Saint John Chrysostom: The Power of the Word

São João Crisóstomo, detalhe das Portas Reais da Igreja de São Nicolau - Museu do Estado Russo, São Petersburgo - Foto: Gustavo Kralj

For more than 1,600 years his voice has resounded throughout the world, bearing witness to the universality of the high teachings he bequeathed to humanity.

Newsroom (13/09/2021 15:00, Gaudium Press) “The Word of God has an irresistible force. It is the most powerful weapon that exists; a weapon of conquest, a weapon of transformation much more powerful than the atomic bomb! A well-prepared sacred speaker, who transmits the revealed word, has in his hands a real treasure of influence and possibilities for doing good.”

The above comment by our Founder and Superior General explains well the importance of the life of St. John Chrysostom. Indeed, few holy preachers have been as outstanding as he was in the course of history. His life and above all his death bear witness to the efficacy of his word: the wicked felt the need to silence that “golden mouth” at the risk of seeing the entire East in the arms of the Mystical Spouse of Christ, already in the first centuries of Christianity.

The sonorous nickname Chrysostom – Golden Mouth, in Greek – is very fitting for this great Saint who knew how to present Catholic doctrine in an impassioned and convincing way in order to defend the integrity of Faith and Morals in those troubled times.

One could not know him without loving him

He was born around 349 in Antioch, which was at the time the second city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Here pagans, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Arians, Apollinarians, Jews and Christians lived together. His father, Secundus, commander of the imperial troops in the East, died soon after the birth of his son and it was his mother, Anthusa, a widow at the age of 20, who took on the task of educating the newborn.

The boy soon showed great intelligence and was referred to two famous teachers, one of whom was Libanius, considered the greatest orator of his century. He received a religious education from Bishop Melécio who, by his serious, gentle and attractive character, captivated the disciple to the point of making him give up classical studies and dedicate his life to the pursuit of spiritual perfection. Chrysostom received baptism and lectorate from this holy bishop at the age of 20.

The young John could have been carried away by his illustrious birth and the rare talents received from Providence, becoming perhaps one of the first men of the Empire. But after tasting “how sweet the Lord is”, the honours of the world did not attract him and his only desire was to consecrate himself to God in solitude. He devoted himself to a life of austerity and prayer, and studied Sacred Scripture deeply. Overcoming his temperament of anger, he acquired evangelical meekness, to which he added amiable modesty, tender charity towards his neighbour and a conduct full of wisdom.

After four formative years with Saint Melécio, he retired to a deserted place, where he lived as an anchorite under the direction of Diodorus, later Bishop of Tarsus. There he wrote several literary and spiritual works. With his health weakened by vigils and fasting, he was forced in 381 to return to Antioch, where he reassumed the function of lector to his zealous master, who conferred on him the ordination to the diaconate. The young John was still living the dawn of his spiritual life, finding great comfort and support in the friendship of his fellow student, St. Basil of Caesarea.

Fertile pastoral activity as a preacher

In that same year, 381, St Meletius died. The new Bishop of Antioch, Flavian, immediately found himself bound to Chrysostom by the bonds of holy friendship. He ordained him a priest in 386 and appointed him his preacher.

During the 12 years that he held this office, his fame as a sacred orator became widespread. His ardent sermons, always eagerly listened to and often interrupted by loud applause, were on the Sacred Scriptures. But he did not seek applause: he used the pulpit to bring souls to God and God to souls. Thus, he did not spare any criticism of the bad habits of the time, both those of the little people who applauded him and those of the powerful who initially admired him.

Making use of his extraordinary facility of expression, of the depth of his thought, of the noble and brilliant way of presenting himself, Chrysostom formed his flock with solid principles. Without any worldly concern, he strongly opposed the eccentric, mystical and allegorical interpretations of the so-called Alexandrian School, then in vogue.

In this period of pastoral activity as a preacher, he developed his most intense theological literary production. Judging only by these years, from 386 to 398, St. John Chrysostom could already be considered worthy to be among the first doctors of the Church. Nevertheless, greater honours lay in store for him and to attain them he had to accept the Cross of the Divine Redeemer on his shoulders.

