St Mark, whose name in the world was Manuel, was born of pious parents in 1392 in the queen of cities, Constantinople. His father was called George and was the Sakellarios and Deacon of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, and his mother was Maria who was the daughter of the pious physician Luke.
Both parents tried and succeeded in raising Manuel in the education and admonition of the Lord. But the death of his father left him and his younger brother John orphans at a tender age.
His first letters, the Saint learnt from his father George, who had a famous private school. After the death of his father, his mother sent him to continue his studies to the then most famous teachers, John Cartasmeno (later Metropolitan Ignatius of Selmyria) and the mathematician and philosopher George Gemistus Plethon. Among his classmates was the later sworn enemy Cardinal Bessarion.
Teacher and Monk
When the young Manuel completed his studies he assumed the administration of the school of his father and soon was recognized as the brightest teacher of the declining city. Among his students who later excelled were George Gennadius Scholarius, the first Patriarch following the fall of the city, Theodore Agallianus, Metropolitan Theophanus of Media and his brother John Eugenikos.
Divine love however, did not leave Manuel to be carried away by the most promising teaching career, not even the very friendly relationship with the emperor stopped him from denying the world and fleeing to the island of Andigoni in the Prince's Islands close to the famous ascetic Symeon. There he remained in a spiritual struggle for two years and then, after the Turkish assaults on the islands, he came with his elder to the famous Monastery of Saint George of Mangana, in Constantinople.
In the Monastery of Mangana, St Mark composed almost all of his more than 100 works that are preserved to this day. Especially important are the works he wrote against the Latin leaning rivals of St Gregory Palamas, whom he greatly respected and was his model. In this monastery Mark was tonsured to the priesthood, after being pressured to do so, because he thought of himself as unworthy of such a high calling. Soon though he acquired such great spiritual fame, that many clerics and lay people wrote to him requesting his opinion on different topics.
At the Synod of Ferrara
In 1436, while still a Hieromonk, the Patriarch of Alexandria named him as his representative at the convened synod for the Union of Churches. The same year Emperor John Palaiologos forced him to accept the Metropolitan throne of Ephesus which became vacant that year.
The emperor showed his great appreciation he nurtured for St Mark, by naming him General Exarch of the Synod. The Saint was therefore forced to follow the Patriarch and the rest of the representatives to Italy.
St Mark went to the Synods with the best intentions and demonstrated his conciliatory stance with the speech he composed for the Pope, even before the start of the proceedings of the Ferrara Synod. Some Orthodox representatives, even criticized Mark for his conciliatory stance in the dialogue with Cardinal Julian Cesarini and demanded that from then on Metropolitan Bessarion of Nicaea should speak instead.
The first topic of discussion was on purgatory. Bessarion did not feel capable of speaking (due to his inadequate theological training), letting Mark to speak instead for the Orthodox, who then expressed four points of disagreement on the topic.
The crystal clear Orthodox views as presented by our Saint greatly pleased the emperor, who looked toward Mark as the lone Orthodox theologian who could easily answer the arguments of the Papacy. But the theologically inadequate Byzantine emperor was hopeful that the Orthodox views would prevail, not knowing that the papal representatives would persist without budging from their deceits. For this reason, when he saw the irrational persistence of the Latins would have sank his political agenda - namely the union of the Churches, and by this the expected help of the papacy to confront the Turks - he began to pressure the Orthodox to follow a milder, or better, a more yielding way.
The False Union
The Latins began to apply their known tactics of whisperings, lies and pressures, and during that time they distributed in Ferrara hundreds of leaflets which contained 54 heretical Orthodox practices! Seeing that the situation was worsening against the Orthodox, two of the sanctioning members of the Byzantine representation, Metropolitan Anthony of Herakleia and Metropolitan John - first in rank to the Ecumenical throne, and brother of Mark - tried to flee from Ferrara, but were impeded by the emperor. Because John was being accompanied by his brother to the harbor, the emperor and the Patriarch feared other attempts of flight, thus in agreement with the Latins, they transferred their Synodal work from Ferrara which was close to the sea, to Florence.
When the proceedings of the Synod re-started, Mark of Ephesus was the main speaker of the Orthodox. His clear responses however and the reversal of opinions by the Latin false believers, caused the wrath of the Latin leaning Orthodox, who with the silent consent of the emperor they tried to overcome St Mark, even distributing the information that the one from Ephesus was mad. During the conference of the Orthodox representatives, when the Metropolitan from Ephesus referred to the Latins as "heretics", the Metropolitan of Lacedaemon and of Mitylene insulted the Saint and tried to hit him.
Mark of Ephesus will not sign
The Saint ascertaining that all his attempts to persuade the Orthodox not to proceed towards Union - thus becoming victims of the Latins - were in vain, so he stopped taking active part in the proceedings of the Synod.
Finally on 5 July 1439, the union was endorsed, and as reported by Syropoulos, most of the Orthodox representatives signed against their will fearful of the emperor. When the Pope asked if Mark had also signed and received a negative response, he remarked, "Well we have accomplished nothing". The arrogant and despotic Pope asked the undecided Byzantine emperor to send Mark to him to be judged in front of the Synodal Court, but fortunately the emperor refused.
