The First Ottoman Patriarch: Scholarios on the Throne
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
George Scholarios was about fifty years old when Constantinople fell in 1453. Three years earlier he had taken the name of Gennadios on becoming a monk. Under that name his resistance to unionism reached a climax. And as the second of that name (Gennadios II) he became the patriarch of Constantinople.
He was to hold the office three times but it was his first tenure that was most important in establishing a modus vivendi for the Orthodox Church under the new circumstances whereby the basileus was no longer a Christian emperor but a Turkish sultan. Scholarios, in a letter to Maximos Sophianos and the monks of Sinai, likened the situation to that of the pre-Constantinian church of over a thousand years earlier:
“At present Christendom is as it was before Constantine. For now, at least, we have no emperor, no free Church and no freedom of speech.”
Scholarios operated at the head of a forlorn world, one that had fallen to the infidel despite its divine protection. The Romans were enslaved, their churches defiled and their empire no more. Even their most desperate and vain hope – that at least their end was the world’s – was proved wrong. The apocalypse had not materialised (Scholarios himself struggled with the former, arguing that the “consummation was near” right up until his death) and yet apostasy was rife. Just as the Western Roman empire had needed St Augustine to explain the destruction of their world a millennium earlier so the Eastern half needed its patriarch to craft a narrative that grafted meaning to the madness.
In more optimistic moments Scholarios argued that the disaster had the potential to spur an ethical reformation that in turn would restore God’s favour. But his pessimism was more frequent and he believed the “Whole hope of the wretched remnant of the Romans had been lost” in sin. Sins that included the union, which he described as “a woe we suffered that came from the direction that we hoped would provide succour.” But also the older ones of pride, ambition and gratification. More specifically, he accused the Romans of having sold their pristine theology and well-guided souls for temporal and mundane advantages that slowly but surely betrayed them.
He opened his pastoral letter by gluing together quotes from psalms 81 and 89:
“Oh that my people had harkened until me and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies and turned my hand against their adversaries: but now with the rod and whip I visit their iniquities.”
Or, more powerfully:
“The smoke of our sins has stopped up the source of Thy mercy to us.”
He compared the fall of Constantinople (the New Jerusalem) to that of the old Jerusalem (587 BC or AD 70). The first ended in exile, the second in the diaspora. Scholarios spent a page or two considering their fate, quoting Isa.19:14:
“God has mixed and prepared for them a spirit of error and wandering.”
Undoubtedly some of the neo-paganism that afflicted the fifteenth century – no matter how refined – contributed to this spirit of error. Before 1453 he had written a congratulatory letter on the execution of a pagan. He also famously burned parts of Plethon’s Book of Laws, perhaps an act that saddened his own pupil Matthew Camariotes (who’d written a refutation of Plethon’s determinism in 1455) as much as the soul of the deceased scholar (d. 1452).
On more concrete matters, three months after the fall of the city Scholarios was returned to Constantinople where he was put in charge of a monastery (most of whose monks he had to ransom and assemble himself). The next year he hosted a ragtag synod of all the bishops he could muster which duly catapulted him from deacon to patriarch on the 6th January. Perhaps he was chosen by Mehmet for his qualities as an opponent of the union. Whatever the reasons, he had a tough set of goals in trying to establish a modus vivendi with the sultan, heighten morale, inspire unity among a clergy that was divided, and bring his flock back from the brink of apostasy.
Three times Mehmed visited Scholarios and listened to his exposition of the faith. This took place in one of Pammakaristos’ side-chapels, where the patriarchal seat had been transferred from the Holy Apostles. Wishful thinking ensured rumours circulated that Mehmed (who was accompanied on each visit by ulema) was on the verge of converting to Christianity – hearsay that subsequently contributed to the frequent publication (in bowdlerised forms) of Scholarios’ Confession of Faith. These visits probably had far less to do with any sympathy the sultan may or may not have had for the faith than the fact it was good optics for his multi-faith empire, especially considering he had just sacked its capital.
Scholarios appointed his friend, Theodore Agallianos, as Grand Chartophylax and the aforementioned Camriotes as Grand Rhetor (which may imply the revival of the Patriarchal Academy). Despite placing his friends in the right places, however, he did not have enough funds to repopulate the Roman parts of the city (including the monasteries). More positively, despite the sack of the city Scholarios was still considered the font of Orthodox authority. This can be seen in queries from major actors such as George Brankovic of Serbia and Mt Sinai. Letters to the latter are of interest mainly because they inform the monks to treat the Latins as schismatics rather than heretics.
It’s also fascinating that despite typically being portrayed as a blimpish traditionalist with an eccentric obsession for Aquinas, Scholarios went so far as to tell the Sinai monks that those monks who were overly punctilious were ultimately enemies of the faith. “Flexibility was needed to preserve the whole,” he argued. To obsess over the finer points of canon law when the laity were in danger of losing their souls was stupid. Sadly, however, it was this policy of oikonomia that gave envious prelates the pretext to be rid of him. This backstabbing worried the patriarch, mainly because these men were meant to lead the Church. He moaned that
“In return for our zeal on their behalf they pay us back with games and deceit, even plotting against my wretched life.”
 G. Scholarios, Oeuvres completes de Georges-Gennade Scholarios, ed. L. Petit et al., IV. 203.27-29. References to the Pastoral Letter give page and line only, other references add the volume number.
 IV. 476-89.
 IV. 198-207.