of the pious Orthodox Christians. As the body of the Saint was approaching the Lavra, the bells of the Lavra began to ring announcing the joyous homecoming. The casket was brought into the Katholikon of the Annunciation to be venerated by all.
It was during this time that certain Hierarchs from Greece expressed some doubt as to the authenticity of this relic of the Saint. After all, why would the Pope allow the Orthodox to have it after being in their possession for so long? It was at this moment that the silver oil lamp above the casket of the Saint began to swing rhythmically! It was another sign from the Saint to confirm the authenticity of his relic, and it caused joy to all those present.
To conclude, the current Abbot of the Lavra, Fr. Eudokimos, has the following to say:
"For 47 years now, the presence of the Saint among us is alive. Daily we receive letters and phone calls about his miraculous interventions and intercessions to the Lord our God, for the faithful and all those who call upon his divine name. Above all however, all of us here at the Lavra, continuously live the miracle of his incorruptibility, as well as the fragrance and myrrhgushing of his sacred relic. Twice in recent years the Saint gushed myrrh. Above the crystal of the coffin the fathers saw holy myrrh flowing, which proclaims silently yet so clearly, that the Saint gives rest and glorifies those that love him with all their soul, that reverence him and adore him in an Orthodox manner, and serve him in righteousness, holiness and wisdom."