09 September 2022

Saint of the Week - St John Chrysostom

Name: John ‘Chrysostom’ – Doctor of the Church Born: AD c.347-9; Antioch Died: 14th September AD 407; Comana, Pontus, Asia Minor (Turkey) Feast Day: 13th September Patron Saint of: Educators; lecturers; preachers, epilepsy

It’s a curious fact that many of the saints honoured by the Church suffered sustained reputational attacks during their life, even from those within the Church. The life of St John Chrysostom provides a good example of this subtle but painful cross which saw him calumniated and even exiled.

John was born in that most ancient of Christians cities, Antioch. His father, a commander of the Imperial troop was killed while John was still a boy. His mother ensured that John had the finest education she could afford, studying oratory and rhetoric under Libanius, who (though a pagan) was considered the finest orator of his time. At the age of twenty John was baptised while he was studying law. He abandoned a legal career to pursue a life of radical monastic asceticism living in a cave in the mountains until ill-health forced his return to the city. He was ordained deacon and later priest, whereupon his repute as a preacher and pastor grew. He was eventually made Archbishop of Constantinople, the Capital of the Eastern Empire and the second most important See after Rome.

Indeed, it was his preaching above all else that has won John his fame and the enduring epithet Chrysostom (“Golden-mouth” in Greek). His gift for oratory was such that not only Christians but even pagans flocked to hear him preach. His aim was not to tickle the ears of his audience by mere eloquence; it was the power and passion of his message that cut the hearts of his audience. His primary aim was the conversion and amendment of life of his audience. The austerity and moral integrity of his own life gave his preaching a credibility perhaps lacking in his more worldly confreres.

John was fearless in his condemnation of the public sinners, irrespective of their positions of prominence. He was scathing in his appraisal of the Emperor Julian’s immoral proclivities, as he was of the Empress Eudoxia whose conduct was no less a matter of public scandal. Nor did John spare his own brother bishops from public rebuke: the worldly, vain and ambitious Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria became his arch-rival. On one occasion, thirty-six bishops plotted to have John removed from Constantinople, though their success was short-lived. John had the support of successive Popes, but this did not spare him from falling subject to political disfavour. The Emperor Arcadius saw John banished from Constantinople to the Armenian mountains and later summoned to a far-flung corner of the Black Sea. The arduous travel in the heat of summer left John weakened and he collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Thus, he died, exiled from his own diocese. He was promptly recognised as a saint and later honoured with the title “Doctor of the Church” at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 on account of his prodigious theological legacy.

Interestingly Pope John XXIII designated St John Chrysostom patron of the Second Vatican Council. Ironically, the standard of homiletics and preaching in many Catholic churches since the Council has fallen into decline. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to preaching today is the fear of speaking the truth, and the omnipresent danger of offending people. Wishy-washy or ambiguous preaching bores people, but it also keeps the preacher out of trouble, and that makes it an immense temptation, for bishops and priests alike. St John Chrysostom frequently found himself in very hot water because he wasn’t afraid to call sin by its proper name, especially if he saw the danger that it presented to the eternal salvation of an individual. In other words, the bell-like clarity of his words was motivated by genuine pastoral charity – to lead souls to the truth and salvation. Sadly, this earned him many powerful enemies and ultimately cost him his diocese and his life. We pray, that inspired by St John Chrysostom, the Church can recover many more ‘golden-mouthed’ pastors, and can overcome the present-day preference for foggy and ambivalent teaching that seeks to win people over by telling them what they want to hear, rather than the Gospel truths revealed by Christ. True shepherds like John Chrysostom remind us that when it comes to preaching there is no charity without clarity.

St John Chrysostom, pray for us!