Reforming the Clergy of Constantinople

Immersed in the abundant pleasures that economic prosperity afforded it, Constantinople was home to the splendid court of the Roman emperors of the East. As in all times, where there is wealth, luxury and ostentation, Christian virtues are often lacking. When Archbishop Nectarius died, the Emperor Arcadius wished to elevate the holy preacher to that dignity. Thus, on 28 February 397, he received episcopal ordination from Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, and took possession of the See of Constantinople.

The presbyter John found himself unexpectedly in the arrogant metropolis, placed at the head of the Byzantine Episcopate, in an environment where appearances and power, often gained through secret machinations, predominated. According to Palladium of Galatia, one of his most important biographers, Saint John began his government by sweeping away the ladder from above, that is, “he began by tearing down the edifice of falsehood in order to reach the foundations of truth”. He encountered the Patriarch Theophilus himself, who, on observing him so upright and frank in his homilies, took a dislike to him.

Theophilus, “so skilful in discerning hidden thoughts and intentions”, when he did not find in Chrysostom something that was in harmony with his own relativistic and lax way of being, promoted all kinds of hostility against the new Archbishop, because “he preferred to dominate those of weak character rather than listen to the wise and prudent”.

Nevertheless, St. John, true to his conscience, began to moralize the customs of the clergy, from those pertaining to the practice of chastity to those concerning the possession and use of material goods. Many, among the numerous monks of the diocese, preferred to spend more time outside than inside their monasteries. Chrysostom persuaded them to return to recollection.

Kind to the rich and needy

As he had done in Antioch, he preached against worldly customs and the ridiculous extravagance of fashions, especially to widows, whom he strongly recommended to live according to the laws of decorum imposed by their peculiar situation. These warnings provoked resentment among some of the ladies of the Court, who complained to the Empress.

The people, however, listened with delight to the noble, beautiful and, at the same time, severe words of the “Golden Mouth”. All the more so because they saw in his personal conduct the exemplary practice of what he preached. Concerned for the most needy, he built several hospitals for the poor and for foreigners; his alms were so abundant that he was called John the alms-giver.

He was kind to sinners, heretics and pagans to the point that some, with false zeal for religion, reproached him; but he, acting with paternal sweetness, exhorted all to penance and conversion: “If you fall a thousand times into sin, come to me and you will be healed”. However, when it came to maintaining discipline, he was firm and persistent, always avoiding rudeness in words. He organised widows and consecrated virgins to live in community under the direction of Saint Olympia, a young widow who devoted her enormous fortune and her life to the service of God and neighbour.

Our Saint had other great friends among the rich. Brison, a bailiff in the service of the Empress Eudoxia, helped him in his instructions to the faithful and always showed him true friendship. The Empress herself gave him many signs of admiration and even devotion: she attended his sermons, followed his processions, offered ornamental objects for worship and made other demonstrations of consideration. She obtained from the Emperor the promulgation of laws favorable to the Christianization of the whole Empire.

Frictions with the Imperial Court

To destroy the influence of this man of God, the devil made cunning use of little incidents in which envy, selfishness and organised intrigue were evident. First, he made use of Eutropius, the Emperor’s chamberlain. This man, who at first admired the holy Bishop from the bottom of his heart, committed an enormous abuse of power, persecuting anyone who appeared to threaten his position. St John tried several times to dissuade him from this misconduct, but without result. When at last Eutropius fell into disgrace, he sought refuge in the cathedral to escape his numerous enemies. Ignoring all the offences and disregard received from this opportunist, St. John interceded for him once more, which did not please the Court.

Shortly afterwards the Empress Eudoxia, whose influence over the Emperor Arcadius had greatly increased after the fall of Eutropius, committed a grave injustice against a widow and Chrysostom took the side of the weaker one, which offended the sovereign. Added to this was the friction with the Arian Gainas, commander of the Goth mercenaries of the imperial army, who requisitioned a church in Constantinople to house his soldiers. Chrysostom vigorously opposed this insolent claim.

The Imperial Court and the Episcopal Palace had thus established a distant relationship that foreshadowed a catastrophe. St John Chrysostom found himself in a grave situation, especially since the clique of the courtiers felt itself strengthened by the advent of new allies, including some ecclesiastics: Severian, Bishop of Gabala, who boasted of rivalling Chrysostom in eloquence; Antiochus, Bishop of Ptolemaida; and, for a time, Acacius, Bishop of Beroea. All of them preferred the charm-filled life of the Court to the simplicity of their dioceses.

