July 2, 2018

Saint Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia (+ 1504)

Stephen the Great is considered the greatest figure of Romanian history. The country being harassed and attacked incessantly by the Turks, he was able to defend its integrity and independence at the price of numerous sacrifices. The piety of Stephen can be judged by the number of monasteries he built: ‘forty-four’, says the chronicler Gregory Ureche. According to tradition, the pious Voivode built a monastery after every victory over the Turks.

When Stephen was just nineteen, his father, Prince Bogdan II of Moldavia, was murdered by the latter’s bastard half-brother, and Stephen was forced to escape with his cousin, Vlad Dracula Ţepeş (well known in western literature as Dracula), via the famous Borgo Pass. After the latter had gained his father’s throne, that of Wallachia, in 1456, he helped his cousin, Stephen to take his own father’s throne in the Moldavian capital of Suceava in 1457. Thus began a reign marked by nearly constant warfare, largely against the Muslim Turks pouring into Europe, but also by a flourishing of Moldavian culture manifested particularly in the monasteries that Stephen built, widely considered some of the most beautiful in the world. In this he was guided by some of the holiest men of the Romanian lands.

This wise Metropolitan Teoctist I of Moldavia and Suceava, who consecrated Stephen as Prince, was the first counselor of Stephen the Great. When the land was threatened by war, Stephen took counsel with him before doing anything. And when the Prince left for battle, the Metropolitan commanded all the monks in the monasteries and all the hermits in the mountains to keep all-night vigils with fasting and prayer until the Voivode should return victorious to Suceava. And when by God’s allowance Stephen was defeated in battle (as he was at Razboieni in 1476), Metropolitan Teoctist with his clergy was the first to encourage him, pray for him, and urge him to not surrender the country. He also counseled Stephen the Great to erect a monastery after each battle as an offering of thanksgiving to God. The Great Prince built Putna Monastery (1466-1470) at his exhortation, and the Metropolitan himself consecrated it on September 3, 1470. At the Metropolitan’s request, Stephen entirely rebuilt Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos (1466-1475), and gave much help to other monasteries on Athos.

Stephen also maintained a very close relationship Saint Daniel the Hesychast († 1496), a hermit who lived in a cave in Moldavia. The future Prince visited Saint Daniel after the murder of his father, Prince Bogdan. He remained there for several days, confessing his thoughts before the Saint and receiving from him the remission of his sins and many words of consolation. Stephen’s agitated soul became calm, and the great hesychast blessed him and prayed for him. Then he prophesied that he would soon become Prince of Moldavia, and dismissed him in peace.

With the prophecy being fulfilled upon Stephen's accession to the throne in 1457, the love and devotion of the holy Prince toward the anchorite became even greater. From that time the Saint became an important counselor of the Great Prince, and his spiritual father and intercessor with God. The Voivode often visited his cell, confessed his sins, asked him for a profitable word, and did nothing without his prayer and blessing. The Saint encouraged him and exhorted him to defend the country and Christianity against the pagans. Saint Daniel assured him that if he would build a church to the glory of Christ after every battle, he would be victorious in all his wars. Stephen the Great obeyed him and defended the Church of Christ and the Moldavian land with great courage for nearly half a century after the fall of Byzantium. He won forty-seven battles and built forty-eight churches.

In 1476, Stephen lost the battle of Razboieni to the Turks. He went to visit Saint Daniel at the Voronets Monastery to ask whether or not he should surrender the country to the Muslims. Saint Daniel told him not to surrender, because he would soon win a decisive victory. Saint Daniel also told him that after he had saved the nation, Stephen should build a monastery in honor of Saint George at that place. Having faith in Saint Daniel’s prophecy, Stephen went forth with his army and drove the Turks from the country.

Saint Stephen fell asleep in the Lord on July 2, 1504, and was buried at the Putna Monastery. He was glorified by the Orthodox Church of Romania in 1992.

Apolytikion in the First Tone
Fearless defender of the true faith and protector of the land of thy forefathers, great founder of holy churches and monasteries, O Prince Stephen, pray to Christ God to deliver us from our needs and sorrows.