Was Alexander Nevsky Catholic?

Originally posted 2/20/2011.

Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263), Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir, was anti-Catholic his whole life

1. Did Alexander Nevsky, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow and All Russia (1542-1563) in 1547,{1} convert to Catholicism? The conventional wisdom is that he did not; this is the “unanimous” consensus of “Russian writers,”, according to the expert Aurelio Palmieri (1870-1926).{2} His Life asserts that he said in 1248 to visiting papal legates that Russian Orthodox are members of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and that they adhere firmly to the Seven Ecumenical Councils: “These we know very well, but we do not accept your teaching.”{3}

2. There are strong reasons to doubt the legendary anti-Catholicism of Russia’s “national hero,”{4} whom Pope Innocent IV of Rome (1243-1254) of happy memory tried to convert to the only true faith, Catholicism.{5} In his 1/23/1248 letter to Alexander, Pope Innocent IV exhorted him to join the Catholic Church, like the former’s father, Grand Prince Yaroslav II of Vladimir (1238–1246) did after he renounced schism in front of the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini (1182-1252).{6} Russian historians say that Alexander made his aforementioned rebuff to two cardinals who delivered the letter, Galda and Emonte, but this is doubtful.{7} Pope Innocent IV joyfully congratulated Alexander on becoming Catholic in his 9/15/1248 letter to the latter.{8} In this letter, Innocent invites Alexander to receive Archbishop Albert of Prussia with dignity and work with him to convert people to Catholicism.{9} Innocent granted Alexander’s request to be permitted to build a Roman Catholic cathedral in Pskov.{10} The anti-Catholic “Confession of Faith of St. Alexander Nevsky” is apocryphal.{11}

3. Palmieri makes these concluding remarks in his DHGE article: “We have no further information on the relationship between Alexander and Innocent IV. … It is difficult, from the lack of documents, to decide the question” of whether Alexander Nevsky converted to Catholicism and died a Catholic.{12}

4. While Alexander Nevsky figures as a saint on many web collections of Catholic saints,{13} such collections are not always reliable,{14} and I have been misled by them in the past (I apologize to you, dear readers, for my mistakes in this regard, and any other errors!). In the New Catholic Encyclopedia article “Alexander Nevski,”{15} Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor says, “He is venerated as a saint in the Russian Church.” Properly speaking, the Russian Church is the Russian Catholic Church, and I hope that is what Sherbowitz-Wetzor means.

Notes & References
{1} “Repose of St. Alexander Nevsky” at OCA website.
{2} Palmieri, Aurelio. “The Religion of Russia.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 20 Feb. 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13253a.htm>.
{3} “Repose…”
{4} Palmieri, loc. cit.
{5} Ibid.
{6} Palmieri, “Alexandre Nevski,” Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. A. Baudrillart, et al. (Paris 1912—) 2:262.
{7} Ibid.
{8} Ibid.
{9} Ibid.
{10} Ibid.
{11} Ibid.
{12} Ibid.
{13} See Alexander’s entries at Catholic.org and Patron Saints Index, which links to his entry in the 1910 New Catholic Dictionary.
{14} For instance, Patron Saints Index and Catholic.org list the anti-Catholic monk Nicodemus of Mt. Athos (the Hagiorite) (1749-1809), who notoriously denied the validity of Catholic baptism, as a saint of the Catholic Church! The Orthodox Church did not canonize Nicodemus until 1955, 126 years after the reunion of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church. The official, public ecclesiastical veneration of saints who were known to have written against the teachings of the Catholic Church presupposes the moral (but not necessarily historical) certainty that these persons died after being received formally into the Catholic Church or explicitly desiring to enter the Catholic Church; for example, St. Gregory Palamas of Thessalonica (1296-1359), canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1368 and officially accepted as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1973. See “False Ecumenism.” The Banana Republican 8 Dec. 2010. 20 Feb. 2011 <https://thebananarepublican1.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/false-ecumenism/>.
{15} NCE, vol. 1, 2nd ed., p. 263.

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