St. Peter Chrysologus, the Doctor of Short Homilies

“If the peace of the Church causes joy in heaven, then divisions must give birth to grief.”

School of Guercino, “Saint Peter Chrysologus” (17th Century)
School of Guercino, “Saint Peter Chrysologus” (17th Century) (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

I think many Catholics secretly wish for it, especially during the summer: a pastor who always gives a short homily.

In the history of the Church there haven’t been a lot of saints, let alone Doctors of the Church, who were famed for brief sermons. In fact, just the opposite is true: St. Robert Bellarmine (who I’ve written about here) was renowned for his elephantine homilies, as were St. Augustine and St. Ephrem of Syria — poet, hymnist and confessor —  who could (and did) could carry on for hours.

However, today’s saint, Peter Chrysologus (c. 380-450) is noted for being not only “of Golden Speech” (cf. his fellow Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, whose sobriquet means “Golden-Mouthed”), but for his brief homilies. In the inestimable words of Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints: “We have many of St. Peter Chrysologus’s discourses still extant: they are all very short for he was afraid of fatiguing the attention of his hearers.”

I’ve written before on St. Peter Chrysologus’s definition of love (which is sort of the antithesis of St. Paul’s), but for a moment I’d like to look at why, 1,300 years after his death, Pope Benedict XIII decided to raise St. Peter Chrysologus to the highest rank the Church can give: a Doctor (literally, “teacher”) of the Church.

It wasn’t due to his exciting life. Unlike other early doctors such as St. Augustine, who not only gave us the first autobiography with his Confessions, rife with his tortuous conversion story, or St. Athanasius, who was banished five times from his see and constantly hounded by his enemies before finally being recalled to Alexandria — or even the prickly St. Jerome, who wound up translating the Bible in a cave in Bethlehem — we know almost nothing reliable about St. Peter Chrysologus’s life itself. Even his birthdate is iffy.

Instead, St. Peter’s entire reputation is cemented by what he said (since even his actions as Archbishop of Ravenna are at best sketchy and riddled with pious legend) and wrote. Take for example his Sermon “on Peace”:

“Now that we are reborn, as I have said, in the likeness of Our Lord, and have indeed been adopted by God as his children, let us try to put on the complete image of our Creator so as to be wholly like him, not in the glory that He alone possesses, but in innocence, simplicity, gentleness, patience, humility, mercy, harmony, those qualities in which He chose to become, and to be, one with us.”

If you think you are having déjà vu, it’s because St. Peter Chrysologus is here reiterating St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 12:1. While it’s been said that one doesn’t go to St. Peter Chrysologus for originality of thought, one can surely not fault him for sticking to the subject matter — which, after all, is exactly what a good homilist should do. (Compare this to the priest whose homily has nothing to do with the Scripture readings of the day.)

In another explication of the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Peter Chrysologus almost outdoes St. Paul himself:

“My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no loss to shed my blood; it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.”

Nor was he was unafraid to put a fine point on a sharp sword:

“The man who wants to play with the devil will not be able to rejoice with Christ.”

But St. Peter Chrysologus was certainly not all fire-and-brimstone. Quite the opposite. In the selection taken from the Office of Readings (in fact, all of the pieces in this article appear in the Divine Office), he reminds his readers and listeners:

“O man, why do you think so little of yourself when God thinks so highly of you? Why dishonor yourself when God so honors you? Why be so concerned with the stuff from which you are made and so little with the purpose for which you are made? All visible creation is your home. For you the light dispels the darkness; for you the sun, moon, and stars shed their light; for you the earth bears flowers and trees and fruits; for you the air and the earth and water are filled with marvelous life — all so that earthly life may not be sad and make you blind to the joy of eternity.”

In the above selection St. Peter actually celebrates the human body and its many benefits and all that God has created for us (one is reminded of Psalm 8).

While it may seem like it took a long — a very long! — time for St. Peter Chrysologus to get his due with the title of “Doctor of the Church” (he died in 450, was never formally canonized, and named “Doctor” in 1729), it should be recalled that it wasn’t until the beginning of the 14th century that Pope Boniface VIII bestowed, for the first time, that title upon the four great Latin Doctors: Sts: Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. And it wasn’t until 1568 that the Four Great Eastern Doctors were so named: Sts. Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianus and John Chrysostom made the roster as well. In fact, St. Peter Chrysologus was second only to the great savant of the age, St. Isidore of Seville (1722) in receiving the moniker “Doctor of the Church.”

However, it is in one of his short letters that reveals St. Peter Chrysologus’s allegiance to the Pope. A heresiarch named Eutyches kept soliciting support for his erroneous view denying the humanity of Christ. When he approached St. Peter Chrysologus, the Archbishop of Ravenna told him point-blank: “In the interest of peace and faith, we cannot judge in matters of faith without the consent of the Roman bishop.” He then reminded Eutyches that “if the peace of the Church causes joy in heaven, then divisions must give birth to grief.”

In this statement we see not only St. Peter’s allying himself with the Supreme Pontiff but showing that no archbishop could judge with out the okay of the Servant of the Servants of God.

St. Peter Chrysologus, pray for us! Amen.

This article originally appeared Sept. 30, 2018, at the Register.