St. John Chrysostom

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

During his general audience on Sept. 26, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. John Chrysostom, which he had begun during his previous general audience. Because of his constant concern for the poor and for each individual person, John Chrysostom was a precursor in formulating the Church’s social doctrine.

Today we will continue our reflection on St. John Chrysostom. After the time he spent in Antioch, he was named bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the year 397.

From the very beginning, John made plans for reforming the Church: the austerity of his episcopal palace was to be an example for all — priests, widows, monks, members of the royal court, as well as the wealthy. Unfortunately, a good number of these people, who had been the target of his criticisms, distanced themselves from him.

Because of his concern for the poor, John was also called the “Almsgiver.” Indeed, he was a conscientious administrator and successfully created several highly-regarded charitable institutions.

Because of his initiatives in various areas, some people considered him a dangerous rival. However, being the true shepherd that he was, he treated everyone in a very fatherly and friendly manner. In particular, he would always show tender concern for women and took a special interest in marriage and family life. He would invite the faithful to take part in liturgical life, which, because of his creative genius, was always magnificent and attractive to others.

A Life of Trials

Even though John Chrysostom had a good heart, he did not have a peaceful life.

Since he was the shepherd of the capital of the empire, he often found himself involved in arguments and political intrigue due to his ongoing dealings with civil authorities and institutions.

In terms of Church affairs, he was accused of having overstepped the limits of his jurisdiction after having deposed six bishops who were illegitimately elected in Asia in the year 401, and became the target of irresponsible accusations.

The presence of several Egyptian monks, who had sought refuge in Constantinople after having been excommunicated by their patriarch, Theophilus of Alexandria, was yet another pretext for attacks against him. Later, a heated controversy arose after John Chrysostom criticized the Empress Eudoxia and some members of her court, who reacted by discrediting him and insulting him.

At this point, he was deposed after a synod that the Patriarch Theophilus himself organized in 403, which resulted in his being sentenced to his first short exile. After his return, hostility arose against him following his protests against the festivities that were held in honor of the empress — which he, as bishop, considered as pagan and luxurious — and his protests over the expulsion of several priests who were responsible for the baptism of catechumens during the Easter Vigil in 404. This marked the beginning of the persecution of John Chrysostom and his followers, who were called “Johannites.”

John explained all these facts in a letter to the Bishop of Rome, Innocent I. But it was too late.

In 406, he once again had to go into exile, this time to Cucusus, in Armenia. The Pope was convinced of his innocence, but was powerless to help him. Rome tried to convoke a council in order to establish peace between the two parts of the empire and two churches, but it never took place.

The tiring journey from Cucusus to Pythius, a destination that he never reached, impeded the faithful from visiting him and broke down the worn-out exile’s resistance. His sentence of exile was truly a death sentence!

The numerous letters that John wrote from exile are very moving. In them, he speaks about his pastoral concerns with tones of sorrow and sympathy for the persecutions that his followers suffered. His journey toward death came to an end in Comana in Pontus. There, the dying John was brought into the chapel of the martyr Basiliscus, where he gave up his spirit to God and was buried — a martyr next to a martyr (see Palladio, Vita 119). He died on Sept. 14 of the year 407 — the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

John’s reputation was rehabilitated by Theodosius II in the year 438. The relics of the saintly bishop, which had been placed in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople, were brought to Rome in 1204 to the first basilica that Constantine erected, and now lie in the Chapel of the Choir of Canons in St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Aug. 24, 2004, Pope John Paul II donated a considerable portion of the relics to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The saint’s liturgical feast is celebrated on Sept. 13.

Blessed John XXIII proclaimed him patron saint of the Second Vatican Council.

Man’s Ascent to God

People have said that when John Chrysostom was seated on the throne of the New Rome — in other words, Constantinople — God revealed him as a second Paul, a doctor of the universe. But in reality, John Chrysostom exhibited a substantial unity of thought and action, both in Antioch and in Constantinople. Only his role changed and the situations changed.

In his commentary on Genesis, John Chrysostom meditates on the eight works that God carried out over the period of six days and expresses his desire to lead the faithful from creation to the Creator.

“It is highly beneficial,” he says, “to know that which is the creature and who is the Creator.” He shows us the beauty of creation and God’s transparency within creation, which then becomes a sort of “staircase” to ascend to God in order to know him. However, to this first step, he adds a second: This creator God is also the God of synkatabasis (condescension). We are weak in our “ascent” and our eyes are weak. Therefore, God becomes the God of condescension, who sends a letter — sacred Scripture — to man, who has fallen and is estranged from him.

Thus, creation and Scripture complement each other. In light of Scripture, God’s letter to us, we can decipher creation. God is called a philostorgios (tender father), a physician of souls and a mother (see Omelia sulla Genesi 40:3), and a loving friend (see Sulla provvidenza 8:11-12).

A third step is added to the first step — creation as a “staircase” that leads to God — and the second step — God’s condescension to us through sacred Scripture, his letter to us. God not only gives a letter. Finally, he himself comes down to us, becomes flesh, and truly becomes “God with us,” our brother until his death on a cross.

To these three steps — God is visible in creation, God gives us his letter and God comes down and becomes one of us — is added a fourth and final step.

Within the life and work of a Christian, the Pneuma (Holy Spirit) is a vital and dynamic principle that transforms the world’s realities. God comes into our life through the Holy Spirit and transforms us from within.

John’s Social Doctrine

John Chrysostom, in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles as seen against the backdrop of Constantinople, proposes the model of the early Church (see Acts 4:32-37) as a model for society, developing a social “utopia” (almost like an “ideal city”) in order to give a Christian soul and aspect to the city.

John Chrysostom knew that it is not enough to give alms and to help the poor from time to time. Rather, a new structure, a new model of society, has to be established that is based on a New Testament perspective. It is this new society that was revealed in the early Church.

Therefore, John Chrysostom is truly one of the great Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine. The old idea of the Greek polis (city) is replaced with a new idea of a city inspired by Christian faith. John Chrysostom affirmed, along with St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 8:11), the primacy of each individual Christian, of the person as a person, including both the slave and the poor man. His plan was a correction of the traditional Greek view of the polis, where vast portions of the population were excluded from the rights of citizenship.

In the Christian city, all people are brothers and sisters with equal rights.

The primacy of the person is also a consequence of the fact that the city is truly constructed on the foundation of the person, while in the Greek polis the country was more important than the individual, who was totally subordinate to the city as a whole. Thus, John Chrysostom gave birth to the vision of a society that the Christian conscience has built. He tells us that our polis is different — “our homeland is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) — and our homeland, even on this earth, makes us all equal as brothers and sisters, and compels us to solidarity with each other.

At the end of his life, from his exile on the borders of Armenia, “the most remote place in the world,” John, alluding to his first sermon in 386, took up once again the theme that was so dear to him — God’s plan for mankind. It is an “unutterable and incomprehensible” plan, but he surely guides it with love (see Sulla provvidenza 2:6).

This we, too, know for sure.

Even if we cannot decipher the details of our personal and collective history, we know that God’s plan is always inspired by his love.

Therefore, despite his sufferings, John Chrysostom reaffirmed the discovery that God loves each one of us with an infinite love, and, therefore, desires the salvation of all. For his part, this saintly bishop generously cooperated with this plan of salvation throughout his entire life without holding back. Indeed, he considered God’s glory the ultimate goal of his existence.

As he was dying, he left us his last testament: “Glory to God for everything!” (Palladio, Vita 11).

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