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Saint Vladimir of Kiev

Saint Vladimir of Kiev
  • Century: 11th Century
  • Patronage: Russia, converts, parents of large families, reformed and penitential murderers
  • Feast Day: July 15th

It has once been remarked that the greatest weakness of the Catholic Church is its sinners.  On the other hand, the greatest strength is its saints.  And perhaps most astonishingly, its greatest witness is when those sinful wretches become the holy saints.  Such is the case of St. Vladimir, a grand-prince of Kiev, who ruled a region brimming in barbarism and idolatry.  St. Vladimir was no exception, ruling the region with an iron-fist, lavishly self-indulgent and possessive of numerous female slaves, he also had five wives.  His grip on power was secure and he seemed poised to extend the reach of that power.

In 989 when he was thirty-two years of age, it appears that St. Vladimir was baptized in order to marry the Emperor of Constantinople’s daughter.  It is extremely likely that the baptism was motivated solely to satisfy the Church; and thus spelling out a marriage of convenience for St. Vladimir to reap the political and economic benefits the son-in-law of the emperor would undoubtedly receive.  However, after his baptism a marked and noticeable shift occurred in St. Vladimir. 

He turned away all his mistresses, freed all his slaves, and stayed faithfully committed to Anne, his wife.  He supplied Greek missionaries with unfettered support in his kingdom, even to the point of levying fines on those who refused baptism.  The members of his court converted and the once-pagan prince took refuge in learning more about virtuous living according to the Faith he suddenly embraced with an unrelenting grip.   He became a leading example of penitential living for his subjects; in addition, he not only frequently gave alms, but also introduced the Western notion of tithing to the Byzantine region.  He even strove to be more just and equitable in judgment, sometimes concerned as to whether he was qualified to sit in judgment, even as a temporal authority.

The date of his baptism is the starting date of the conversion of Russia.  St. Vladimir of Kiev is affectionately referred to in the Slavic region as the Apostle of Russia.  While many downplay the speed by which legend attributes Russia’s conversion to St. Vladimir’s conversion, it seems clear that what he began, despite the speed by which it occurred, laid the groundwork for the subsequent conversion of the nation.  St. Vladimir died in 1015.  It is said that by that time he possessed not personal belongings, having given everything he owned to the poor.

Practical Take-Away: Great Sinners, Great Saints  

St. Vladimir may have had an amazing conversion story.  But conversion is an on-going process meant to lead to sanctification.  That didn’t happen as quickly for St. Vladimir.  It often doesn’t happen so quickly for us, either.  The key to the Christian life is to embrace the struggle of conversion—we will not avoid sin until we are glorified, and thus we must ask ourselves not whether we shall or shall not sin—but whether we will let our own weaknesses lead us to despair.  We’re going to make mistakes and we are going to sin.  Self-mastery takes a lifetime—which may explain why God gave us a lifetime to do it in! 

The convert must be hopeful—who tries their best to avoid sin, but if he does sin, instead of turning from God, beating themselves up, they rush to the Divine Mercy of Jesus and follow the example of St. Vladimir: “When he had in a moment of passion fallen into sin he at once sought to make up for it by penitence and almsgiving” (Bulter, iii, 110).  When we relish the opportunity to flock to Christ, we turn the evil of our sins into a good; we use the Devil’s lies to encounter Christ.  And when the Devil discovers that we let his diabolic promptings lead us to the Cross, he will retreat from tempting us anymore.  The last thing Satan wants is for us to go to embrace Jesus.