St. John the Wonderworker

Original Article

Chosen wonderworker and pleaser of Christ, who pours forth inexhaustible streams of inspiration and a multitude of miracles upon the whole world, we praise thee with love and call out to thee: Rejoice, O holy hierarch, Father John, speedy helper amid misfortunes! —Akathist Hymn to St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

This September, the Roman Catholic Church will canonize Mother Teresa, the great nun and humanitarian, in a vivid reminder that saintliness continues in our contemporary world. Less well known in the West—and unknown to me before I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy—are the many Orthodox saints who demonstrate the same truth.

My patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco—also known as “St. John the Wonderworker”—is particularly noteworthy in this regard, due to the special esteem in which he is held by Orthodox Christians in the United States, and because of the special commemorations that were just completed on the fiftieth anniversary of his repose.

Born Michael Maximovitch in 1896, St. John lived an extraordinary life of piety, deep asceticism (for example, he refused to sleep in a bed), and tireless service to the needy—particularly to orphans and the sick. Saintliness often presents itself humbly: St. John was diminutive in stature—under five feet tall—with a somewhat disfigured mouth and a speech impediment that caused him to slur his words. But he was also whip-smart, deeply devoted to the faith, and inexhaustibly dedicated to Christian service.

He was tonsured Monk John in 1926, later becoming a Hieromonk (a monk who is also a priest). Consecrated to the episcopate by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR)—formed after the Russian Orthodox Church was decimated and corrupted by the Bolsheviks—Bishop John was assigned to Shanghai in 1934, where he shepherded a community of exiled White Russians, Serbs, Ukrainians, and Chinese Orthodox Christians until 1949.

During his years in China, he built a cathedral, apparently survived an attempted assassination by poison, founded an orphanage that saved hundreds of abandoned children, and held his flock together during the terrible years of war and Japanese occupation. While in Shanghai, he gained a reputation as a great “wonderworker”—in Orthodoxy, an especially holy person associated with healings and other miracles—a reputation that grew throughout his life.

As the Chinese Communists were prevailing over the Nationalists, Archbishop John successfully led his flock to safety in the Philippines. He then went to Washington, D.C., where, against all odds, he persuaded the U.S. government to pass a special law allowing those homeless Russians to immigrate here. During the 1950s, he moved his orphanage to San Francisco and was the ROCOR Archbishop of Western Europe. In 1963, he became the Archbishop of San Francisco, where he spent his final years healing a diocese torn by internal strife and completing the construction of the new cathedral, a project in danger of collapse before his arrival.

Archbishop John died suddenly on July 2, 1966, while on a pastoral visit to Seattle. His body was buried—without embalming, in the Orthodox custom—in a crypt beneath the altar of the San Francisco cathedral. In 1994, he was canonized and disinterred. His metal casket, selected because it was supposedly rust-proof, was thoroughly corroded. But the saint’s relics were found to be incorrupt, which is considered a sign of saintliness in Orthodoxy. Today his remains lie in a glass-topped casket inside the church, and pilgrims come from around the world to pray before him, seeking his intercession in the belief that, as in the days of his earthly life, St. John’s prayers can bring about miracles.

A mere biography of a great man can rob him of his vibrancy, veiling the humanity of him who lived, breathed, loved, sinned, prayed, and died—which is why I attended at the cathedral last weekend a special symposium, “St. John: A Living Legacy,” in association with the repose commemorations. Many of the speakers had known St. John well, mostly as teenagers and members of families that had been longtime members of his flock; they had grown up “hearing the stories.” Also included among the presenters were two of his Chinese “orphans,” now married octogenarians and American citizens.

The speakers, each covering a different era of the saint’s life, spoke lovingly of St. John’s warmth and kindness and described his untiring pastoral service, such as the countless hours he spent visiting hospitals. They also described miracles that they had personally witnessed or had heard about at the time they’d occurred. Here is one standout: After services in Paris one day, Archbishop John was supposed to catch a plane. Even though time was short, the archbishop insisted that his helpers research the whereabouts of a certain man in the Russian community—calling him by name, even though the two had never met. Calls were made, a dragnet set in motion, and the man’s address found. When he arrived, St. John leaped out of the car and pounded on the door—intervening just as the man was about to commit suicide. Despite all the time it had taken to save the man’s life, the archbishop didn’t miss his flight.

But even beyond these stories, the speakers gave us a very good sense of the living and breathing man—before he became the icon image now seen in churches and homes throughout the world. Like all truly holy people, St. John had the virtue of great humility. During his final trip to Seattle, the archbishop stopped at the home of a priest who had opposed him bitterly in the San Francisco controversies, and received Confession there. This act of meekness, on the day before the saint’s death, healed their relationship. When I asked a roundtable of the participants whether St. John had ever remarked on the cloud of miracles that surrounded him, they looked at each other with great puzzlement. Finally, one who knew him especially well slowly replied, “You know, I never heard him talk about himself,” a statement affirmed by vigorous nods all around.

St. John is a wonderworking saint par excellence, to whom desperate people turn for healings, jobs, babies—for fulfillment of the heart’s yearnings. A few years ago, a good friend of mine was agonizing over an intractable personal problem, the solution to which was wholly in the hands of another, whose whereabouts were unknown. After venerating the saint’s relics, my friend placed a written prayer request in a slot under the catafalque. Within a week, the “disappeared” person had called my friend out of the blue and the problem was soon resolved.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But my friend thinks not! Nor would the legions of Orthodox Christians who turn to the wonderworker in their hours of greatest desperation and need, begging, “St. John, pray for us sinners!”

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.