St. John Chrysostom (344 – 407)


Saint John Chrysostom (344 – 407): an astonishing modernity

The Letter from Kolkata quotes on page 3 a text from St. Jean Chrysostom that recalls the unbreakable link between the Eucharist and solidarity with the poorest:

“You wish to honour the body of the Saviour? The same one who said: This is my body also said: You saw I was hungry and you didn’t give me to eat. What you did not do to one of the least, you refused to me! So honour Christ by sharing your possessions with the poor.” (Homily 50 on Matthew.)

Who was this man who the Christian East called “Golden Mouth” because of his poetical gifts in expressing prayer? What aspects of his life are still an encouragement for us today?

John’s life had three lines of force: an exceptional ability to explain the Good News of Christ with passion and in the language of the culture of his time; a strong emphasis on the social consequences of the Gospel; an effort to make worship beautiful and to transmit theological reflection in a poetic form.

John was born in Antioch, in modern Turkey, of an aristocratic family. Deeply influenced by his mother’s faith, he studied Scripture under the direction of the teachers of the school of Antioch, who wished to translate the thought of the Bible into Greek categories without losing the original meaning.

As soon as he could he left his mother, who wanted to keep him close to her as a “monk at home,” and went off into the hills to begin a life of solitary prayer completely apart from society. Then a crisis of conscience arose: was it necessary to flee the problems of society in order to remain pure and attached to the Gospel, or to go instead into the world to communicate the love of Christ, “the friend of humans,” as he liked to repeat?
In the end he chose to return from his total separation from the world, going back to Antioch where he was ordained a priest in 386. He became famous for his ability to link the text of the Bible to the life and questions of ordinary people. At times he could speak for two hours without stopping, encouraged by the acclaim and the applause of his hearers. In response to the luxury and idleness of the rich, he emphasized the importance of holding things in common, of work, of the need to free slaves; he called for individual and collective sharing (he even came up with a plan to end poverty in Antioch). Solidarity, more than just the work of a good conscience, was for him a sacrament, a sign of Christ’s real presence in our world. Often speaking about the words of Jesus: “What you have done for one of these little ones, you have done to me,” he concluded that the poor person is “another Christ” and that the “sacrament of the altar” must be continued “in the street” by the “sacrament of the brother.”

In spite of himself, John was chosen in 397, because of his talents as an orator, as archbishop of the capital of the Eastern Empire. In Constantinople, attentive to the people, he multiplied hospitals and centres of welcome, proclaimed the Good News in the countryside and even to the Goths who settled in the area.

He took very courageous political positions, opposing a minister who wanted to abolish the right of asylum, then later protecting him from a riot when, disgraced, he sought refuge in the basilica. He tried to make the higher clergy more humble and to remind the imperial court of the demands of the Gospel.

That was all too much for his enemies, who joined forces and had him exiled to Armenia in 404. He remained there for three years under house arrest. And yet his correspondence, his numerous visitors, including many from Antioch, worried the powers-that-be, who had him deported even further, to the shores of the Black Sea. He made the exhausting journey on foot. In Comana, utterly weary, he prepared to die, put on white garments, received communion, prayed for those around him and gave up his spirit saying, “Glory to God for all.”

Some questions to let John’s life echo in our own life:

- His vocation led him not always to satisfy the desires of his mother: must I too sometimes go against what other people expect of me?

- Concerning the “sacrament of the brother”: what place do other people and their needs have in my life?

- He finally lived out his monastic commitment in the midst of society: what commitments do I have in society? What is the place of Christians today in the political life of a country? Is it sometimes necessary, in the name of faith in Christ, to resist the authorities or current fashions?

Last updated: 19 June 2007