Later on though, he begged Mark, having first received oral assurances from the Pope on his safety, that he present himself in front of the Pope to explain his position. Mark, obeying the emperor's order went to the Pope. In vain he tried to force him to accept the false union. When he saw that Mark remained immovable in his views, he reverted to abuses and threatened to declare him a heretic. But St Mark unintimidated responded by saying, "The Synods of the Church have condemned as rebels those who have transgressed against some dogma and have preached thus and fought for this, for which reason also they are called heretics; and from the beginning the Church has condemned the heresy itself, and only then has it condemned the leaders of the heresy and its defenders. But I have by no means preached my own teaching, nor have I introduced anything new in the Church, nor defended any foreign and false doctrine; but I have held only that teaching which the Church received in perfect form from our Savior, and in which it has steadfastly remained to this day: the teaching which the Holy Church of Rome, before the schism that occurred between us, possessed no less than our Eastern Church; the teaching which, as holy, you formerly were wont to praise, and often at this very Synod you mentioned with respect and honor, and which no one could reproach or dispute. And if I hold it and do not allow myself to depart from it, what Synod will subject me to the interdiction to which heretics are subject? What sound and pious mind will act thus with me? For first of all one must condemn the teaching which I hold; but if you acknowledge it as pious and Orthodox, then why am I deserving of punishment?" Having said this and more of the like, and listened to the Pope, he returned to his quarters.
The people test Mark
Following the treasonous union at Ferrara-Florence, the Byzantines left Italy to return to the besieged city. The emperor received St Mark on the imperial ship. After a trip of three and a half months, they finally arrived at Constantinople. There the people received them with averse feelings and tested those that signed the union, but honored our Saint, and as reported by his insulter, the Greco-Latin bishop Joseph of Methonis, "The one of Ephesus saw the crowd praising him for not signing and the crowd kneeling to him as if he were Moses and Aaron, and praised him calling him a saint". The simple people of God looked at St Mark as the lone hierarch who had the courage and capability to protect the Orthodox faith. They were already aware that quite a few who signed the union were bribed by the pope, while the hands of St Mark were clean. When the emperor decided to fill the Patriarchal throne, he sent representatives to St. Mark asking him to accept the high honor of the Patriarch, but he did not accept.
The imprisonment of the Saint in Limnos
On the 4th of May 1440 St Mark was forced to flee from the Royal City, because his life was in danger, and to go to his metropolitan see, Ephesus, that was under the Turks. There having shepherded for a short while his rational flock, he was forced again, now due to the Turks and unionists, to leave Ephesus and board a ship destined for the Holy Mountain, where he decided to live the rest of his life. However when the ship made a stop at Limnos, the Saint was recognized and arrested under imperial order and was imprisoned there for two years. During this period of imprisonment he suffered greatly, but as he wrote to the Hieromonk Theophanis of Evia "the word of God and the power of truth cannot be tied down, instead it proceeds and prospers and most of the brothers encouraged by my exile check the transgressors of the true faith."
From Limnos the Saint sent his superb encyclical epistle for all people around the world and the Orthodox Christians who lived on the islands. With this he severely rebuked those Orthodox who accepted the union and with uncompromising facts proved that the Latins are innovators and because of this he says, "as they are heretics we turned ourselves away and for this we separated." The Saint then invites the believers to avoid the unionists because they are false apostles and crafty servants.
Continuation of the struggle from Mangana Monastery
After he was released from prison, St Mark, because he was sick, could not withdraw to the Holy Mountain, but returned to his Monastery in Constantinople where he was received by the people with honors as a saint and confessor. From the Monastery of Saint George of Mangana, the new confessor directed the struggle against the unionists, writing letters to the monks and clerics, encouraging them to hold onto the true faith and not to cooperate with the unionists. The persecutions, the despising and the pressures worsened the state of health of the Holy Father, so that on the 23rd of June 1444, having called by his side his spiritual children and passed on the leadership of the anti-union struggle, he departed to the Lord. He was 52 years old.
Honors for the Saint after his repose
The faithful people of the Lord, now orphaned, mourned greatly for the loss of their spiritual father. George Gennadius Scholarius gave a eulogy during which he recalled among other things: "Thus, having lived with love of God and in everything excelled in his sojourn from his youth to the divine schema: in the most holy schema, in the degrees of priestly service, in the hierarchal dignity, in arguments concerning the Orthodox Faith and in devout and passionless confession, having attained fifty-two years of bodily age, in the month of June on the twenty-third day he departed rejoicing to Him Whom he desired, according to Paul, to be dissolved to be with Him, Whom he glorified by good works, Whom he theologized in an Orthodox fashion, Whom he pleased his whole life long."
Immediately following his holy repose, Mark was honored as a Saint and Confessor. Thus testifies with pain, his contemporary and sworn enemy Joseph, the uniate bishop of Methonis, by saying, "Among many and diverse, even the one called Palamas and Mark of Ephesus, people not only stopped but inundated them with glorious words, while being deplete of any virtue and holiness, only because they spoke and wrote against the Latins, you glorify and praise them and you depict them with icons and feasts and hold them as saints and you venerate them."
The first divine service in honor of the Saint was done by his brother John, the philosopher. In the beginning he was commemorated on June 23, but later it was changed to January 19 - the day the relics of the Saint were transferred to the Monastery of Lazarus in Galata. The struggles of Mark as well as of his student Gennadius were recognized and justified by the Great Synod of Constantinople that was concluded in 1484 and recorded their names as Holy Fathers in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.