The legal profession has existed for millennia and has enjoyed great respect and prominence throughout its history. Many famous people who excelled in a variety of areas started as lawyers. Writers Honoré de Balzac, Franz Kafka and Wolfgang Goethe, composer Pyotr Rashkovsky and mathematician Pierre Fermat were all former lawyers. Among the Orthodox saints, there are also several members of the legal profession. Some abandoned jurisprudence for the service of God, others ascended to sainthood while practising law.
Nearly all have benefited from their education as lawyers to become prominent preachers of God’s word
Saint Ambrose of Milan was born in 340 to the family of a Roman governor. When he was a small child, the Lord sent an omen predicting his future talent and works. Once, bees covered the face of the sleeping infant. They flew in and out of his mouth, leaving honey on his tongue.
His family’s high position enabled Ambrose to receive a brilliant education and secure an appointment as governor of Liguria and Aemilia. When the reigning bishop of Milan died in 174, a dispute broke out between the true Christians and Arian heretics over the candidacy of his successor. As the top civil servant in the city, Ambrose came to church to mediate. He addressed the people with an inspirational speech, and one of the children in the audience cried out, “Ambrose, the bishop!” This compromise candidacy was acceptable to all, and the people rejoiced. Ambrose, a catechumen at the time, considered himself unworthy of the nomination and left the city. Yet the emperor of Rome supported his appointment, and Ambrose could not disobey. He accepted baptism and his ordination as a bishop.
From that time onwards, Bishop Ambrose lived as an ascetic, fully dedicating himself to the defence of the unity of the Church and the fight against the heresies. His preaching was deeply influential. Many heeded to his pastoral word, including the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Kings and sages from afar came to ask him for his advice and guidance.
Saint Ambrose became famous as a theologian and hymnographer. His hymn “O Lord we praise Thee and confess” forms a part of the Orthodox order of worship.
Saint John Chrysostom, born in 347, grew up in a wealthy pious family in Antioch. He received his elementary education from his mother and continued to study independently until he was eighteen years of age. He continued his education with Pagan teachers, the only option for learning available at his time. First, he studied public speaking at the academy of Livanius, a known Pagan, where he exceeded the mastery of his teacher. He also studied other disciplines.
After completing his studies, Saint John joined the legal profession, the mainstay of all educated young people from the upper classes. Pure and pious at heart, he confronted the harsh reality of the secular world. His appearances at court opened his eyes to the depth of the most disgraceful human vices. His experience as a lawyer made him an eloquent critic of human imperfection and helped him become a prominent public speaker. He chose the path of monasticism and took an oath of silence, but he still impressed his flock with his fiery homilies as a presbyter. In his multiple surviving works, saint John Chrysostom presents an example of an uncompromising thirst for truth, urging us to repent and follow the way of God.
A known 19th-century Russian lawyer Fyodor Plevako (1842 – 1908), who impressed many with his public speaking skills, was also deeply religious. By quoting from the Holy Scripture, he often guided the jury and judges towards a just verdict. Someone asked Plevako about the secret of his eloquence and the professors who were his role models. Smilingly, he replied, “I learned the smaller part of my skill at school and university, for which I am thankful to my teachers and pray for them. However, I owe most of my skill to Saint John Chrysostom.”
The practice of law and the ascent to martyrdom
From these ancient saints, let us go over to some of the more recent examples of lawyers who ascended to sainthood in our time by defending rigorously and fearlessly the Church, God and the faithful during the dark times in the history of Russia.
Martyr Ivan Kosharov was born in 1878 to a noble family in Odessa. He finished a gymnasium and graduated from the faculty of law of the local university. In 1906, he moved to Saint Petersburg and joined the bar association as an assistant lawyer. He went on to practise as a solicitor at law in a commercial court.
Starting in 1907, he served as an assistant lawyer of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and took care of the legal affairs of the Diocese of Petrograd.
Martyr Yury Novitsky, born in 1882, grew up in a family of the nobility. For generations, all its members had adhered to the principle “Conscience and dignity above all”. Yury went in the footsteps of his father and became a lawyer. He graduated with distinction from the faculty of law of Kiev University, where he became a merited professor.
Beyond legal research, he also practised as a criminal investigator. He ran a shelter for the orphaned children whose parents had been sentenced to hard labour. He was non-political and a steadfast opponent of the death penalty. He was also a believer. While in Kiev, he served at a church and was also an active member of a religious philosophy circle. He had numerous friends among the clergy and philosopher. He was particularly close with Metropolitan Benjamin (Kazansky) of the Diocese of Petrograd.
In 1918, Ivan Kosharov and Yury Novitsky were called to represent the clergy and laity of the Diocese of Petrograd before the Soviet authorities. Ivan Kosharov was appointed commissioner for general church affairs, and Yury Novitsky served as the president of the association of Orthodox parishes of Petrograd. In those years, the Bolshevik government not only concerned itself with the church properties but also exercised surveillance of the activities of the clergy.
Ivan Kosharov wrote memoranda for the Bolsheviks with convincing arguments against the closure of the churches and the censure of the priests. Through his work, this advocate of the Diocese stood in the way of the plans and ambitions of the party. In 1919 and 1921, Kosharov was arrested on suspicion of being a member of the party of the cadets, a rival of the Bolsheviks. Both times, he was released for lack of evidence.
During the famine of 1921, the Soviet government strengthened its attacks on the Church. Under the pretext of raising cash for famine relief, the Bolsheviks confiscated the church valuables, even as they continued to export grain abroad. John and Yury negotiated an agreement whereby the church valuables would be taken with observance of the church canons and with the oversight of the laity. Kosharov also insisted that the cash donations and other assets of the church should be spent on meeting the needs of the people, not the party.
However, the government changed its course abruptly and adopted a more aggressive stance. The reason was the secret order from Vladimir Lenin to accompany confiscation of the church property with mass shootings and persecution of the clergy and laity. Eventually, John and Yury were arrested along with Metropolitan Benjamin and thirteen others on charges of resisting the confiscation of the church assets. In June 1922, the clergy and laity of the diocese of Petrograd were put on trial.
The memoirs of the Arch-presbyter Mikhail Polsky describe the trial as follows. “… The outcome of the trial was clear from its first minutes. Nevertheless, Kosharov was answering the questions calmly, accurately and, frequently, with sarcasm.” In his speech in court, he rebuffed the arguments of the prosecution one by one, insisting on his innocence. “For the execution of sixteen people, the case of the prosecution seems too weak,” he concluded.
In his final speech, Yury Novitsky also asserted his innocence. “However, if anyone desires sacrificial deaths, I am fully prepared to tale mine. One thing I will ask you is to spare the lives of the others in this dock”.
There was little doubt from the beginning of the trial about its verdict and the sentences. However, of the 16 defendants, only four received death sentences – Metropolitan Benjamin (Kazansky), Archimandrite Sergius (Shein), Ivan Kosharov, and Yury Novitsky. All the others were sentenced to different terms of hard labour.
In the early hours of 14 August 1922, the men were secretly taken to the outskirts of Petrograd, where they were executed and buried in an unmarked grave. Seven decades later, they were glorified by the Church as saints. Today, believers invoke their names in prayers for God’s help in mounting a successful legal defence and in legal studies.
People of all professions have the chance to serve God for their salvation and ascent to sainthood. The above examples show that members of the legal profession can also be good servants of God. To this end, they need to live by the wisdom of the Gospel and keep a clear conscience.