However, the reputation of sanctity, the apostolic fervour, the prudence and wisdom of the man of God gained him the confidence of the neighbouring regions. And he was invited by several Bishops to preside over a regional synod at Ephesus, in order to appoint a new Archbishop and to depose some Bishops accused of simony.

Oak Synod and first exile

In his absence, there remained at the head of the Church of Constantinople his rival, Severian, to whom Chrysostom himself had entrusted some ecclesiastical functions, in an attempt to win his friendship. But, always overbearing and ambitious, the Bishop of Gabala came into conflict with the bursar of the cathedral.

The situation was complicated when Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, was summoned to the capital by the emperor to defend himself against certain charges before a synod – later known as the “Synod of the Oak”, in reference to the suburb of Chalcedon in which it was held – which Chrysostom would preside. Theophilus attended accompanied by 29 bishops, his suffragan bishops and seven others. When the assembly began, he presented a long list of unfounded accusations against Saint John, who had suddenly passed from judge to defendant. Obviously, the Saint refused to recognize the legality of this manoeuvre and stopped attending the meetings. In view of his absence after three summonses, he was declared deposed from the episcopal see and condemned to exile.

As was to be expected, the people revolted and demanded his return. Superstitiously fearing a divine punishment, the Empress Eudoxia, who behind the scenes was manoeuvring events, ordered him to be reinstated. He returned and Theophilus was forced to flee Constantinople. But Eudhoxia’s defeat had the effect of further increasing his deep resentment.

The “Golden Mouth” has fallen silent to human ears

Only two months later, another incident aggravated the situation. A silver statue of the Empress had been erected in front of the Church of St Sophia. The public games promoted during the inauguration festivities had disrupted the liturgical functions and dragged the people into disorder and extravagant manifestations of superstition.

With his characteristic zeal and courage, the Archbishop raised his voice from the pulpit against such abuses, perpetrated under the direction of the Inspector of Games, a Manichaean. But the Empress, in a fit of vanity, took this as an outrage on her person. Enraged, she again summoned the enemies of St. John Chrysostom to dismiss him. On the basis of certain canons of an Arian Synod held in 341, the Bishops who were in favour of the Empress obtained from the Emperor a decree banishing St John Chrysostom. Thus, in the year 404 he was led into his second exile.

Initially the troops took him to an isolated and rude place on the eastern border of Armenia, where, however, he was able to maintain correspondence with disciples and friends. From there he wrote to Pope Innocent I, who, indignant at the treacherous procedure of those bad bishops, dismissed several of them and addressed comforting words of support to the wronged man.

Fearing a possible return of the uncomfortable man of God, his enemies decided to transfer him, in 407, to Pithyus, a place situated at the extreme limits of the Empire, near the Caucasus. The cruel sufferings of the trek under the strong sun and rain, aggravated by the bad treatment of the soldiers, exhausted his already weakened body to the point of total exhaustion. Thus, on September 14 of that year, the “Golden Mouth” fell silent to human ears and opened to sing the glories and praises of its Creator and Redeemer in Heaven.

An important part of the Holy Church’s treasure

“From the fifth century onwards, Chrysostom was venerated throughout the Christian Church, East and West, for his courageous witness in defence of the Faith and his generous dedication to pastoral ministry. His doctrinal teaching and preaching, as well as his solicitude for the Sacred Liturgy, soon earned him the recognition of Father and Doctor of the Church”, according to the words of Pope Benedict XVI.

In fact, his vast work – divided into pamphlets, homilies and letters – represents an important part of the priceless treasure of the Holy Church. For more than 1,600 years his voice has resounded throughout the world. The very extensive bibliography existing in his regard and the countless editions of his writings bear witness to the perpetuity of the high teachings bequeathed by him to humanity. Saint Pius X proclaimed him patron of sacred orators in 1907.

By Sr. Angela Maria Tomé, EP

(in “Magazine Heralds of the Gospel”, n. 141, pp. 32-35)


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