The Voice of St. Chromatius is Heard Once More

St. Chromatius seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the early Church.

St. Chromatius preaches in the Basilica of Aquileia
St. Chromatius preaches in the Basilica of Aquileia (photo: YukioSanjo/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2004 I was working as a book editor. One of the pleasures of that job was coming up with ideas for new books. So at a “proposal meeting” (where an editor proposes a book idea to the entire team) I proposed a book of St. Chromatius’ sermons.

My idea was unanimously voted down.

So I was especially pleased to see that the publishers of the Ancient Christian Writers Series have produced the exact book I proposed 15 years ago: Chromatius of Aquileia’s Sermons and Tractates on Matthew.

I will, of course, receive no credit for this handsome volume — nor do I deserve any — but credit is overrated. The important thing is that books like this get published. Period.

“But wait a minute,” I can almost hear someone ask. “Who is St. Chromatius? And why did you want to do a book on him?”

Good questions, both.

St. Chromatius was born between 335 and 340, in Aquileia, a city near the port of Trieste (which has variously been part of Italy and Austria) to a widowed mother. His brother also went on to become a bishop, and we know that he had sisters as well. Around the age of 30, he took Holy Orders.

My initial interest in him was twofold: first, he may have been a deacon in the early Church, and at that time I was busy working on a “deacon’s library.”

However, there is no doubt that, despite the paucity of knowledge about him, Chromatius was ordained priest and then consecrated bishop of Aquileia.

My other interest in him — and the reason I thought that a book was necessary — was that many of his works were newly discovered. Very little of it had been translated into English, let alone collected and presented with concomitant notes and a scholarly introduction.

Further, Chromatius seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the early Church. He was both a correspondent and friend of St. Jerome and he assisted in financing St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible. In the Eastern Church, Chromatius was a supporter of St. John Chrysostom.

Chromatius baptized Rufinus, the monk who was to translate St. Eusebius’s work on the Church Ecclesiastical History, and the translator of almost all the works of Origen.

Chromatius was also a peacemaker and tried to tamp down the dispute over Origen’s excessively allegorical interpretations of Scripture (which infuriated St. Jerome).

Chromatius also encouraged St. Ambrose, the man who was to baptize the great St. Augustine, to write a commentary on Balaam (see Chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers).

As bishop of Aquileia, St. Chromatius wrote to the Emperor Honorius, condemning the treatment St. John Chrysostom had been subject to — and it is a tribute to his import as a Church prelate that Honorius forwarded Chromatius’s letter to his brother Arcadius in Constantinople.

Also as bishop, St. Chromatius fought against the Arian Heresy (which erroneously taught that Jesus was created by God the Father at a certain point in time) at a synod held in his native Aquileia.

But it is his writing that endures. Chromatius knew his audience and thus was able to fashion a sort of rhetorical prose that was both trenchant and touching:

The lust of illicit longing is a weakness of the mind. Fury, wrath, vanity, envy, and other vices, these are illnesses of the soul and wounds to the mind, which lead the soul all the way to the endangerment of salvation and to the death of sin. And so, the one who is sick in sins of this sort, even if he is sound in body, is sick all over. The one who is sick in his mind, is sick in his soul. But the one who is estranged from these vices, even if he is sick in his body, is utterly healthy in mind, because God desires the health of the mind more than that of the body. Do you want proof of this? That poor man Lazarus as we read in the Gospel, was always weak in body until his death. For he was full of sores, but his mind was completely sound, since he was not sick with any malady of sin.

St. Chromatius seems to be doing something of a high-wire act here: contemporary biblical exegetes are always wary of equating suffering with sin, and do their best to gloss over or at least contextualize even straightforward lines like Our Lord’s words, “Look, you are well: do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14) which are addressed to the paralytic at the pool.

Nor is Chromatius particularly wary of pushing to the side the oversimplification of “Blessed are the poor” in the Beatitudes. He writes:

We know many poor people, indeed, but they are not blessed merely because they are poor. For the distress of poverty does not make each of us blessed, but faith from poverty accompanied by devotion. For we know many indeed who lack worldly resources, yet they do not cease sinning and are estranged from faith in God. Clearly we cannot call these people ‘blessed’.

It is refreshing to read passages like this from the Church Fathers, who seem not to care at all about current conventional wisdom about sin and punishment and the “value” of poverty when it is not accompanied by faith.

St. Chromatius — who is without doubt one of the most important prelates of his day — is finally available to English readers and we are all richer for his work.