Zenit’s translation of Pope Benedict’s audience talk on St. John Chrysostom:
This year marks the 16th centenary of the death of St. John Chrysostom (407-2007). John of Antioch was called Chrysostom, “golden-mouthed,” for his eloquence. It could be said he is still alive today through his written works. An anonymous copyist wrote that his works “go across the globe like lighting.” His writings enable us — as they did for the faithful of his time, who were repeatedly deprived of him because of his exiles — to live with his books, despite his absence. This was the advice he himself gave in one of his letters written from exile (cf. “To Olympia, Letter” 8:45).
Born around the year 349 in Antioch in Syria (modern-day Antakya, in south Turkey), he carried out his priestly ministry for about 11 years. In 397, he was appointed bishop of Constantinople. He exercised the episcopal ministry in the capital of the empire, before his two exiles which happened within a few years of each other, between 403 and 407. Today we limit ourselves to considering Chrysostom’s years in Antioch.
Orphaned by his father at a young age, he lived with his mother, Anthusa, who instilled in him an exquisite human sensitivity and a profound Christian faith. He completed his elementary and higher studies, crowned by courses in philosophy and rhetoric. Libanius, a pagan, was his teacher. At his school, John became the greatest orator of late Ancient Greece. Baptized in 368 and formed in the ecclesiastical life by Bishop Meletius, he was ordained as a lector by him in 371. This marked Chrysostom’s official entrance into the ecclesiastical “cursus.” He attended, from 367-372, the “Asceterium,” a kind of seminary in Antioch, together with a group of young men, some of whom later became bishops, under the guidance of the famous exegete Diodorus of Tarsus, who taught John historical-literal exegesis, characteristic of the Antiochian tradition.
He retreated for four years among the hermitages on nearby Mount Silpius. And then he continued his retreat for another two years, living alone in a grotto under the guidance of an “elder.” During that time he dedicated himself entirely to meditating on “the laws of Christ,” the Gospels and especially Paul’s letters. Falling ill, he found it impossible to take care of himself, and therefore he returned to the Christian community of Antioch (cf. Palladium, “Life” 5).
The Lord — a biographer explains — intervened at the right time to enable John to follow his true vocation. In effect, he himself would write that if he had to choose between the crosses of governing the Church or the tranquility of the monastic life, he would have preferred pastoral service a thousand times over (cf. “On the Priesthood,” 6:7): Chrysostom felt called to this.
And here we see the decisive turning point of his vocation story: full-time pastor of souls! Intimacy with the Word of God, cultivated during the years in the hermitage, matured in him the irresistible urgency to preach the Gospel, to give to others what he received during years of meditation. The ideal missionary was thus launched, a soul afire, into pastoral care.
Between 378 and 379 he returned to the city. Ordained a deacon in 381 and a priest in 386, he became a celebrated preacher in the churches of his city. He gave homilies against the Arians, followed by those commemorating the martyrs of Antioch and others on principal liturgical feasts: constituting a great teaching of faith in Christ, in light of his saints.
The year 387 was John’s “heroic year,” the so-called statue revolt. The people knocked down the imperial statues, as a sign of protest against tax increases. During those days of Lent and anguish because of the emperor’s punishments, he gave his 22 vibrant “Homilies on Statues,” directed toward penance and conversion. What followed was a period of serene pastoral care (387-397).
Chrysostom is counted among the most prolific Fathers, having written 17 treatises, 700 authentic homilies, commentaries on Matthew and Paul (Letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews), and 241 letters. He was not a speculative theologian. However he transmitted the traditional and certain doctrine of the Church in an age of theological controversies caused above all by Arianism, that is, by the negation of Christ’s divinity. He is therefore a trustworthy witness of the dogmatic development of the Church in the fourth-fifth century.
His is an exquisitely pastoral theology, in which there is constant concern for the coherence between the thought expressed by the word and lived existence. It is this, in particular, the common thread of the splendid catecheses, with which he prepared the catechumens to receive baptism. Just before he died, he wrote that man’s value is found in the “exact knowledge of true doctrine and in rectitude of life” (“Letter From Exile”). The two things, knowledge of the truth and rectitude of life, go together: Knowledge must become life. Every one of his discourses aimed at developing in the faithful the exercise of intelligence, of true reason, in order to understand and put into practice moral needs and precepts of the faith.
John Chrysostom tried to assist, through his writings, the integral development of the person, in the physical, intellectual and religious dimension. The various phases of growth are comparable to as many seas in an immense ocean.
“The first of these seas is infancy” (Homily 81:5 “On the Gospel of Matthew”). Therefore “in this first stage inclinations to vice and virtue begin to show.” That is why God’s law must be impressed on the soul from the beginning “as on a table of wax” (Homily 3:1 “On the Gospel of John”). In fact this is the most important age. We must be aware how important it is that in this first phase of life the major orientations that give the right perspective to existence truly enter into man. Chrysostom therefore recommends: “From a very young age, arm children with spiritual weapons, and teach them to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads” (Homily 12:7 “On the First Letter to the Corinthians”).
Then follows adolescence and boyhood: “The sea of adolescence follows that of childhood, where violent winds blow … because concupiscence grows within us” (Homily 81:5 “On the Gospel of Matthew”).
Lastly there is engagement and marriage: “After boyhood comes the age of maturity, in which the duties of family life abound: It is the time to look for a wife” (ibid). He recalls the goals of marriage, enriching them — with an appeal to the virtue of temperance — with a rich tapestry of personalized relationships. Spouses who are well prepared block, in this way, the road to divorce: Everything is carried out joyfully and one can educate their children to virtue. When the first child is born, this is “like a bridge; the three become one flesh, so that the child links the two parts (Homily 12:5 “On the Letter to the Colossians”), and the three make up “one family, a little Church” (Homily 20:6 “On the Letter to the Ephesians”).
Chrysostom’s preaching took place regularly during the liturgy, the “place” in which the community is built up by the word and the Eucharist. Here the assembly, gathered together, expresses the only Church (Homily 8:7 “On the Letter to the Romans”), the same word is addressed to everyone in every place (Homily 24:2 “On the First Letter to the Corinthians”), and the Eucharistic Communion becomes an efficacious sign of unity (Homily 32:7 “On the Gospel of St. Matthew”).
His pastoral project was inserted into the life of the Church, in which the lay faithful, through baptism, assume the priestly, kingly and prophetic office. To the lay faithful he said: “Baptism also makes you king, priest and prophet” (Homily 3:5 “On the Second Letter to the Corinthians”). From this comes the Church’s fundamental task of mission, because each one in some way is responsible for the salvation of others: “This is the principle of our social life … to think not just of ourselves!” (Homily 9:2 “On Genesis”). Everything takes place between these two poles: the big Church and the “little Church,” the family, in a reciprocal relationship.
As you can see, dear brothers and sisters, this lesson of Chrysostom on the authentically Christian presence of the lay faithful in the family and in society, is important today more than ever. Let us pray that the Lord render us docile to the lessons of this great teacher of the faith.
So you can see why I’m nervous about the paper I’m giving on St. John next week, for my dear friends in the Society of St. John Chrysostom. Please pray for me!
The celebration, which will mark the 1,600th anniversary of St. John’s death, begins with Vespers on Saturday, September 29, 6 p.m. at Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, Wick Ave in Youngstown, Ohio. I’m told that advance tickets are required.
St. John loved to say it throughout his life. It was a fitting coda at the end: Glory to God for all things!